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ESL Students in College Composition: The Writing Teacher in Search of a Stance

by Francie Blake, Ramon Diaz, Steve Jones, and Girija Nagaswami

A great variety in student populations seems to be the norm in our college writing classes, and ESL (English as a Second Language) students constitute a small but significant number of this population. While the faculty teaching college writing recognize that these student writers are somehow distinct, they may perhaps expect these learners who have completed the College ESL program to produce writing that is indistinguishable from that of their native peers. Given the nature of second-language acquisition, the truth is, as Tony Silva says, these learners still bring with them “distinct strategies for learning and writing,” and are still in the process of learning the language (Silva, 1997, p. 359). Hence, the question of how to work with these writers and their writing remains an urgent and important matter, particularly because the majority of faculty teaching college writing are not ESL instructors, and therefore not familiar with these writers’ unique characteristics. If we are to help these students overcome their feeling of being “strangers,” and enable them to make a smooth transition and successfully complete their college writing classes, then we need to understand who these ESL writers are and how their sociocultural and linguistic backgrounds affect their writing. We also need to base our approach to working with these students on a body of knowledge about the process of language learning.

Who are our ESL writers? What is their sociocultural background?

ESL writers in college classes belong to the following groups: a) those who are highly educated in their native languages, and are recent immigrants to this country seeking to major in a chosen curriculum and establish careers; b) visiting international students who wish to return to their country after completing their chosen program of study; c) students of “generation 1.5,” who, having been educated in this country, are fluent in spoken English but not proficient in written English. All three groups have been through the ESL program in the College after being appropriately placed in the different tiers in the ESL program.

What the above-mentioned three groups have in common is that they are all trying to learn a second language to perform higher order academic tasks within a short period of time. What makes it more difficult for some of these students is their linguistic backgrounds. For example, we have students from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries whose languages differ completely in terms of script, syntax, and lexicon when compared to English. Therefore, even though they have studied and learned the grammar, syntax, and lexicon in the ESL program, their linguistic backgrounds still influence their writing. Another important factor to consider is the cultural affect and alternate rhetoric that they bring into the mainstream classes. Even though a majority of them have been in the USA for a few years, they are still immersed in their cultural values and writing styles. Many come from cultures where the “teacher” is the sole authority, and have been taught to speak only when spoken to. Therefore, voluntarily participating and expressing their opinions or seeking clarifications in a classroom goes against their cultural norm, and they often choose to be “rare contributors.” Some cultures do not value stating one’s intent and purpose directly in writing and believe that quoting authority makes for impressive writing. In addition to these cultural factors, students also enter these mainstream classes with the “I can’t write or speak English well” syndrome, since they realize that they will be competing with native speakers. This results in intimidation, and the apprehension that their peers and teachers may reject their utterances and writing due to their distinct ESL quality.

An Approach to Sentence-level Errors

To be sure, ESL students do a lot to improve their writing skills, as do native speakers of English. ESL students analyze model readings, answer questions for understanding different texts and their organizational methods of development, and complete vocabulary and grammar development exercises. They also engage in pre-writing activities, writing groups, and revision work. Furthermore, they sign up for individual teacher conferences and Lab tutoring to go over the strengths and weaknesses of their compositions. Still, even though many of these students progress quite nicely with their writing, there are some students who show uneasiness about their chances of successfully completing their college course work while making errors with the language. As ESL teachers, we try to allay their fears.

In Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers, Leki (1992) provides an insightful analysis of the writing of ESL students:

Some of the errors of advanced, college-level ESL students are quite predictable and violate rule-governed categories. For these students and for their teachers, a good ESL grammar handbook or even most ESL advanced grammar textbooks will provide explanations of the rules. Unfortunately for the students, however, many errors are mis-selections of features of arbitrary categories of English grammar or violate rules so complex that it almost seems necessary to be a native speaker in order just to understand the rule, let alone apply it (Leki, 1992, p. 112).

Understanding the sources of errors has a practical relevance. Such information can help faculty to consider our judgments about the errors in question, as well as what to teach and emphasize in the limited time available in the language classroom. In the interest of efficiency and practicality, what seems especially important is to teach students not to make errors that are causing the most comprehension problems. Helping ESL students address the errors that most seriously and frequently affect others’ comprehension of their writing will allow more attention to be focused on a larger and more important goal— communication.

Below is a sentence from an ESL student’s in-class essay about a short story in English 098, an advanced writing course for non-native speakers of English. Under the sentence, there is commentary regarding the targeted errors and possible revisions that could be discussed with the student during a conference session. Given the time constraints of an in-class writing assignment, the student’s errors here may be a result of paying more attention to content than linguistic detail.

“They only invited the children that are rich to see their doll house and disinclude the Kelveys who are poor.”

