Working with English Language Learners by embracing the challenges they face

One of the most common points of confusion and anxiety that I come across across in working with faculty is the question of how to assess and support English language learners. How does one engage with writing that can present as overwhelmingly loaded with surface errors? Can someone who doesn’t have formal TESOL training productively work with with ESL students? In giving feedback on ELL writing, what will actually be helpful? How do one’s usual standards for responding to student writing apply when the writing contains a number of disfluencies? At the root of all these questions is a tension between devotion to teaching on the one hand, and uncertainty of how to help on the other.

Languages are bewilderingly complex things. Every language variety is its own lovely, idiosyncratic, and largely illogical collections of structures, conventions, and ways of thinking about the world. Learning a language (or progressing in fluency) as an adult is a tremendous challenge; navigating an institution of higher education in a non-native language is a profound undertaking, worthy of the deepest respect. Alongside their journey towards full fluency and mastery of American discourse conventions, English language learners face the same challenge that any college writer faces— learning to navigate the complex thoughts, ideas, habits of mind, and styles of argumentation that exist within the academy and within academic disciplines—but do so without the benefit of being able to draw on the unconscious ease of communication we all enjoy in our native language.

 

English language learners, like all writers, are on a journey. TESOL specialists have an especially important role to play in helping ELLs along in this journey. But every one of us who uses and teaches writing in our courses stands to offer important assistance to ELL writers. We can do this by posing the questions to ourselves, for every course and for every assignment: where is this student in their progress as a writer and learner of English, and how can I best focus my energy to help them—not to full fluency, not to mastery of academic writing, but to the next stage in their journey? What feedback can I offer in service of this specific, targeted goal? How can my assessment of this student reflect my personal goal to help them along this path?

 

The most important assistance, however, that we can offer to English language learners is in respecting them as thinkers and writers, even (and especially) when disfluencies in writing make the underlying thought and argumentation hard to see. Most of the ways we can do this are good pedagogy for working with any student writer, regardless of language background: making sure to comment on argumentation and ideas, not just surface issues. Avoiding line-by-line commentary, highlighting patterns rather than isolated issues. Pointing out what’s being done well, in addition to what needs works. Providing, minimally, an early drafting phase to explore ideas without having to worry about surface polish. Creating a grading rubric that clearly identifies the percentage of grade based on grammar and word choice, and sticking to it. Above all, what we as teachers of writing can provide depends on our ability to see the student behind the writing, and to engage with ELL students as sophisticated thinkers and creators of ideas, even as they work towards mastery of English.