Heather Carroll, Senior Lecturer of English and the Writing Center Director at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, draws attention to different types of ESL learners and options for instructing them.
More than 20 years ago, Silva (1994) claimed that Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) had four options for serving students who speak English as a Second Language (ESL). Those options included (1) placing them in mainstream composition courses; (2) placing them in developmental, non-credit composition courses; (3) placing them in sheltered, parallel ESL composition courses; and (4) providing cross-cultural composition section where ESL and Native English Speaking (NES) students study composition together. In this paper, looking through the specific lens of my role as a composition instructor and a new Writing Center Director at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, I will discuss the pros and cons of each of these options and argue for both sheltered ESL instruction and cross-cultural composition courses.
Currently at UW-Waukesha all of our ESL students are enrolled in mainstream composition courses without a formalized (or even an informal) support program. The English Department seems to recognize this as problematic, and as the numbers grow there is an increasing sense of urgency to develop a plan to address the needs of ESL writers. Friedrich (2006) argues that mainstreaming ESL students into composition courses, or placing ESL students in composition courses with Native English Speaking (NES) students, is a method to maintain enrollment rather than a wellthought out pedagogical decision. That may be the case, but it is also possible that it is done out of lack of expertise in sound pedagogical principals for linguistically diverse populations and a general unawareness of what the options are. In this paper, I lay out the options, not of what we must do, but what we might do—what our options are.
The Context: UW-Waukesha
My primary concern in this paper is the student body at UW-Waukesha, one campus among 13 that make up the University of Wisconsin Colleges (UWC). Each campus has a different student make up, so while I may refer to UWC courses, it is important to note that any description I give of UW-Waukesha is meant to reflect my understanding of the Waukesha campus only. For example, the UWC has an ESL program curriculum in place, and some campuses are offering one or more of the courses. UW-Waukesha is not currently (Fall 2015) offering a ESL course, but there is a recognized need to better serve a growing ESL population on our campus, and these courses are available to us.
Approximately one fifth of our students (ESL and NES combined) enroll in developmental (non-credit) composition upon matriculating, and many more begin their composition studies in English 101, the first of a two-part sequence. The second course, English 102, satisfies the core writing requirement for the associate degree and for transfer to four-year campuses in the UW System. The majority of our students do not begin in the core composition course but require some preparatory work, either in developmental composition or in English 101. This is determined by a multi-measure placement procedure that includes standardized test scores, an essay, and a personal questionnaire. One of the questions asked of the US resident students is, “What is your home language?” The same question is phrased slightly differently for international students, as “What is your primary or home language (or languages)?” Additionally, there is a supplemental questionnaire for multilingual students that, in my experience reading placement essays, has not been used on the Waukesha campus. This supplement includes questions regarding what language the student prefers to read and write in and what, if any, linguistic skills they would like to study in their first semester.
Though we have not kept accurate records on our ESL population, anecdotally I can say that we have a growing number of students who self-identify as speaking a language other than English as their home language. Furthermore, many of these students wrote about their concerns and worries regarding the impact their language skills (or perceived lack of language skills) would have on their college readiness. The placement essay prompt asked students to reflect on their readiness for college, academic reading in particular, and served as an excellent way to get some students writing about their linguistic backgrounds. The most common first languages seem to be Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. Most are resident ESL students, many have graduated from American high schools, and some have been in the American public school system for several years. There is a wide spectrum of English fluency and academic readiness among the ESL students on campus. Until recently there was no additional support for these students. This semester, the Writing Center is offering individualized, professional tutoring specifically for ESL support.
The Writing Center as the ESL Center
This semester I began overseeing the campus Writing Center, at least in part due to my background teaching ESL, and was asked to make room in my schedule to meet with students seeking language related support. I think this is a potentially positive direction for our Writing Center to take. It offers excellent possibilities in terms of providing resources including conversation groups, ESL libraries, and writing resources. Within the first few days of the semester, I reached out to composition faculty and let them know that I was available to meet with students who they had identified as needing linguistic support or who had approached them concerned about language related issues. Several faculty emailed or approached me to thank me for offering this assistance, suggesting that they saw a need for the support services and were relieved to have someone take that on. Given the variety of needs that have already surfaced among our ESL students, we are seeing already that it will be difficult to reach all students, and then to identify the most appropriate support.
