Asian Journal of English Language Teaching Vol. 7, 1997, pp. 131-135
© 1997 CUHK English Lanuage Teaching Unit


Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-Cultural Aspects of Second-Language Writing

Ulla Connor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. 216 pp.

Reviewed by Helena Wong
Montgomery College

Contrastive rhetoric began in 1966 as the result of a self-initiated study of international students writing in English by Kaplan, who then made the pronouncement that "each language and each culture has a paragraph order unique to itself, and that part of the learning of a particular language is the mastery of its logical system" (Kaplan, 1966, p. 14). Since then, there has been a substantial number of research reports, conference proceedings, colloquia papers, and doctoral dissertations being written or published on contrastive rhetoric. As a result, contrastive rhetoric (henceforth, CR) has invariably established itself as a viable object of linguistic inquiry and secured for itself a niche in the field of applied linguistics. Ulla Connor's book is further testimony to that fact.

Connor's book presents new directions in CR. As the author puts it, the purposes of the book are "to discuss the general value of CR in the field of applied linguistics, to suggest practical implications for teachers and researchers, and most importantly, to define an emerging contrastive rhetoric discipline that draws on relevant disciplinary fields, particularly composition studies, rhetoric, text linguistics, and cultural anthropology" (p. 6). Her ultimate aim for the book is to go beyond the traditional approach of CR in its concern with investigating second language written products, in particular, university-level first-year English writing, and to argue for "a different contrastive model...for the description of cross-cultural writing in academic and professional situations...[which is] more inclusive than the concept that the early researchers in the field would have employed" (p. 9). The book is an ambitious undertaking on the part of the author in building a comprehensive theory of contrastive rhetoric encompassing theories of such divergent fields as applied linguistics, linguistic relativity, rhetoric, text linguistics, discourse analysis, genre analysis, literacy theories, and translation.

The book comprises ten chapters grouped into three parts. Part I, consisting of three chapters, lays out the groundwork for the author's subsequent delineation of her expanded definition of CR. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the need and emergence of CR and explains to the reader the aims, purposes, and outline of the book. Chapters 2 and 3 delve into the history of the development of CR. Here, Connor shows how CR is firmly rooted in applied linguistics, with its focus on text and text organization. She also shows how the surge of interest in North America in the 80s in L1 composition research, the product-process debate in the teaching of L1 writing, the literacy movement, and the vigorous field of discourse analysis studies all help to cement interest in CR and keep the notion alive. Because of Connor's comprehensive yet succinct treatment of the subject, for the uninitiated reader who may be a newcomer to CR or may not be aware of CR's history, s/he may consult references cited in the discussions in the two chapters for more detailed information.

Part II of the book, consisting of five chapters, actually forms the core of Connor's delineation of the expanded theory of CR, with each chapter explicating the interface of CR with a particular discipline that has impacted on CR's development in the past three decades. Chapter 4 shows how new theories and practices in L1 composition and rhetoric in the US have influenced the nature of CR studies, to move CR toward "a new rhetoric" focusing on the audience, to encourage the writer to discover the meaning of writing in herself, and to achieve an understanding of the cognitive process writers go through while writing. Chapter 5 expounds on the interface of CR with text linguistics, which "has greatly affected contrastive analysis" (p. 80). There was a huge body of contrastive text analysis research generated in the 80s and 90s, but each employed an incompatible text analytic method that rendered the studies generally non-replicable. Connor laments that CR theorists have not striven hard enough to make their theories more accessible for a large number of CR practitioners. Nevertheless, the notion of discourse community that came out of this body of research has been the most fruitful and highly serviceable for the purposes of CR. In Part III of the book, Connor devotes a major chapter to a discussion on research methods which address this aspect of the CR model.

