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.
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