Who are our ESL writers?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Yu-Kyung Kang

English as a Second Language (ESL) students, both resident and international, have always been present on our campus. However, the past five years have seen a steep increase in our international student population, rising to 19% of the student body in 2011-12. (UIUC is, as a result, the U.S. public university with the largest number of international students.) This change in classroom demographics has gotten many folks interested in learning more about these students, whose writing may look different from that of “native speakers.” In this blog entry, we wanted to talk a little about who ESL students are and how you can support them in class. (See also our annotated resource list for instructors working with ESL writers in their classes.)

Like all labels (e.g., multilingual, non-native speaker, English language learner), the term ESL contains certain assumptions about students. We employ it here because it’s widely used to describe students of diverse linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. At the same time, it identifies English as a student’s second language (instead of, say, a third), it can carry a stigma, and it tends to blot out the complexity of a student’s language and literacy experiences.

Wan Shun Eva Lam, for instance, illustrated the depth and breadth of an “ESL” student’s competence in several language varieties when she followed Kaiyee, a high school junior who migrated from China to the U.S. when she was 15. In communicating online with family and friends in different countries, Kaiyee marshaled, to varying extents, “standard American English, hip-hop English, the Shanghainese dialect that she used in her family, Cantonese and Mandarin that predominated in her immigrant community, and both Mandarin and Shanghainese that connected her to people and events in China, particularly her hometown Shanghai” (p. 393).

Every ESL student has experiences like Kaiyee’s. If part of your first-day-of-class routine involves asking students to submit answers to a few questions about themselves, you could add a few like these to help you get a better sense of the backgrounds of all your students. (And if you have a chance to meet one-on-one and talk, even better.)

In fact, like your ESL students, we all command a unique blend of partial, ever-changing language varieties—dialects, registers, genres, styles. Linguistic anthropologist Jan Blommaert prefers to view everyone’s language competence as “truncated repertoires” because, he states, “We never know ‘all’ of a language, we always know specific bits and pieces of it. This counts for our ‘mother tongue’ as well as for the languages we pick up in the course of a lifetime, and this is perfectly normal” (p. 23).

Think about all the different repertoires you have little or great proficiency in (e.g., French conversation? computer programming languages? certain translations of the Bible?  journal articles in a certain field?). Just because you are fluent in “English,” for example, does not mean that you can easily write a literature review on a topic in abnormal psychology, say, or design and present a poster at an ecology conference without study, practice, feedback, and other kinds of support.

The idea that one can “master” writing, or English, in a single course or in a discrete period of time, is what Mike Rose has called the “myth of transience”: the idea that “if we can just do x or y, the problem will be solved” (p. 355).  And the idea that all of “writing,” or all of “English,” can be mastered is tricky, too. It is better to think of language and literacy acquisition as lifelong, “embedded in content and tied to specific contexts” (Zamel & Spack, 2006, p. 147). This goes for everyone—not just ESL students.

Writing-across-the-curriculum approaches aim to help all students develop the disciplinary “bits and pieces” of their repertoires and participate more deeply in general. “When students are given multiple, meaningful opportunities to write (not just to read) as a way to learn within their courses,” write Zamel and Spack, “they can engage actively with the material they are studying, make sense of their texts, generate ideas and interpretations, make connections, experiment with unfamiliar language and literacy practices, and construct new knowledge” (p. 138). For all writers, and especially for ESL writers, this rich blend of active learning and writing is the way to grow.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lam, W. S. E. (2009). Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in negotiating local, translocal, and transnational affiliations: A case of an adolescent immigrant. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 377-397.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47, 341-59.

Zamel, V., & Spack, R. (2006). Teaching multilingual learners across the curriculum: Beyond the ESOL classroom and back again. Journal of Basic Writing, 25, 126-152.