"Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World" and "Tutoring ESl Students: Issues and Options"

While reading Paul Kei Matsuda’s essay, “Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World”, I felt a sense of his pride in the great strides made by this specialized area of language within the larger, well-established field of composition studies. The history he provided of second-language learning was quite interesting for me as my knowledge of this field is somewhat limited. I had no idea that these programs were started after WWII, meaning they were in full swing by the time I was in elementary school. His breakdown of the various labels given this class, and its students, made me think about the potential to stigmatize such a department. I also thought about how incredibly difficult it must be to learn how to write when you are only learning how to speak a new language! When I have tried (repeatedly) to become fluent in Italian, simply to be able to speak freely to all the lovely friends my brother brings us to visit when we are with him in Firenze, try as I might, the best I can do is understand their conversations better (until they get excited) and utter a few practiced responses. My comprehension is better but my "speaking freely" remains problematic. More importantly, I can barely write a simple note (thank you or greetings) without carefully checking ALL my notes, and then pray that they can understand my message. The idea of writing an entire essay in a language other than my own is rather terrifying! Which brings me to my other observation about the author; there is a strong suggestion that monolingual Americans (such as myself) will soon need to broaden our linguistic skills as WE will be the minority in our globalized world. As a result of this globalization, including the influx of so many international students in the USA, Mastuda states the following: “The question is no longer limited to how to prepare students from around the world to write like traditional students from North America; it is time to start thinking more seriously about how to prepare monolingual students to write like the rest of the world” (50). He makes an excellent point, but I could not help but notice a feeling of bias towards the traditional American student and their natural ability to write, with ease, in their native language. In truth, that ability is no different than any student of a given culture’s ability to excel when writing in their native tongue, and, as I mentioned, it is difficult for most anyone to master a second language. I do agree that American students will have to step up their single-language limitations and become more comfortable with multi-lingual exploration, as these ESL students presently do, in order to keep up in today’s globalized world.

“Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options” by Muriel Harris and Tony Silva was a delightful and informative piece dealing with the same topic. I very much enjoyed the explanations on tutors’ concerns and where they must draw the line when they help their ESL students with writing projects. Often, we all have to stop ourselves from “fixing” everything when helping our friends or children with a paper. The temptation to correct rather than point out problem areas is a strong one, but must be ignored if we are to help the student develop their writing and revision skills. I was happy to see their suggestion about praising the strong parts of a paper first; it reminded me of our other readings which also discuss revision approaches and teacher’s comments.  The explanation of global vs. local errors was very helpful information as it clarified that area of writing concerns (I wouldn’t have been very sure which was which…). “Rules” are deemed wise and suggested to serve as a guideline—a needed replacement--for the intuition of native speakers. Teachers are expected to “tell” students what they need to do in many cultures, so the authors’ suggestion for tutors is to lay out a plan (for students) of areas that the tutor can help with, and then explain how students can utilize those recommendations. Most important is the suggestion for tutors to tell students that: “…it is unrealistic for them to expect to be able to write like native speakers of English…” (531). When writing in a second language, one’s accent will peek through, as it does in speech. These authors also explain it is more helpful to work with students from their earliest drafts and to then remember to deal with one problem at a time. The list of common ESL errors is very useful for anyone trying to help a fellow student or proofread their own work, as well as a must-have for ESL tutors. Idiomatic expressions are evidently a well-liked form of language, particularly to second-language learners, and encouraged as a tool. However, proofreading and reading aloud--better left for the tutors’ than the ESL students; their accent will always come through in their writing but that is a reality to be embraced, not discarded. I really enjoyed this paper and felt the authors’ strong sense of commitment to their project and its continued success.

Weekly Response: Matsuda’s "Teaching Composition in the Multi Lingual World"

Matsuda discusses the role of second language writing in composition studies. He realizes that teaching English in college continues to evolve as student populations change, and he talks about how writing for ESL is separated from writing for native speakers, which may not be the correct choice. Then he says the "myth of linguistic homogeneity" (37) has not been properly addressed among those who teach writing to first language speakers.

Second language writing (L2 Writing) "refers to writing in any language that the writer did not grow up with, including the third, fourth, fifth language, and so on." (38). There are other acronyms too, such as ESL, ESOL, and ELL. All seem to carry a stigma. Generation 1.5 is a new label for ELL who are not foreign.

Sometimes students were put in ESL courses when they didn't necessarily belong there. It was either a political or economic decision on the institution's part. In the 1990's, ESL became recognized as a discipline, and there was much discussion and scholarship. Now, with colleges striving for diversity and the amount of foreign students at an all time high, L2 writing issues are debated at the forefront of composition studies.

Some schools are developing separate sections of FYW for second language writers. Matsuda suggests that placement in such sections should be optional. Other schools with less diversity may place L2 writers in a basic English class. Matsuda disagrees with this approach because these courses often don't count towards graduation. They force the student to pay for extra classes and can be a source of embarrassment as well. Writing centers often have a large amount of L2 writers, but Matsuda contends that some professors and most peer tutors are not prepared to help L2 writers. This is an issue that NJIT is actively addressing.

