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Reid, "Which Non-Native Speaker?"

Reid identifies two groups of non-native English speakers who study at U.S. universities: U.S. residents and international students. She identifies the mistakes that are common in the writing of each group and gives suggestions for working with each group of students.

U.S. resident non-native speakers have typically had some schooling in the United States. Reid says that these students tend to be orally very fluent, but that they may have difficulty with accuracy in writing. She talks about native language transfer and ear-learning as two possible causes for the errors that these students tend to make.

International students also struggle with writing in English. Reid acknowledges that stduents from different countries have different experience in learning English, but points out that many of them have done years and years of sentence-level grammar exercises. They can often explain grammatical rules, but they have difficulty producing accurate sentences in their writing. Reid mentions first language transfer as one cause for their mistakes; she also notes that they are often unfamiliar with idioms.

Reid says that in dealing with NNS writing, instructors should focus on errors that impede meaning first. She says that familiarity with students' backgrounds is important because it can help instructors choose which errors to address and how to address them; knowing their backgrounds is also useful when it comes to advising students about the outside help they can access.

She reminds instfuctors that writing in a second language is extremely challenging and calls for patience and understanding when working with non-native speakers.


In general, I found this reading fairly straightforward and helpful. Indeed, I have seen these "ear-learned" issues in my students. And, gosh, I think we all know about "error gravity."

My comment not precisely on the reading--Wang Ping, who is a poet and (sometimes) prose writer, whose native tongue is Chinese, spoke to the Intro to Creative Writing lecture this past Tuesday. She asserted that writing in a second language is often better, and freeing (as you're not subject to the "whip" of your mother tongue), and that you can be far more creative, and make fresh, interesting connections in a second language--which you perhaps couldn't in your first.

I wonder if this is something we might be able to encourage in second-language writers, and if so, at what poin. Clearly not when they're struggling to make a sentence. Perhaps only in a creative-writing class? Is it possible that these creative connections could harm their writing in other forms/contexts?

I'm also interested to see what the non-native speakers in my class made of Wang Ping's comments (I'll see them again on Monday).

I also thought this article was very useful -- I had a number of "aha" moments as I read, since I've experienced pretty much everything Reid talks about in the four years I've been working in GC but didn't really see how it all fit into a larger picture. I was particularly interested in the discussion about the first group, U.S. resident non-native speakers, since I've had and continue to have many students in that group.

When I think about my own insecurities and perceived inadequacies as an instructor (which are many!), I think my uncertainty about what to "do" with second language writers is probably first on my list. In trying to be helpful to them with sentence level stuff, am I being too helpful to the exclusion of neglecting the larger content issues, which are always there regardless of facility with the English language? Also, I appreciate Reid's suggestion to refer to students to writing centers for more help -- something I do often -- but at the same time, I worry that I'm conveying the message that "I'm sorry, but there are just too many problems for me to deal with -- better call in the experts." I'd really be interested in hearing from others about how to have that discussion in a way that is respectful and comfortable for the student (and, for me, of course).

Finally, I think these same questions also come into play in peer response. I find that a lot of my students really go out of their way to try to be helpful to an ESL writer -- but despite their best intentions often end up confusing matters even more. I fear what happens is that, even though I stress looking at content, not surface things, the latter sometimes get in the way to the extent that it's difficult for students to look beyond them to providing revision-related suggestions, so they fall back on their roles as proofreaders/editors/grammarians and sometimes end up feeling (just as I do) inadequate and not very helpful. So just as instructors need some direction I think our students do as well (which of course has to come from us) -- but again, how to do that in a respectful way that doesn't make ESL writers feel singled out?

So -- lots of questions here! I really look forward to hearing where others are at.

I work with English language learners at the Franklin Learning Center (FLC), and I worked with many non-native speakers in the GC writing center (absolutely, the writing center is a good place to work with writers on language issues!). I actually have the opposite issue from Gary: when looking at an FLC learner’s writing, or when grading a NNS writer’s paper, I pay almost no attention to sentence-level issues. Usually I need to encourage them to write more—add examples and details, or bridge examples with overarching thoughts—and our conversations (and my comments) focus on ideas and organization. I find, too, that a focus on content allows me to be more consistent in my grading across native- and non-native speakers’ writing. But clearly, as Reid says and Delpit would agree, someone familiar with the conventions of English grammar needs to help writers correct those sentence-level problems as well. In the writing center we worked with students to identify patterns of error and apply rules for changing them, just as we’ve discussed doing in individual conferences or five-minute workshops.