Discussion would first revolve around the inconsistent verb tenses, which can be distracting and confusing, and may be due in this case to a lack of focus and/or confusion about the literary convention of describing fictional events in the present tense. Also, there is the misuse of the prefix “dis.” Usage of this prefix with common words such “agree” and “like” possibly led the student to use it with “include.” Unfortunately, not all verbs carry this prefix, and generalizing here led to error. Next for discussion would be how the determination as to whether a clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive controls punctuation.

Revision 1: "They only invited the children that were rich to see their dollhouse and did not include the Kelveys, who were poor." (narrative stance)

Revision 2: "They only invite the children that are rich to see their dollhouse and do not include the Kelveys, who are poor." (conventional stance)

Learning the English Lexicon

Language learning, in addition to leaning about sentence structure, is to a great extent a matter of learning about a set of vocabulary items, a lexicon. The lexicon, or the “mental dictionary” of a speaker or learner of a language, consists of individual words known by the speaker, along with a great volume of associated information about pronunciation, meaning, relationship between forms of the same word, grammatical information (such as what grammatical role the word can play in a sentence), and collocations (groups of words that frequently occur together, or that change their meanings when they are combined). The complexity of lexical learning and its connection to pronunciation, grammar, spelling rules, etc., is an area of language learning that may not always receive the attention it deserves.

Distinguishing Learning and Acquisition

The engine that produces the bulk of new linguistic knowledge is language use that is meaning-focused and that allows users to engage both receptively and responsively. (Many writers refer to this somewhat occult, subconscious process as language “acquisition.”) In the process of acquisition, it is the focus on tasks outside of language itself, tasks with an inherent value or purpose, which produces the necessary raw language material that enables one to use a language fluently and accurately. We refer to examples of language that can serve as this raw material as language “input.” One way of seeing the role of a teacher is as a provider of “input” that is at just the right level for students to make the next steps in their language development.

This long-term process of language acquisition seems miraculous at times, but it is not always efficient; it cannot allow learners to know all that they need to know in the span of one lifetime. Indeed, acquisition needs to be supplemented by language “learning,” a conscious process of coming to know items and rules that are brought to the attention of learners, often by a teacher. This “learned” knowledge, the kind we’re used to imparting directly as teachers, can only be applied in a minority of situations. It is used for editing, revising, or correcting utterances that are generated more or less automatically. Note 1 

An implication of the learning/acquisition distinction is that in some cases, including learning a lexicon, it is most effective for learners to wait for language ability to develop over the long run, and focus on reading and writing as communication rather than as rule-based instruction. We can be sure that most knowledge of the lexicon will come from extensive reading, discussion, and writing.Note 2 Acknowledging an acquisition/learning distinction also may have other implications:

1. Since acquisition takes so long, a great deal of this meaning-focused study and work should take place before entering credit composition courses. Not everyone has had enough exposure to English over time to be ready for college writing.

2. Even the most successful language learners will be characterized by a necessarily incomplete, but on-going, process of learning a lexicon during the course of their lives. This process is always incomplete because, ironically, the majority of individual English lexical items are of very low frequency; the chance of encountering a low-frequency item repeatedly in a meaningful context in a short period of time is very small.

3. When they are in credit composition courses, students might benefit from the existence of a distinction between writing situations that are designed for the learning of vocabulary (that is, early drafts in which students focus on meaning and are free to take risks with words they do not know well) and those that are designed for the display of their lexical and other knowledge (that is, later drafts for grades, test, etc.)

4. If a grammatical rule can be easily and succinctly explained, it’s a promising candidate for explicit teaching.

5. Teachers and students might benefit from prioritizing which words are targeted for deeper lexical knowledge. One way of prioritizing is to distinguish the 20,000 or so “families” of words known by educated native speakers of English according to the contexts in which they are seen and used. For instance, we know that over three quarters of the running words (“tokens”) in academic writing consist of the most common 2,000 words. Note 3 (Over 70% are typically from the 1,000 most common!) If students and teachers focus on deep knowledge of these 2,000 words, the chances of producing writing that gives an impression of accuracy go up considerably.

Beyond this, recent work on vocabulary has revealed that there is an even smaller, but crucially important, set of word families consisting of words that are not “common,” and are used in a variety of academic disciplines. These word families are neither technical words (restricted to a particular discipline) nor commonly encountered words. Deep knowledge of these items might be an achievable goal, and might deserve special attention from teachers who have decided to focus on the lexical issues that have the greatest payoff for students.

Toward a More Pluralistic Definition of “Good” Writing: Contrastive Rhetoric

It is not only at the level of the sentence that language issues arise; cultural ideas about the organization of texts are also a topic of concern for ESL writing students and their teachers. If one accepts that cultural and language backgrounds affect writing behaviors and written products, then contrastive rhetoric could be defined as “the study of differences or preferences in the pragmatic and strategic choices that writers make in response to external demands and cultural histories” (Leki, 1992, p. 244).