Student A: A Traditional ESL Student
Student A’s primary language is Chinese. He is enrolled in developmental (non-credit) composition as well as a Writing Studio small group support course. He has trouble verbally communicating in class as well as one-on-one. He reports having difficulty following class discussion and estimates to understand about half of what is said. He is slightly more comfortable in small group work. He has, however, demonstrated the ability to follow written assignments and write appropriate responses to assignment prompts. Even so, he has expressed great concern that his writing was incomprehensible and reports on relying heavily on Google Translator.
Some ESL students, like student A, are what I call a traditional ESL student. By this I mean that in addition to working to acquire academic use of English, he is struggling to acquire every day, basic use of the language. He struggles with oral comprehension and finds it difficult to understand simple conversation. Furthermore, even a patient, sympathetic listener will find his speech challenging to comprehend. In his writing, he relies heavily on translators or dictionaries to compose sentences that sound markedly unnatural and non-native. It appears as though he has more to say than his language skills allow. These students are generally easy for composition instructors to identify as needing ESL support. They would likely, in an institution that provides it, be advised to take basic adult education non-credit ESL courses before enrolling in course work. While his language, and therefore his writing skills, are developing, developmental writing may not be the most appropriate placement because his critical thinking and academic skills are more on par with expectations in credit-bearing courses.
Student A brings up a multitude of questions regarding the Writing Center as an ESL center. First and foremost, is it enough? When a student enrolls in college classes but is unable to understand half of what is said in them, will any amount of language tutoring get them through the semester? Second, at what point does the work we are doing with students cross the line from supporting the work they are doing in their classes to becoming a class itself? And is there any importance in drawing that line? In my opinion the importance lies in inadvertently sending the message that the language study the student is doing is remedial and not worthy of formal pursuit. Shuck (2006) argues that English language classes should be credit bearing similar to language classes such as Spanish and German courses taken by NES students. If the whole of a student’s language study is done in a tutoring situation in the Writing Center, it is easy to see it as remedial work, rather than language learning on par with what is occurring in organized classes. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it becomes easy for the student to place a low priority on the work. Second, it does little to integrate the student into the student life and culture of the campus, creating a situation where retention becomes at risk.
Student B: The Residential ESL Student
Student B’s primary language is Spanish. She speaks with a heavy accent, and does not speak up during full class discussions, but, when discussing her class reading one-on-one with me, she speaks with clarity and enthusiasm about the academic text she had independently read for class. Aside from her heavily accented speech and her shyness to speak in class, it is not entirely clear that she is developing every day English language acquisition. Similarly, the writing we reviewed did not contain grammatical or conventions errors that would mark her as a second language writer.
She walked to my office with her (TRiO) developmental composition instructor with a request for ESL tutoring. She did not approach her instructor for help or with a concern and reports to me that she was released from her high school’s ESL program after her freshman year. I am not certain that she would identify herself as an ESL student. In my opinion, Student B highlights the importance of a systematic procedure for identifying ESL students during the placement process. Shyness and/or heavily accented speech, or a past history of ESL coursework, is not a substitute for assessment.
As described in the section above, the placement team has not implemented an assessment to determine linguistic needs. Students are asked their home language, which may or may not be an indicator of an ESL need. Even asking about past ESL coursework does not necessarily indicate a need for future ESL coursework, or what sort. Conversational practice may be more appropriate than ESL writing.
Student C: English Dominant Multilingual Developmental Writer
Student C’s first language is Arabic. He is equally confident, if not more comfortable, in spoken English. He speaks without so much as a hint of an Arabic accent and would pass in most social situations as an NES. When we met, he told me that he is more comfortable writing in English and has been doing academic work in English for several years, even before coming to the United States from Jordan during high school. Yet, the first day of class he approached his developmental composition teacher concerned that being an ESL student would make it difficult for him to pass the class. It was not until our second meeting that we were even able to discuss linguistic related issues because the first time he came to my office, he spent 15 minutes complaining that the class had too much homework and venting that it was going to be “impossible to pass.”
Students such as Student C are not clearly ESL students. They have been educated in international high schools and present themselves socially as NES. Despite their fluency, however, they may feel a cultural divide with American-born peers and think that their cultural background, perhaps more than their linguistic background, puts them at a disadvantage in a composition classroom. It is unclear if this student and others like him is an ESL student at all and begs the question of what counts as ESL. Is language support really what he needs or is some other support more appropriate?
