Workshop on Assisting ESL Writers: THURSDAY 3/31!


At WAC, we often tell our faculty not to focus on lower-order concerns when grading first draft or low-stakes writing: small grammatical mistakes, using the wrong word, subject/verb agreement. Our philosophy, which is backed by a number of studies, dictates that if we help our students grasp the higher-order concerns (argument, organization, use of evidence, following a thesis) then the lower-order mistakes will start to correct themselves.

The question we often hear from faculty, though, is “what about my ESL students?”

The truth is, over two-thirds of CityTech’s undergraduates did not learn English as their first language. Consider that many of them didn’t even learn it as their second language.

Our workshop this Thursday  offers concrete tips and techniques for helping ESL students become better writers without leaving you feeling that you have to “teach English.” Come join us for lunch, coffee, and pedagogy!

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!

Quick Fixes That Can Help Improve Student Writing

Ideally, we want to introduce students slowly to the process of creating formal research papers. A research paper – or any formal paper for that matter – is a complex task that assumes a wealth of knowledge on the side of the student. What is an appropriate source? How to use evidence? Who is the intended audience the voice of the paper should be directed at? How to organize one’s thoughts? What is considered an appropriate thesis? All these, and many more, are questions students have to have tackled before they will be able to write a successful paper. It is because of the complexity that is inherent in each formal assignment that we will see better results when we break down assignments into smaller, doable tasks. Scaffolded assignments that break down larger formal assignments into small tasks help students to focus, and understand the smaller pieces a research paper is made of.

But what happens when we cannot scaffold an assignment to help students to write more successfully? Sometimes the constraints of the course curriculum do not allow us to break down assignments, sometimes we inherit a course, and do not have the time to make substantial changes to the course’s assignments, or we assign a paper that we think is doable to students only to find out later that we asked too much of our students. There are a few things we can do to help students write more successfully, to be more engaged in the process of writing, and to get more consistent results throughout:

Take 20 minutes of your class time to go over the assignment with your students. Many of the questions students deal with when writing a paper can be solved by a Q & A session in which students have the possibility to learn about their professor’s expectations. I find an in-class discussion much more fruitful than an email or office hour conversation with single students, as students will learn from each other while talking about the assignment. Some of the questions students have may be questions others would not have thought about, or were reluctant to ask. By going over the assignment together students will teach each other a valuable lesson on how to approach the writing of a research paper.

Be open to revisions. You may know this already but professors, too, can be terribly unclear and implicit. It is difficult to put yourself into the mind of an undergraduate student who is asked to perform the required task for the first time. We can learn from our students how to write clearer assignments by asking them to explain what parts of the assignment they find confusing, or unintelligible. I found students to be more engaged, and motivated about an assignment when I took into consideration their suggestions and revised the assignment I had given them. Apart from making the assignment clearer, and therefore more doable for my students they would learn another important lesson:

Ask your students to revise their own assignments before submitting them. Revision is one of the most essential parts of the writing process. It organizes the writer’s own thoughts, it turns a wild first draft into a piece that is comprehensible to others, it detects grammar and spelling errors, typos, and missing words. The practice of revision is at the very heart of the academic tradition. And yet, we fail to engrain the process of revision into our student teaching all too often. More than once did I expect my students to come up with a well-organized, error free, and thoughtful first draft. Boy, am I glad they never saw one of my first drafts. Ideally, we would want to assist our students’ efforts to develop a strong final draft by scaffolding the assignment and/ or have them submit multiple drafts that they then can revise (by peer reviewing each other for instance). But even if students have only one opportunity to submit their assignment they should take time to revise it; and since students are beginner writers they need instructions on how to do it. A good technique that is easy to perform is to read aloud the first draft. Ideally, students should find a listener who can give feedback. But even without somebody else present reading aloud will help to detect errors. This is a particularly good exercise for students whose first language is not English, and who might find it easier to hear mistakes rather than reading them. The instructions on how to revise their essays should be part of the assignment sheet, and talked about in class. If class time permits, instructors may also want students to bring in their assignments, read them to each other in class, take notes, and revise them later at home based on the assignment’s instruction, and possibly grading rubrics. Which brings me to my next point:

If you use grading rubrics, give them to your students along with the assignment. It is much easier for students to perform a good job when they know what is expected of them. Personally, I use “checklists” that tell students what is expected of them in each part of the assignment (introduction, methods, and results section) instead of traditional grading rubrics. Again, students are at a beginner stage when it comes to producing written work that is research based, and they benefit tremendously from clear guidelines that lay out what is expected of them.

