Thoughts on Teaching English as a Second Language

By Labanya Unni

In more than half a decade of my teaching English, one of the most profound challenges I have faced is the question of English as a second language. I encountered this problem in a more limited sense in India, when I first began teaching, where degrees of fluency varied on the basis of class-position and cultural capital. While this issue was definitely something that I navigated, the student body had enough cultural and contextual homogeneity to convey modes of critical thinking in the minds of students. In the US, this problem takes on more complex proportions, since much of the student body is composed of international exchange students, migrants, first- or second-generation English speakers, and even students whose English are infused with specific dialects.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to see students struggling not just with ideas but also with the medium in which these ideas are expressed. From classroom interactions, it is clear that non-native English students sometimes feel inhibited and isolated, often without the space to express unique cultural and linguistic perspectives that they could bring to the table. It is difficult not to dwell on the profoundly hegemonic structure of English as a global language and the onerousness of teaching it to a non-native speaker, this thought process could potentially lead to defeatist modes of thinking or a tendency to shift or deny responsibility (the “abolitionist move” as David R. Russell puts it in his essay “Writing Across the Curriculum”).

These are strategies I have learned in my last few years as a teacher:

Modifying the rubric: The single-point rubric is not just a grading tool, but also a useful checklist for students to have while writing their essays. With English as second language students, teachers need to have awareness of the lexical and grammatical specifics that they bring to the table. This requires a careful perusal of student essays, as their textual analyses, evidence and thesis presentation might not be in a customary academic style. It might also be helpful to go over the rubric in class and carefully break down its contents, with detailed examples and illustrations.

Mindset: As someone teaching in the medium of the English language, it is perhaps useful to understand how English came to be historically constituted as a global language (David Crystal’s English as a Global Language is a good resource for that). A lot of what we understand as critical discourse/thinking reflects a majoritarian Western conception of knowledge, and it might be pertinent to communicate some of these ideas in class. Understanding some of this might help lessen the anxiety of a second language speaker who comes to class with the notion that English fluency represents the height of cultural and linguistic achievement.

WAC principles: The great thing about WAC is that it emphasizes thinking as well as writing. Ideas such as minimal marking, multiple drafting, scaffolding, low stakes writing, editing oriented towards revision rather than grammar correction, are very useful to keep in mind while dealing with second language speakers. John Bean in Engaging Ideas thoughtfully advises teachers to be forgiving of ‘accent errors’ – errors that come from not having naturally inhabited English speaking milieus.

Affective measures: It is clear that the question of English as a second language cannot just be tackled with a handful of linguistic and academic guidelines. There is, without a doubt, an affective component to this process, in which it is important for the teacher to make the student feel comfortable. This can be done by pairing them with peer study-partners (ideally with kind and thoughtful native speakers); encouraging creative and inclusive learning activities that are idea-based; taking the time to interact with them during office hours to try and gauge their cultural and rhetorical contexts and encouraging personal writing that lead up to academic writing/thinking

Utilizing writing centers: Writing centers have activities that professors might not be able to conduct in class due to limited time. Exercises likes conversation classes, dictionary-use, listening or audio-based learning can be useful supplements to WAC. According to Stephen Krashen in his Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, the most effective way to teach a language is to mimic as much as possible the natural methods of acquiring said language, which is through conversation, low-anxiety settings, and “comprehensible inputs” – the writing center, which is just an aid without the worry of grades might be a good place to implement these principles. Teachers across disciplines would do well to work closely with writing centers to provide extra support to second language speakers.