Student D: Advanced ESL Multilingual Writer
Student D is enrolled in English 102, the core composition course in the UWC. His instructor emailed to ask if she should refer him for ESL support because his writing contains minor “conjugation and article issues” that do not impede understanding of the writing or reflect difficulty in reading comprehension. The instructor who emailed about this student thought that the “slight language interference” might be too small to warrant ESL tutoring. Her question/concern speaks to expectations, not just of composition instructors but of instructors across the disciplines. What is reasonable to expect of advanced ESL writers? Need their writing be error free?
If the expectation is that writing be error free, or more to the point, devoid of any hint of interference from the first language, the expectation is likely unobtainable for even the most advanced second language speaker. (We can argues as well that error free writing is an unrealistic expectation for NES writers.) Even at the professional level, many second language writers hire proofreaders to finalize their writing, such as Oxford Editing’s services for non-native writers. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect an error free paper from a student at any level. That being said, we must also strike a balance of encouraging students to make their work as error free as is realistically possible, and if errors are making it difficult for a student to get their message across, they should be addressed. Also, if the student has particular grammar issues that he or she would like to address, it does not seem appropriate to ignore his or her priorities under the guise of a “no one is perfect” philosophy.
While a Writing Center should be prepared to work with each of these students on their writing, it may be that ESL tutoring, even several sessions per week, may not be enough to adequately support the student, or may not be the appropriate intervention. In the next sections I would like to discuss the options of the sheltered ESL courses available at UWC that could be implemented on the Waukesha campus, as well as the yet to be considered possibility of cross cultural sections of composition courses.
Sheltered ESL Compostion Courses and Sheltered ESL Support Courses
At large universities, such as UW-Madison, it is not uncommon for equivalents of composition courses to be offered specifically for ESL students. These are often referred to as sheltered ESL composition courses. Another common model for serving ESL students is to have them enroll in non-credit ESL courses, with the anticipation that they will continue into credit bearing composition courses in the mainstream curriculum. While neither has been a solution at UW-Waukesha, we do have non-degree credit ESL courses available for program administrators to add to the course offerings. In addition to an ESL course on academic reading and an ESL oral skills course, we have two ESL composition related courses. “Multilingual Writers Workshop” is a 3-credit, non-degree course designed for ESL writers who are also developmental writers. It is designed to prepare students, just as “Introduction to College Writing” for NES, for the first in the degree-credit writing series, English 101. An additional ESL composition course, “Academic Skills Workshop,” is designed as a supplementary course to be taken in conjunction with a composition course. It is a chance to work in a small group with a trained instructor on developing English academic writing conventions and college level English language skills. Much like its NES counterpart, “Writing Studio,” the goal of the course is to provide individualized instruction to help students fulfill the path to completing the core composition requirement.
As stated above, Multilingual Writers Workshop is designed as a developmental composition course. It may be an excellent option for ESL writers who come to campus not only with limited English proficiency but also limited academic proficiency. Since 75% of our campus is considered underprepared for college level course work based on high school rank, it is fair at this point, in the absence of further data, to assume that our ESL population matches our NES population. Given the general developmental nature of our students’ academic skills, this course will serve many of our ESL students well, offering them a safe, sheltered environment to practice their developing language, composition and academic skills.
Research examining student perspectives on sheltered ESL courses demonstrates that while student reactions are complex, a majority of students prefer some time in coursework designed for English Language Learners. Costino and Hyon (2007) found that students generally preferred to be placed in a class that (1) met their language needs and (2) had other similar students enrolled. Similarly, Ruecker (2011) found that 75% of students in ESL composition courses agreed with their placements and would have chosen ESL for themselves had they been given an option to take a mainstream composition class alongside NES writers. Similarly, in Costino and Hyon’s study, students referenced enjoying being in class with similar students but also expressed being pleased that their teacher knew how to explain things in terms that they could understand.
The primary disadvantage with segregated ESL classes is that students in these sheltered sections have few opportunities to work with NES writers, so are unable to learn from and model NES writing behavior. This lack of exposure is concerning because ESL students will not remain sheltered past composition. At UW-Waukesha students will only be able to remain in their segregated composition course work until they begin to take degree-credit courses. This generally means a single semester in ESL, though our curriculum does allow for two semesters in the Multilingual Writers Workshop before entering mainstream degree credit courses.