Chapter 6 of Part II interfaces CR with what it initially purported to study (as expounded on in Kaplan's 1966 seminal article), that of writing as an activity embedded in a culture. Indeed, the study of L1 and L2 writing should remain central in CR. In the past, CR studies were severely criticized for being speculative, using (often ill-formed) L2 texts to infer about the writer's L1 practices. In this chapter, Connor advocates joining forces with the outside fields of psychology, anthropology, and education for a more rigorous investigation of the interrelationship between culture and literacy/schooling. In summary, she makes the important point that there should be studies "to investigate what good writing is in a given culture and how it is taught" (p. 116).

In Chapters 7 and 8, Connor attempts to bring new dimensions into the expanded framework of CR, those of translation studies (chapter 7) and genre analysis (chapter 8). Her justifications for identifying translation as a viable component of CR are that translation deals with L1 and L2 processing in the same way CR does and that both go through "the procedure of transfer" (p. 120). However, the alignment is an artificial and forced one since the constraints acting on the processes of text construction in translation and in second language writing cannot possibly be the same. Notwithstanding, CR's notion of culture-specific text orientation should cast some light on the theory of translation to expand its scope of inquiry. Meanwhile, CR theorists should welcome the addition of genre analysis to its repertoire of (explanatory) theories. Connor gives a rather thorough discussion of genre analysis in Chapter 8. The concept of genre is defined and the areas of study that are relevant to genre analysis include student writing, academic writing, and professional writing. This represents a new development, but one should not lose sight of CR's core concern, that of L1-L2 writing of a more general nature.

Part III of the book deals with research methods and the implications of an expanded theory of CR. In Chapter 9, Connor offers a useful discussion of research methods available to CR researchers. She classifies the methods of research in terms of types: reflective inquiry, quantitative descriptive research, prediction and classification studies, sampling surveys, case studies and ethnographies, and true and quasi experiments. For each type, past CR studies are cited as examples. Despite a viable taxonomy, this does not rid CR of the design flaws that delimit the claims that CR studies can purport to make. Design problems in CR include "small sample size, a mix of genres, and generalizing from L2 data to L1 behavior" (p. 162). Grabe and Kaplan (1996) echo a similar concern:

But the most serious problem lies in the fact that there is no universal theoretical model for contrast; it is regrettably the case that the findings of various scholars cannot easily be compared because results were often derived from different research paradigms and from different empirical bases....

These problems constrained the usefulness of contrastive rhetoric both as a research base and as a base from which to make pedagogical decisions. (p. 198)

Chapter 10 concludes Connor's discussion of her expanded theory of CR in terms of its implications and future directions for research. Implications are derived mainly from the core components of her rather ambitious expanded CR framework, viz., the theory of contrastive text linguistics, the theory of L1-L2 literacies, the theory of discourse types and genres. She urges further investigations into the issue of reader expectations and writing to be taught as a process and as a social construction of meaning (p. 168).

Genre-specific research is seen as most useful and relevant in EFL situations. But, indeed, CR should become relevant to the teaching of writing not just in ESL settings even though that was where the initial notion sprang up. In EFL situations, there is usually a much larger cadre of EFL professionals than the corps of expatriate instructors whose first language is English. It is therefore useful that both the EFL teacher and the EFL learner be made aware of differences in text organization between their first language and their target language in the teaching of writing. As things are, most CR studies have been conducted by researchers who are based in North America where it is the home base for CR. Especially in Asia, CR study seems not to have caused a ripple, unlike the North American scene or the European scene as reported by Connor. Connor's suggestions about future research directions for CR do call for attention to ESL and EFL settings. But until CR finds a research tool that can do an appropriate job of comparing languages that are perhaps diametrically different, CR researchers may still have a tough job convincing EFL professionals outside North America that CR is relevant for them.


Grabe, W., & Kaplan, R. B. (1996). Theory & practice of writing. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Kaplan, R. B. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning 16, 1-20.

Helena Wong is an associate professor at the Department of Reading, ESL, Foreign Languages and Philosophy at Montgomery College in Maryland, USA. Her main areas of interest are second language writing, language testing, and second language acquisition.