Helping ESL Writers Grow

John M. Green

      The next time you look at an airline's in-flight magazine, you will almost certainly find at least one advertisement for a foreign language course on cassettes, promising amazing progress with minimal effort. But the skepticism you may feel when reading such claims is well-founded. At professional meetings of ESL or foreign language teachers, just mentioning these ads is a good way for a speaker to get a rueful laugh.

    The truth, of course, is that no miracle method exists for learning another language effortlessly in your spare time, and promises like those in the in-flight magazines are worse than misleading -- they're destructive. Language learning is a time consuming process requiring hard work and lots of patience. Beginning learners who believe it is possible to master a language easily in a matter of months are likely to become discouraged and blame themselves for slow progress, when their progress is, in fact, quite normal.

    If students learning a new language need to be patient with themselves, it is equally true that we, their teachers, need to learn to be patient with them. But for many of us, faced with increasing numbers of non-native speakers in our classrooms, this is not an easy task. How should we read and respond to the writing done by our students from other language backgrounds who are still developing their English skills?

    During most of the 1950s and 1960s, language learning (and according to some psychologists, all human and animal learning) was generally believed to be a matter of habit formation and operant conditioning. Language students repeated model sentences containing all of the significant grammatical structures of English over and over in classroom drills. Errors were to be avoided at all costs, because they might become bad habits.

    Although some language teachers still subscribe to this view of student errors, the tendency today is to see the "mistakes" of language learners as inevitable and necessary to a learning process that involves a good deal of trial and error. To the extent that there is a danger, it is not that errors will produce bad habits, but that a learner will cease growing in second language competence before he or she reaches the desired level of proficiency.

    A substantial body of research indicates that there are natural orders in which learners from all first language backgrounds tend to acquire grammatical structures in second languages, and that language instruction can affect the rate at which students progress, but not the sequences of acquisition themselves. In other words, students master grammar points when they are developmentally ready, and not before.

    Unfortunately for practicing teachers, the research to date has not described all developmental sequences for English in detail, but the terminal -s on third person singular verb forms in the present tense is a good example of the basic principle. Although the "s-rule" seems very "simple" to native speakers of English, non-native speakers persist in saying she study rather than she studies until a relatively late stage of their language development, well after they have acquired (for example) [be] + ing forms such as she is studying. (For good reviews of the literature on acquisition orders and developmental sequences, see Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991, pp. 62-65, 88-96, 304-309; and Lightbown and Spada, 1993, pp. 57-67.)

    Learning how to write, like learning how to function in a second language, can also be seen in developmental terms. Mayher et. al. (1983) suggest that the process of learning to write involves a gradual shift of emphasis from fluency to clarity to correctness. Their model was formulated with young first language writers in mind, but it applies to second language writers as well:
 

 
    This leaves us with a key question: should a teacher mark all the errors a second language writer makes? It depends. If the student is at a fairly advanced level and is making very few mistakes, then underlining or correcting all errors may be useful, especially if the paper in question is going to be rewritten. On the other hand, if a student is at a lower level, and has grammatical errors of one kind or another in virtually every sentence, then correcting all errors would mean a great deal of the teacher's time invested in a way more likely to result in student discouragement than improvement.

    Students often tend to equate errors with failure. I make a point of telling my ESL students that in language learning, nobody reaches perfection on the first try, and that the person who never makes a mistake either knows everything already and should not be wasting time in college, or -- what is more likely -- is not trying to learn anything new. With low and intermediate ESL students, I may add that at the end of the semester their English will still contain errors, but that their errors then will probably be more advanced and sophisticated than the ones they are producing now.

    The first goal of someone in the early stages of learning to use a new language is, very simply, communication -- getting meaning across. For students who have not yet attained fluency and who are still struggling to express basic ideas or tell stories on paper in a second language, extensive writing in informal contexts such as journals will probably be more helpful than practice in revising and editing a small number of rough drafts into finished ones.

    The first question a teacher reading a paper by a low or low intermediate level second language writer should ask is whether the paper succeeds as a communicative act. This does not mean that teachers should not be concerned with correctness at this stage; as the Mayher model makes clear, the goals of fluency, clarity, and correctness overlap. A teacher who begins by taking the role of an interested audience intent on understanding the student's meaning, rather than the role of a critic of form, will still have comments to make about the formal aspects of language, because the process of communicating and understanding meaning sometimes demands attention to form. The question is not whether but when form should be the primary focus.

    With low or low intermediate students, if communication is taking place, the appropriate response is to the student's ideas. Where meaning is unclear, the best approach is to ask the student what the passage in question is supposed to mean, and to work on a one-to-one basis toward a rephrasing that makes sense. The emphasis on communication will necessarily move from the sentence level to the structure of the whole composition. Mayher's terms have been adapted for an ESL context by MacGowan-Gilhooly (1991), who defines fluency in writing as "the ability to generate one's ideas in writing intelligibly and with relative ease" (p. 79) and clarity as "the ability to write expository pieces with a clear focus, sufficient support for that focus, logical development of ideas, and introductions and conclusions" (p.80).

    Before making formal correctness our primary concern, we should help our students learn to develop, express, and organize ideas in English. To do this, we need to find the middle ground between overcorrection and undercorrection, and -- above all -- to encourage students to keep writing and growing. I believe that the "overlapping dimensions" of the Mayher model can give us an excellent general grasp of how we should apply different criteria in evaluating the progress of both first and second language writers at different proficiency levels. Understanding the ways that second language learners develop can likewise help us determine what kinds of assistance will be useful to students at different stages. But although we have been talking about students in general terms, it is not in general terms that our students enter our classrooms and take their seats. In moving from conceptual models to specific cases, from principles of development to developing learners themselves, a great deal will depend on our own sensitivity and judgment, and on our ability to see our students as individuals.

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Copyright 1998 John M. Green

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