This tough transition from sheltered to mainstream course work may be one reason that 25% of the students in Ruecker’s study preferred to have been placed in the mainstream composition course, reasoning that they wanted more time with NES peers. The college in Texas where Ruecker’s study was conducted has a mainly Spanish-English bilingual population. The criteria for placement into the ESL sequence is not entirely clear since both ESL and mainstream composition classes had students that had lived in the US all or part of their lives, and those currently living in Mexico, for the college is located a commutable distance from the border. It does not appear that students were part of the decision making process, but were placed through a process that involved both standardized assessments and an evaluation of an essay. It appears that the focus for placement was on writing ability rather than home language, prior ESL placement, or place of residence. These are all considered best practices, which makes it more important to take seriously the concerns of the students unhappy with their placement into ESL.
At UW-Waukesha, our difficulty sits in the diversity of our ESL population and the lack of experience among those conducting placement about the needs and desires of resident English Language Learners. Because the main screening tool we currently have to identify a student as ESL is to ask their home language, if a developmental level ESL composition course is added to our course selections, we run the risk of placing into the course students who identify as speaking a language other than English at home or as having been in an ESL sequence in high school. This is problematic because not all ESL students are also developmental writers and not all ESL students would benefit from a sheltered ESL writing course, particularly a multi-level course made up of students with varying degrees of English proficiency.
There are two important components of our ESL policies that can help make placement less ridged, as well as the transition between ESL and mainstream composition more manageable. The first is that students are able to self-select into (or out of) ESL and are able to do so for two semesters before beginning mainstream, credit bearing course work. This allows students to enroll in the course that they feel they will benefit from most strongly, increasing student satisfaction, and hopefully long term retention. Even with choice, the pressure may be high to select ESL if it is recommended by the placement committee. Therefore, it is vital that placement readers be trained to recognize when a student would benefit from one or two semesters of non-degree ESL and when that placement is unnecessarily delaying a student from making academic progress toward a degree. Shuck reminds us that is important not to define a student’s placement based solely on their linguistic status. It may be that we can look to Ruecker’s work that so successfully determined ESL status on a campus student body that is over 90% bilingual as a model for evaluate a student’s writing ability on the actual writing and not their home language or their history of ESL coursework.
The alternative side of this argument is the possibility that students who could benefit from the ESL course will select out of it because of the social stigma of the ESL label (Ortmeier-Hooper, 2008). A potential solution to this risk is to elevate the perceived remedial status of ESL coursework by offering degree-credits for the work. Shuck argues that the non-credit nature of ESL courses fails to recognize the value in multilingualism and the heavy cognitive activity involved in doing academic work in a second language. She argues that ESL courses should be given degree credits in the same manner that foreign language courses offer credits. This is already done at other UW institutions. UW-Madison’s sheltered ESL core writing class provides degree-credit and fulfills the Communications A requirement. Students are also able to receive degree-credits for one additional ESL course, such as Academic Reading and Vocabulary Skills or Academic Writing I. Receiving degree-credit for ESL coursework may increase student satisfaction with ESL placements, though it is not clear if that is currently a feasible option at UWC since the current ESL composition course is equivalent to a non-degree credit NES course.
In addition to thinking about student choice in class placement, it is important to consider the eventual and inevitable need to transition into writing in a NES dominant academic environment. The UWC also has written into the composition curriculum a non-degree credit course titled “Academic English Skills Workshop.” It offers individualized instruction in a workshop setting on English language skills such as vocabulary building, conventions of written and spoken English, and grammar. The benefits of such a course is that students can be placed in a degree-credit composition course plus a required or recommended course that will facilitate success in that course. Additionally, students who have completed the sheltered ESL developmental course do not have to leave the sheltered environment completely upon enrolling in mainstream composition courses. This curriculum allows students to develop their writing skills alongside NES writers while simultaneously developing their language skills in an appropriate environment.
Recognizing Linguistic Diversity through Cross-Cultural Composition
Another possibility for supporting the diverse ESL population on campus is one that has not been explored at the UWC or the Waukesha campus. Cross-cultural composition sections of our composition courses that intentionally combine ESL and NES writers have been shown to be a successful and positive learning environment for both groups. When Matsuda and Silva (2006) reported on their experimental course more than 15 years ago they found that international (visa) ESL and American-born NES students learned not only writing skills but developed cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication skills through the course. More recently, Shuck spoke positively of her experience implementing such courses at Boise State University.