Why such an involved definition? Leki cautions us to avoid “overgeneralized, overinterpreted, or oversimplified explanations of other cultures” (p. 240). Specifically, it is crucial that we remember that all conclusions made are based on norms of the English-speaking mainstream (ethnocentric views) and would definitely be viewed differently from another culture’s purview. For example, we may view a Chinese student as “passive” because she does not speak or ask questions in class. Although this behavior may stem from the cultural norms of classrooms in China, we may find that this particular individual in another situation is not passive or shy in the least!) Most of all, we must be vigilant not to judge a student’s thinking, perceptions or intelligence by his/her use of English—in speech or in writing. As Leki explains, “Rhetorical choices are not directly linked to thought patterns; they are made in response to social, political, and rhetorical contexts and histories” (p. 236). Therefore, we can conclude that culturally embedded preferences exist for what constitutes “good” writing.

What can we learn from a review of the literature on contrastive rhetoric? The following are some brief examples of observations that have been made about the various rhetorical traditions of writing in which our students may have been educated:

Arabic. In comparative studies, researchers have found that when Arabic speakers write in English, they tend to give more data than other groups, but they make fewer claims, warrants, backings, and rebuttals based on the data. When asked to write on a specific topic, they fulfill the task less often. Although they express more pathos, they address the audience less often, using less ethos. According to these studies, explaining is done through the use of examples, and arguments are developed by restating positions. Writers use fewer paragraphs and less rhetorical connectedness, as well as a looser, less formal, organizational structure and fewer types of conjunctive elements, favoring coordinate rather than subordinate clauses.

Spanish. Although there is not much data on Spanish speaking ESL writers, one fact is sure to appear in their writing in English: Although their writing is linear, there is greater tolerance for tangential breaks. There is greater freedom to digress and to introduce “extraneous” material than in the US.

Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai speakers write in English using an indirect approach (delayed introduction of purpose). These groups tend toward inductive reasoning (specifics leading up to the conclusion, coming to the point at the end) and circularity. They also tend to look at the topic from different perspectives, rather than just one perspective.

Nevertheless, the above Asian groups differ in significant ways:

Chinese: In China, education is controlled and regimented to teach moral principles and reflect social values such as patriotism, the collective good, group loyalty, and respect for authority. The focus of education is on maintaining order and authority, not on individual expression and meaning.

Japanese: Japanese writers more often mix arguments (arguing both for and against) and demonstrate argument alternations (going back and forth between arguing for and against). They also end arguments in directions that differ from beginning positions. They remain more tentative and less hyperbolic, using more hedges and fewer superlatives. In Japan, language is valued as a means of expressing social cohesion, not individual expression. In addition, writing demands more of the reader, whereas in Western rhetorical form, more of the burden of clarity is placed on the writer.

Korean: Writers often do not want to take strong positions.

Implications for Teaching

As teachers, we need to remember that preferences in writing styles are culturally influenced, and teachers need to be aware of cultural differences in students’ writing and understand students’ composing and revising behaviors.

Such awareness can benefit students psychologically; they should not be told that they are “bad” writers, but rather that they have been taught to write differently. Teachers should not write comments such as “This is not logical.” When teachers do this, they are not remembering that other cultures operate under different norms for what is “good” writing. Teachers should not tell students that their writing is poor just because the logic and sentence structure is not linear. Knowledge of contrastive rhetoric can be especially helpful to teachers who must teach the expectations of the English speaking audience to ESL writers.

Striving for perfection in writing is truly commendable.  However, given the reality that there are grammatical features that are actually governed less by rules than by an acquired understanding of correct usage gained over time, and because such errors do not necessarily prevent a reader’s understanding of the text, it seems appropriate that such errors not be seen as a student writer’s inability to understand and communicate about a subject.  When ESL students have a fine understanding of the subject matter of a course, as evidenced by the content and organization of their writing, and the language (albeit grammatically imperfect) does not interfere with the reader’s comprehension, we ask that composition teachers acknowledge the complex process involved in learning to write well in English as a second language. Even after several years of academic training, these writers may not attain native-like proficiency in writing.   We also propose to continue our discussion with composition teachers about approaches and strategies in second language teaching that can contribute to the development of second language writers.

References

Leki, I. (1992). Understanding ESL writers: A guide for teachers. Portsmouth, NH. Boynton/Cook.

Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 359-363.

Notes

1 One classic, readable, and fairly easily available discussion of these ideas is in Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, by Stephen Krashen. (Editor’s note: Krashen’s book is currently out of print. It was last published in 1988 by Prentice Hall.)

2 It should be added that many of the comments made by college composition teachers are fully consistent with this approach. When teachers ask questions, give reactions, ask for clarification, etc., they are, from the ESL teacher’s point of view, promoting language acquisition.

3 The best way to find out about this is in the work of Averil Coxhead, particularly on the web sites related to her work on the “Academic Word List.” It contains a program that can generate a list of those words in a text (say, for example, a reading assignment or a student paper) that are from the 1,000 most common English words, those that are not common but seen in a variety of academic disciplines, etc. (See http://www.vuw.ac.nz/lals/research/awl/index.html.)

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