There are issues that the author feels still need to be addressed:
What version of English should be the norm?
Assessment and placement of students.
How to handle grammar issues.
Do we need to develop our American students to write more like the rest of the world?
Composition scholars must determine how to internationalize the field.

About half of my FYW students at NJIT are ELL in some way. Almost all of my students at Essex were ELL.  I speak and write in other languages, so I understand the struggle of trying to be understood in a language that is not comfortable or intuitive. Unfortunately, it is difficult to teach this type of facility with language. My personal experience (and I don't assume I can speak for anyone else but myself on this point) is that immersion and practice are the only strategies that ever improved my grasp of foreign languages, especially writing. From all we have read this semester, it seems there is no consensus on how to teach writing to anyone, much less on how to teach L2 writers.

LINK to draft of my final project.

Weekly Response: Harris & Silva’s "Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options"

The article "Tutoring ESL Students" came at a great time. The Writing Center staff and ESL Department at NJIT just held a seminar on the same topic! It was interesting to see which topics seemed to be universal concerns. Deciding between global and local problems in students' writing was discussed. Dealing with content before grammar was also covered. There was a lengthy discussion in the seminar and the article about how ESL students often want an editor and/or want to focus on "correctness" and rules. It makes sense. That's what I want when I write in a foreign language. I am usually confident in my ideas, but I'm not sure if I expressed them correctly and clearly for a native language reader to understand my meaning as I intend it to be understood.

The article covered how to prioritize, looking for patterns (which covered cultural differences as well), recognizing differences, whether ESL writes compose differently, how to confront errors and adjust expectations, setting goals for a tutoring session, resisting the urge to "tell," deciding what aspects of grammar to focus on, and encouraging proofreading.

I liked the section that offered further reading for tutors. It would have been nicer if they had offered it in the format of an annotated bibliography. It seemed a little messy in terms of using it as a resource. Just a nit-picky stylistic preference. (Paper or plastic?)

I also enjoyed the part where Harris and Silva talked about the cultural differences and expectations of the students. Some students want teachers to be "tellers," some have different ideas about what to expect from a tutoring session, some need more or less personal space and eye contact, some need to be asked direct questions, and some may continue to write with conventions that are considered incorrect in American culture, for example digressions or indirect language.

At the NJIT seminar, some of the examples of language differences were so interesting. One tutor covered errors that African students make and why they make them, (for example two boy. Why do we need to say boys? Doesn't the word two already clarify that there is more than one boy?) We talked about the lack of articles in China and India. (I read book.) We discussed the formal and informal verbs and words in romance and other languages (tu vs. Lei). One woman told of her frustration when she had to take a trip to Vietnam and asked a student to teach her how to say hello. He asked, "To whom? Male, female, older or younger?" His rhetorical situation always included evaluating the recipient of the language. This concept would also guide how quickly one "gets to the point" and whether direct or indirect language will be used.

The conclusion of the article was the basis for the NJIT seminar:
ESL instructors and writing center people need to keep interacting with and
learning from each other.

Harris & Silva and Matsuda

     As an English teacher in a primarily Hispanic district, I've had many ELL students in my classes over the years. The students in my class have maxed out on their time in the bilingual program, or have opted out because they view the program as an embarrassment.

     Many of my students have been out of the program for years, after they had only been in it for a year or two, and you would never know that English is their second language. Others have been in the system for four to five years and still can not grasp the English language. This could be due to  undiagnosed disabilities (very common in my district), or the fact that the community is set up so that they don't really need to move on from Spanish. Every single function of life can be completed in their native language, so the push to learn English isn't so urgent.

     As someone who only speaks one language, I'm amazed that anyone can organize thoughts and communicate in more than one language. Trying to teach someone who is learning the language is extremely difficult, especially without training. We did have a workshop one time to give us some pointers on how to reach the students. It was an informative way to spend eight hours, but hardly enough.

     One thing that makes it difficult is the stigma attached to being an ELL in this district. The general body refer to these students with the term "bilingual", which carries a derogatory connotation. Never mind that most of these offenders also speak two languages; since they were never in the bilingual program, they are above the ELLs on the totem pole. Matsuda discusses the history of bilingual education by discussing the terms that have been used. ESL, ESOL, and now ELL. The label embarrasses the students in my school and prohibits the majority of them from participating, leading them to fall behind.

     Harris and Silva pointed out the difficulties in tutoring ELL students. What they say is true: most tutors have no idea where to start when viewing an ELL's writing. Their advice to identify what has been done well and focus on one or two things is great. It builds the student's confidence and doesn't burden them with too much to address.

     Another problem that was discussed is how to tell if the student needs help with learning the language, or with the writing process. In most of my cases, it's both. Even students who have grown up in the general program have trouble retaining the basics of writing. Consider that the English they know is drastically different from Standard English, which schools are trying to teach. Going back to a point Martha made a few weeks ago, since they are trying to learn Standard English, should they not be considered English Language Learners as well?

     Obviously that is a drastic stretch, but I think it can be used as parody of the fact that some of the techniques used to help reach ELLs might also be beneficial to general education students as well.