The “Problem” of English Language Learners at City Tech: Strategies to Include All of Your Students in the Conversation

It is no secret that City Tech has a large population of students who are English Language Learners, as the questions and concerns from faculty members at WAC workshops and in meetings constantly remind us. Here are some strategies I’ve found help, as someone who has not been directly trained to work with this specific student population:

  1. Refrain from passing the ball; assuming others are somehow more trained or qualified to help than yourself; and giving insensitive recommendations. Often, and understandably, instructors feel powerless to help students struggling to learn the English language. It’s easy to refuse to grade a paper; recommend the writing center where, more often than not, tutors are just as unequipped to help these students as instructors are; or make recommendations based on harmful assumptions, for example: “start speaking to your friends in English to practice.” It’s incredibly hard to navigate worlds in which you do not speak the language fluently, and it’s often not a matter of working harder or only speaking the language you want to improve in—many students don’t have the luxury of only speaking English, as they are often translators for family members or in intimate relationships with people who don’t speak English. To ask students to suffer and isolate themselves in order to get a better grade on a formal assignment disrespects this experience and suggests that they aren’t working hard enough, when often they are working much harder than native speakers to succeed.
  1. Create a rubric from which you can grade their writing assignments honestly and fairly alongside their classmates, that gives them every opportunity to succeed. Holding English language learners to different standards than their classmates, in the long run, doesn’t help students strive to become better writers, nor does it improve their confidence. Instead, these allowances suggest English language learners are incapable of doing good work, which is not just a dangerous assumption to have—it’s simply untrue. These students are smart enough to know a pity grade when they see one and while receiving a B that should’ve been a low C might provide a temporary sense of relief, it does nothing to help students improve. Here is an example of a rubric I use for papers that incorporates grammatical and stylistic concerns, but does not warrant an F by these standards alone. If students are grasping content; articulating ideas that you can understand, despite patterns of error; and organizing these ideas in ways that make sense, then they should have their ideas responded to and engaged with, and allowed the opportunity to continue to practice their writing without fear of of failure.
  1. Assign a variety of writing assignments that allow students to be part of a conversation. It is not surprising that many students are not motivated to continue to practice joining academic conversations when they are perceived as a problem or burden as opposed to part of the conversation. In my classes, I make sure there are many low stakes writing assignments that are not graded on punctuation, grammar, or spelling, and that the ideas articulated in these assignments are taken and responded to seriously (here is a link to example syllabi descriptions for readings quizzes and blog posts). Whether it’s a brief reading quiz that asks students to articulate memorable moments, questions they had, or key concepts (here’s an example), or weekly blogs and responses to their peers’ blog posts that offer a space to have discussion about the course materials outside of class (some prompts), the more students feel comfortable conversing with each other and their instructor, the more their writing will improve.
  1. Remind students that many native speakers also struggle to get through reading and writing assignments. I remember one case in which a husband of a student of mine, who was a native speaker unlike his wife, e-mailed me concerned about the difficulty of the reading—suggesting that it had no place in an introductory level class because even he could not understand it with “multiple degrees.” (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). I did not respond, of course, but this incident is just one example of the general assumption that many English language learners have—that grasping course content is easy for native speakers. Keep in mind that many students who are learning English sit and read with dictionaries in hand, often unlike native speakers who encounter many words they don’t know but have the confidence to assume the reading is “too hard” or continue to skim until they get the gist. I make sure to articulate to all of my students, but especially to my English language learners, that they do not have to look up every word they don’t know, to wait until words repeat consistently or they are completely lost to go back and translate, and that it’s OK to read a summary before and to contextualize and then attempt to read through the text.
  1. Remind students that there are no quick fixes, and appreciate that assignments do often take them longer to complete with less return on their time and effort. Often high achieving students who have put intense time and effort into their work will come to me after receiving the grade on their first draft or paper in tears. I let them know that, while I ethically cannot grade them using different standards from their peers, I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work they put into the course and assignment and that the next draft and assignment will be better for it. I do not promise them that going to the writing center; working harder next time; or any other quick fix will guarantee an A on an assignment. I do design my courses, however, to allow them to succeed while practicing and, consequently, create the space for all of my students to be an integral part of the class and conversation. A C- on a formal assignment does not ruin their chances of an A in the course, should they complete all of the low stakes writing assignments—assignments built into the course that allow them—as any student—to converse without judgement. These kind of spaces, ultimately, are what allow for any writer to improve.