Is there a place for WAC philosophy in introductory foreign language courses?

One of the key principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing as a learning tool, or “writing to learn” as opposed to simply “learning to write.” It is our belief that the use of writing in the classroom can extend critical thinking and deepen learning (see Bean, part 1). Our goal is to assist in integrating more writing into the curriculum, even where it hasn’t traditionally been present or where it doesn’t seem to fit.

There is at times a natural resistance to adding further writing components to some classrooms; after all, not every course or department is a humanities course, and many don’t seem to be an obvious fit. As writing fellows, it is our goal to think creatively and to help faculty search for ways to incorporate more writing into their courses, but I’ll be the first to admit that the “how” isn’t always obvious.

The particular domain I’ve decided to turn my attention to came up in one of our weekly meetings, where it was suggested that I might be assigned to work with a language instructor who teaches introductory language courses within the City Tech system. This didn’t end up happening, but the problem interested me from the outset, as I often find myself in a similar position as a French instructor. Anecdotal resistance on the part of similar faculty members brought with it what I feel to be a very interesting line of inquiry, which can be summed up with a single question: How are we to integrate writing into a course in which the students are just learning the language?

These language instructors have a point. At first blush, it appears that the current trend in language acquisition courses is in some ways at odds with our goals. In the end, that might prove to be the case, but it certainly won’t prevent me from trying my best to determine some practical methods that can be complimentary to both approaches.

How are these intro language courses at odds with the writing-to-learn approach? The most evident reason is that in many cases, the students in these courses simply do not have a strong enough grasp of their new language to write anything more than the most rudimentary sentences at first, later very short paragraphs. Their vocabulary is naturally quite limited at first, their comprehension of the foreign syntax is still deeply overshadowed by that of English, and often their access to the variety of verbal tenses needed for self-expression is being introduced to them one piece at a time, a process than can go on for months. As instructors, how are we to expect students to use writing to learn when they are not yet equipped with the tools?

A second difficulty that will arise in many language departments is pedagogical in its origin. Many language programs currently bring to bear a pronounced emphasis on oral over written. For example, while French instruction is historically built on grammatical models such as conjugation drills and workbook exercises, there is a strong current these days that shies away from the grammatical and linguistic model, looking to reach the student in a more conversational environment. Some departments will go as far as to minimize purely grammatical instruction. Coupled with this, there is also a strong push for faculty to use and permit as little English as possible during classroom time, which further minimizes the time students spend writing. While this is in keeping with Bean’s stance against over-grammaticizing the writing program, we must of course be conscious of the difference between helping students learn to write in a language the linguistic foundations of which were laid in early childhood, and the different necessities of second-language acquisition as an adult.

How then are we to implement additional writing into an instruction model that at least on a superficial level tends to avoid it? While I have a few ideas that I’ve been considering, I’ll readily admit that this is a complex question. Further reading and research will be required before I’m comfortable putting my own ideas forward, as I would prefer to bring some supporting research into the argument. As such, I’m not quite ready to offer any suggestions at this time.

If this line of inquiry is of interest to you, please check back later this semester and again in the spring, as I will do my best to offer some practical compromises in my follow-up posts. And of course, if you have considered this before, have any ideas or suggestions, or have come across any literature on the topic, please post below or contact me directly via the Writing Across the Curriculum team.

Chris Clarke
WAC Fellow, City Tech