Writing with an Accent

“When you hear my accent, you know where I come from. Well, I want my writing to be reflected in that way too.” –Tonka Dobreva

More than two thirds of City Tech students are not native English speakers. For many of those students–and for those whose native dialect of English is different from U.S. English–writing assignments can be challenging. How can we incorporate more writing into our classrooms without overwhelming these students?

City Tech WAC Fellow Emily Crandall and I will be presenting a workshop on this urgent topic on Thursday, March 31. We’ll talk about ways to accommodate ESL learners that don’t require you to become an expert on ESL or to make your class easier. But today I’ll give a sneak preview of one concept that can help shift our approach to ESL students: writing with an accent.

Research indicates that it generally takes five to seven years of immersion to achieve fluency in a language, but fluency does not mean “native-like.” We expect that non-native speakers might speak with an accent, and that it wouldn’t be a negative attribute; why, then, do we so often expect them to write without an accent, and see written “accents” as negative?

A written “accent” might affect grammar, word choice, or even ways of organizing thoughts and ideas on paper. As teachers, our goal should not be to eliminate the written accent entirely–just as we would not attempt to eliminate a student’s spoken accent. This means that, as tempting as it might be to mark up an ESL student’s paper with mechanical corrections (or to write off a paper as “bad work”), we should try to accommodate their accent as much as possible and read for the underlying ideas.

For bigger errors that make the writing hard to understand, it can be helpful to mark them in one or two paragraphs only, helping to focus the student’s attention on the most important mechanics rather than overwhelming them with corrections. (Those of you who attended our Effective Grading and Minimal Marking workshop in the fall will recognize this tip as one we recommend for grading all students’ written work–but it can be harder to remember when we’re grading ESL student work.)

Next time you’re grading, try thinking about written accents–it might help you restrain your grading pen and find the concepts your students could be grasping behind that accent. If you’re interested in reading more about written accents and student experiences, check out this publication from George Mason University. And come to our WAC ESL workshop on March 31 at 1 pm (location TBA, so keep an eye out for signs or contact us for details) for many more strategies for using WAC principles with ESL students!