Works cited

John, Bean C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, Jossey-Bass; 2nd Edition, 2011

Krashen, Stephen D. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

Russel, David R. “Writing Across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation”, College English, vol. 52. 1990, pp. 52-73, JSTOR

One Reply to “Thoughts on Teaching English as a Second Language”

  1. I was immediately drawn to Labanya Unni’s reflections and suggestions for teaching Standard English learners the conventions of academic writing. She states that, “a lot of what we understand as critical discourse/thinking reflects a majoritarian Western conception of knowledge”, this being, of course, tied to imperial histories and the position of English as a global language within contemporary capitalism. While I do not mean to “shift or deny responsibility” for teaching Standard Written English, I believe the WAC emphasis on “writing to learn” allows us the reconceptualize writing less as a space for performing hegemonic language ideologies and more of an experimental practice of thinking with and through other modes of complex expression.

    Admittedly, many students pursue higher education precisely to acquire and successfully use Standard Written English, and as educators who have adequately and successfully used this dialect in our careers, we share in the responsibility of helping students reach their goals. However, from my perspective as someone teaching introductory courses in anthropology, college level instructors also should strive to engage with and legitimize “the dynamic linguistic practices of language-minoritized students while simultaneously raising awareness about issues of language and power” (Flores & Rosa 2015, 167).

    I’m somewhat ashamed to write that before actually becoming a college instructor, my approach to how I imagined teaching writing when encountering non-standard varieties of English or multilingual forms of linguistic expression was heavily influenced by David Foster Wallace’s 2001 essay, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and Wars over Usage”. There is section in the essay where Wallace discusses lecturing a group of Black students on what he calls Standard White English (“…it was developed by white people and is used by white people, especially educated, powerful white people.”) He acknowledges that the students’ minoritized linguistic practices are legitimate, but the reality of US American society is that Standard White English is the prestige variety of English whether or not he, you, or we like it (“This is How It Is”). Therefore, in his class, Standard White English rules the day. He means to be the sympathetic to the students and frames his lecture as pragmatic advice for succeeding in US American society, and potentially, after having mastered Standard White English, challenging its linguistic hegemonies (54). Nevertheless, as an instructor I could never bring myself to actually take that approach. The hurt it causes students learning to express complex ideas in writing is far too palpable; as Labanya points out, the affective dimensions to teaching writing are crucial. Furthermore, such an approach is completely out of sync with what my courses generally try to convey about the relationships between society, culture, and power.

    Wallace’s approach to minorized linguistic practices is a particularly acerbic form of what Flores & Rosa (2015) call an “appropriateness” model to standardized forms of English i.e., pedagogical approaches that recognize the value of non-standard linguistic forms, while at the same time insisting that standard varieties are appropriate for academic contexts. Flores & Rosa assert that the flaw with “appropriateness” models is that often, despite the minorized language speakers’ best efforts to master Standard English, their language practices continue to be perceived in racialized ways by the white listening subject (149).

    Franz Boas’s canonical “On Alternating Sounds” (1889) is not referenced by Rosa & Flores, but both texts’ arguments share a deep affinity. In a nutshell, Boas’ article refutes racist arguments that the indigenous languages of the North American Pacific Northwest are messy and illogical (i.e., their sounds alternated haphazardly) by showing that the problem was not in the languages themselves, but in the (white) listening subjects’ inability to hear certain unfamiliar phonemes. Importantly, Boas relates his own experience learning some of these languages and gradually apperceiving different phonemes he was previously unable to distinguish. As an educator constantly confronting non-standard varieties of English, what interests me about Boas short article is the implication that I may be the problem. What I take from this intellectual challenge is an openness to having students teach me and their peers alternative ways of thinking critically through writing that might push against the standard. Labanya offers excellent strategies for successfully addressing students’, often urgent, need and desire to improve their mastery of Standard Written English, but in highlighting the problem of “mindset”, her reflections prompted me to revisit the texts cited above and consider how I might differently position myself as an educator.

    Boas, Franz. 1889 “On alternating sounds.” American Anthropologist 2, no. 1: 47-54.

    Flores, Nelson, & Jonathan Rosa. 2015. “Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education.” Harvard Educational Review 85, no. 2: 149-171.

    Wallace, David Foster. 2001 “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage.” Harper’s Magazine 302, no. 1811: 39-58.

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