There is also evidence that such courses could be highly successful on twoyear campuses. Miller-Cochran (2012) argues that two-year campuses present an ideal pedagogical environment to battle against the myth of the monolinguist, homogeneous composition classroom that is prevalent in higher education (see Matsuda  for a discussion of the monolingual myth). On the UW-Waukesha campus, our ESL students are mainly US residents. Some have a strong command of oral English and informal writing but have developmental academic skills. Some are fluent but speak with strong accents. Some have strong academic skills but continue to write in a way that marks their writing as non-native. Others struggle to understand and be understood and are developing everyday language proficiency. Our NES students also have increasingly diverse backgrounds. We have a student body composed of people from a variety of cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, and linguistic backgrounds. Many of our NES students speak “non-standard” varieties of English, including African-American English, Chicano English, and working-class English.
Cross cultural composition sections can be designed to allow instructors to highlight students’ linguistic backgrounds as rich resources rather than asking them to, as Blanton (1999) describes it, check their linguistic and cultural identities outside the classroom. This philosophy is important because writing classes should be seen as inherently linguistically diverse. This is especially true at public, open access colleges, such as UW-Waukesha. Rather than the classroom being a venue to erase all signs of second language influence, racial background, or class standing from student writing, a cross-cultural composition classroom has the potential to become a third space where students can navigate the progression from writing in marginalized varieties to more dominant, or standard varieties (Gutiérrez, Baquedano-López, and Tejeda, 2003). The cross-cultural composition classroom is an opportunity to integrate ESL writers by recognizing the linguistic diversity of all students by being prepared to meet that diversity rather cover it up.
The challenges that others have found are mainly administrative, rather than pedagogical. They cite difficulties in promoting the course and in finding qualified instructors. Matsuda and Silva, Shuck, and Miller-Cochran all recognize the difficulty of finding instructors qualified to teach both ESL and NES students. Much of this difficulty has to do with the history of the labor division between composition and ESL studies aptly described by Matsuda (1999). I would add that it is uncommon for graduate work in composition to spend much time discussing the linguistic needs of diverse NES writers. As stated above, most of our students do not arrive on campus writing (or speaking) the dominant language of academic life.
Additionally, while there are not many choices of textbooks for such a class, instructors are not left entirely to their own devices. Mangelsdorf and Posey’s (2011) textbook provides readings and lessons that recognize students’ diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. For example, there is a unit on “Using Standard Written English,” which will be helpful to many sorts of writers including students who identify as ESL, students eager to drop that label, and NES writers who do not have a full command of academic English. Perhaps most importantly, the textbook provides student models representing the drafting process from brainstorming and planning through to editing and publishing.
The second potential issue is promoting the course and making sure that academic advisors understand the purpose and intended makeup of the course. One possibility posed by Shuck is to provide a description in the registration information so students are aware that their section will have a focus on language-related issues in writing. Her program at Boise State University offers cross cultural composition courses for both the first and second courses in their freshman composition series, English 101 and 102. On its web site, these courses are described as “designed to allow students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, from both the U.S. and abroad, to interact with each other and to examine issues from different cultural perspectives. Both native and nonnative English speakers are invited to enroll in these classes.” The difficulty here, of course, is that without some careful record keeping, enrollments can easily skew so that that either ESL or NES writers are more strongly represented in the class, effectively nullifying the intention of the curriculum. Another possible solution stacks an ESL and a mainstream composition course (Miller-Cochran, 2012). The solution of stacking the courses could be implemented at the developmental level at UW-Waukesha, but not at the degree-credit level (where it may be the most effective) as we do not currently have ESL options for those courses.
Like most 2-year colleges, UW-Waukesha has been experiencing an increase in the diversity on our campus. That diversity includes age, gender identity, class status, racial and cultural backgrounds, and language. The most pressing issue may seem to be the increase in students coming to our campus that self-identify as English Language Learners and, if we are going to continue to enroll students with limited proficiency in English, it is important to develop a plan to best meet their needs and support their academic development. Some sheltered ESL courses, including full courses and supplemental support courses, have both advantages and disadvantages but, I think, hold a legitimate place in the overall composition program.
But the linguistic diversity on our campus is not limited to ESL students. Many, if not most, of our NES students do not have full command of the dominant, standard, variety of academic English. The composition program must also meet the linguistic needs of these students, and I argue here that we can work to meet the needs of both ESL and NES writers through the same means. In order to best serve both our ESL and diverse NES students, in addition to a sheltered ESL developmental composition course and support course, UWC should further explore the potential benefits of an addition of crosscultural sections to the freshman composition two-course sequence. These sections would recognize the cultural and linguistic background of all students as a powerful resource in their academic development without segregating ESL students longer than is necessary or beneficial.
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