A final option to consider, particularly when your discipline requires students to write similar assignments, such as lab reports, multiple times, is to focus only on one aspect of the assignment rather than the entire assignment. In some cases scaffolded assignments may not seem feasible, and students are required to produce complete assignments all at once. In that case, you may want to consider focusing only on one aspect of the assignment per cycle. Let’s say your students have to submit 12 lab reports in your course each semester. You can have them write 12 reports, but in your grading feedback focus on one aspect for each lab report. By focusing on only parts of the assignments (such as the introduction, the formatting, results section, and so on) students will think more deeply about the requirements, and complexities of each section, and you, on the other hand, can pay more attention to the details of each section in your feedback. At the end of the course, students will be able to write an entire paper more easily, and with more consistent results.

These are only a few of many “quick fixes” that can be used when assigning papers to students, and that will help students to become better writers, and scholars. The fixes offered are largely based on the principles of Writing Across the Curriculum, as well as personal teaching experience at various CUNY campuses.

Bilingual Education Strategies

Bilingual education differs from ESL (English as a Second Language) in that it emphasizes growth in the students’ home language (L1) as well as English, whereas ESL is mostly geared towards learning English. Bilingual education is premised on a social justice framework for thinking about learning that seeks to incorporate student language, culture, and identity as powerful assets in the classroom as a means of working towards greater social equality both inside and outside of schools. Bilingual education is advocated for learners of all ages and varying linguistic proficiencies (Garcia, 2009).

In 2011, the CUNY-NYS Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals published a “Translanguaging Guide” which includes many concrete strategies for drawing on students’ full linguistic capacities in a variety of classroom settings. It can be found in its entirety for free here:

In the guide’s introduction, the authors state that “Translanguaging affords the opportunity to use home language practices, different as they may be from those of school, to practice the language of school, and thus to eventually also use the appropriate form of language.” As helping students learn academic discourse is a goal of Writing Across the Curriculum, here are a few  translanguaging strategies to help improve student writing:

Have students develop a language portfolio where they can record and celebrate their language learning in your course. They can set goals for language learning, document and explore encounters with new language introduced by your class, develop rubrics to evaluate their own capacities, needs, and progress, and collect examples of their own accomplishments in both languages. Students can use this portfolio across courses and disciplines as they progress in the program.

The guide also provides the following questions to help instructors reflect on the linguistic demands of the course and develop multilingual objectives and strategies to help students meet those demands:

1) Will students need to learn certain vocabulary words?

2) Will students need to use a particular aspect of grammar?

3) Will students need to use certain signal words in their writing to transition from one paragraph to the next?

4) What type of language will students need to learn to read or write in a particular genre/discipline?

Students can make comparisons between how two languages use grammar, certain words, paragraph  structure, and sentence structure.

Other practices include the strategic, purposeful use of both languages:

– Having students create one written assignment in English, and another (related) assignment in their home language.

– Translate a written assignment from their home language to English, or vice versa.

– Create a written assignment that uses both English and the home language for a specific purpose.

Finally, consider how students can work collaboratively in your class. Students can meet in small groups where they discuss the content in any language, but then share out or report back to the whole class in English. Students can work in groups to brainstorm in any language, and then write in English. Another possibility is to have students listen to your lecture or discussion in English, and then discuss it in small groups in any language. Students could also free-write and use concept maps to explore ideas in their home language, and develop these informal assignments into a formal paper or presentation in English.