When told you’re going to teach ESL composition (again) you may inwardly groan. Not again!
Not another semester of hauling home 30 drafts of papers filled with mangled verb tense and dropped articles. Not again - teaching the same model essays of comparison and contrast and cause and effect (which in no way resemble the kind of writing done anywhere outside a composition class. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a pure compare-contrast essay in an authentic setting.) Teaching composition, however, is a reality for most ESL teachers—with budget cuts, writing is seen as the most important skill that ESL students need in order to pass exams such as proficiency tests now often required for graduation or admission to graduate school. Often it seems, in fact, that we are teaching a kind of academic writing tailored very specifically to these tests. Hardly the curriculum that leads to inspired teaching or learning. There are, however, ways that the teacher can develop the curriculum and methods to go beyond teaching to the test and still meet course objectives.
Strategies to Inspire Students to Write Well Despite an Uninspiring Curriculum
Emphasize Writing is an Act of Communication Foremost
People write for a particular purpose in mind, for the most part, and to communicate a specific point—not to show they know how to write a compare-contrast paper. Discuss types of writing we might do to communicate a specific message: the kind of writing I’d use to a business to inform the management of how unhappy I am with the service I received, for example, is very different than the type of writing done to get out of at parking ticket, or express my love to my significant other. Teachers should discuss the power of writing: writing has inspired love, righted social ills, and moved people revolution. While we won’t necessarily adopt these as our goals, a discussion on the power of writing demonstrates that it is much more than an empty exercise to show bureaucrats I should graduate.
Give Out Inspiring Topics
People write for a particular purpose in the “real world”: see above. They write to express outrage at the carnage that gun ownership causes, to show how the education system in the U.S. differs from their first country and the problems that might cause, to right a social ill such as the treatment of undocumented immigrants. In writing toward a topic and with a purpose, students generally must develop some mastery of several rhetorical modes, such as exemplification and persuasion, and the language that goes with them, if they want their message to be communicated.
Develop a sense of audience
Few things cause more a sense of futility than talking to oneself—there’s a reason that most people in solitary confinement lose their minds in a short period of time. Students should work in a community to share their ideas and their work. Working with a peer group, reading aloud their work, and responding holistically to each other, such as “I understand your main point, but I’m not sure if the tone is going to help you achieve your purpose,” helps students develop a sense of audience. And once they have worked together a few times, this sense of audience becomes internalized: as they compose the essays at home, students are likely to consider if their peer group will understand and react favorably to their message.
Emphasize grammar and punctuation as convention: important but not the highest importance
Something else that discourages student writers is for them to labor over a paper and communicate what they see as an important message, and which is in fact an important issue—students pay too much for textbooks; we are too addicted to social media—and then have the teacher focus on their comma splices or nonstandard capitalization before even addressing the main point. Do we worry about our grammar and punctuation when we write a letter to our congressmen or to a business because we think the rules of formal writing are more important than our message? No. We worry about using correct grammar and punctuation because incorrect conventions may detract in some way from our message or credibility. This is how conventions should be treated in the classroom: of importance but not of the first importance of writing, something to be addressed in a second draft after the main ideas of the writing have been addressed.
Recognize student work
Writers need to feel their writing does not occur in a vacuum, that someone is reading it and responding to it. Otherwise, why do it? In order to give students this recognition, consider developing a class newsletter that is student-driven, composed of student writing on student concerns, and put together by classmates in a desktop publishing program. In addition, reading bits of student essays in front of the class, with permission, to exemplify a good thesis statement or example, is a simple way to give recognition to student work.
Writing is developmental. People don’t generally “cram” for a writing exam and then improve exponentially overnight. It takes continue practice over time, much like mastering an instrument or foreign language or sport—analogies I like to emphasize to students. This nature of writing can be discouraging as it is slow and often seems as if no progress is taking place. Therefore, calling students’ attention to the progress they’ve made and rewarding it becomes important. Implementing the portfolio method, in which each student’s exemplary work is placed in a separate folder is a great method to use as students can actually see the progress they’ve made, from first essay to last, over a term. They teacher may also choose to reward such progress.
Teaching a standardized writing class can be difficult because the syllabus and curriculum seem contrary to good writing practices in teaching toward exams and not recognizing the communicative nature of writing.
However, by emphasizing writing as a powerful act of communication, developing a sense of audience and purpose, and recognizing student work, students will no longer dread writing class but see it as enjoyable and a challenge!