Ann M. Johns, “ESL Students and WAC Programs: Varied Populations and Diverse Needs,” In WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs, edited by Susan H. McLeod et. al., (Urbana, IL Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001): 141-64.
In an article published in 2001, Ann M. Johns suggests that the growth of immigrant populations in U.S. urban areas requires careful adaptation of WAC/WID principles to deal with writing problems specific to ESL students. Before suggesting solutions to these problems, Johns first divides ESL students into three different (albeit related) categories and advises WAC administrators and faculty to be aware of different causes for their errors:
1. Immigrant students
2. Emergent English-dominant learners who are children of immigrants
3. International students
Focusing on category two (which likely corresponds to the largest number of ESL students at LaGuardia), Johns notes that these students may have practiced incorrect English for a very long time and thus, their “interlanguage” errors become “fossilized.” (144). The errors of this group seem to be more intractable because they may lack an awareness that they are making errors (perhaps because of large class size or insufficient teacher input in post-secondary instruction [a scapegoat!]) and, like many monolingual English speakers (and unlike their international peers), may not have acquired a metalanguage to discuss such problems.
Alas, Johns does not offer clear recommendations about how to instruct such students in less error-prone writing, but she does put forward some suggestions about how to accommodate their differences in the design of writing assignments. For example, Johns explains that many learning English as a second language may not always show clear progress in the language, but may instead exhibit “backwards and forwards” development, depending on the difficulty of the content and the writing situation (145). Thus, in both high-stakes in-class writings and in more relaxed, ungraded situations, ESL students may show an unusual amount of language errors. Johns recommends the instructor bear this in mind and recognize that the best conditions for ESL student writing are those in which students understand the content well, are well-practiced in the paper format required, and have time to conscientiously correct their errors. Instructors should thus let students know if and when error correction is sufficiently important to make it part of the students’ grade. They should also be explicit about what help students are allowed to seek in error correction (The Writing Center, etc.), and may indeed wish to model such practices by correcting error-prone writing as a class, or by putting students into proofreading pairs or groups.
Johns also points out that contrastive comp-rhet studies reveal the extent to which different cultures may value different rhetorical moves in discursive prose. For example, essay writing in Chinese does not require the same degree of metadiscursivity (“having discussed X, I will now will discuss Y”) and use of conjunctions (“however,” “in conclusion”) required in English. Another example: many African cultures avoid the use of “I” in writing, assuming instead a voice that speaks for a community. These differences—especially when unaccounted for in our pedagogy—partly explain why many of these students avoid Humanities subjects that require argumentative “critical thinking” and the use of a personal voice, and instead gravitate instead to the sciences where a more passive, communal voice is valued. Johns thus recommends that instructors (in all disciplines) make as explicit as possible the assumptions guiding what they value in academic writing. Another way to address ESL students’ needs is to circulate needs-assessment surveys at the beginning of the term to determine which students are ESL, the length of their study in English, and what their perceived challenges are in writing academic English prose.
In her essay, Johns quotes an academic study which suggests, “When…teachers ask students to read a text and then to respond in writing […] they do so with certain underlying assumptions about […] what constitutes ‘academic discourse.’ The fact that these underlying assumptions are often left implicit can cause problems for students, particularly those second language learners who come to university with very different expectations about discourse in general and academic discourse in particular” (qtd. in Johns 145). What implicit assumptions do you hold about the academic discourse of your discipline—whether it’s grammatical correctness or what constitutes analysis—and in what ways can you better translate those assumptions to your ESL students?