In peer workshops one guideline we might give is to point out spots where you’re confused as a reader, and even better, to ask the writer to explain. The listener can take notes in the margin on what the writer says, and possibly add her own suggestions on phrasing. But I’d stress to peers that they don’t need to worry about correcting every trouble spot; it’s enough to indicate that certain parts were hard to understand, with a note about why (word choice, structure of the sentence, lost the train of thought). Then it’s up to the writer to address those issues, perhaps by availing himself of tutoring or handbooks. This is a general guideline that applies to everyone’s writing, not just NNS drafts.

I’ve been thinking about the resources colleges offer English language learners. College isn’t the best place to learn English, though for international students it's a good environment for learning a specialized disciplinary vocabulary. Some of our FLC learners have enrolled in colleges while reading at a third-grade level. They’re spending their limited financial aid money on non-credit courses, when they can study at any number of community organizations (like FLC) for free. (They bring their homework to us, of course.) We wholeheartedly advocate access to higher education for our learners, but if they enter college too soon, they grow frustrated, sometimes fail, and spend the aid that would allow them to complete college when they were prepared. I’m alarmed at the for-profit mentality of schools that accept aid money to provide exorbitantly expensive ELL. This rant is kind of tangential, for our purposes (many of our students have grown up with English, even if they don’t write it in flawless standard form), but there it is.

Before teaching Spanish, I used to be an ESL/EFL instructor in Mexico and then in El Paso, TX. One of the things that I find missing in this article is the different responses to correction and instruction that I observed in students from different cultures. It is very hard to generalize without falling into stereotypical observations, but I did find attitude differences that seemed to have cultural, or possibly class-related, origins. I don't want to talk about these observations in detail, but I want to point out that every culture's learning preferences tend to further muddy the waters. I think that the only thing that we as instructors can do with L2 (or L3, L4, etc.) English writers is to respond to the individual and try to educate colleagues on their expectations. In addition, I also like the suggestion that we teach our native English-speaking students to concentrate on making general comments instead of overwhealming ESL students with too much criticism.

After all these articles related to the philosophic basis of education process we did in the last weeks, this article seems to me particularly “remediation oriented? (also in the good sense that Reid mentions in her conclusion) and, I have to say, useful for personal purposes, with all the bibliography information, error gravity and so on. I agree with her view about the communicative importance of errors and when she mentions the irritation of native English speakers with ESL mistakes, I remembered Hairston’s attitudinal survey (quoted in Beans, p.66 and 67) and the status-marking errors (“errors that tend to indicate the writer’s social, educational, or ethnic status (…)?, p. 66). In teaching ESL, there must be difficult to avoid paternalism or derogatory attitudes linked with all those unconscious stereotypes even more because of the social and cultural implications evolved (I strongly agree with Edward’s opinion).
Even Reid’s advice about pizza and smiling to say thank you to any eventual English-speaking proof readers shows me some really funny aspect of her (general?) view of the United States’ culture!
Lastly I also feel the temptation to write in my bathroom’s mirror her essential formula for success in ESL writing instruction and learning: “Time, effort, understanding, energy, patience, trust (…)? p.26

I have a goofy curiosity, linked with my early English learning process and with Reid’s student example: Why “I? is the only capitalized pronoun (I’m conscious that often there is no answer in grammar rules, but I’m just curious)

Like Maru, I also thought there was something really weird about the "pizza and smile" thing.

I think it's interesting to read this article in conjunction with Williams' "Grammar and Usage." The latter makes me feel a little more like second-language users need, like first-language users, to be immersed in the language. Perhaps part of the battle is to become less worried and nitpicky about second-language users, and more holistic (as we are with first-language writers). That is, I agree with Ann's approach.

I think Edward's point about different cultural appreciations/apprehensions of criticism is interesting, and I'd like to hear more about it.

And, Maru, you got me about the personal pronoun, but I found this via Google:

"I came to be capitalized, not through any egotism, but only because lower-case i standing alone was likely to be overlooked, since it is the most insignificant of the letters of the alphabet.

"This is found in the chapter on modern English to 1800, meaning in the period from 1500 to 1800. Thus, I take this to mean that the capitalization of I for the personal pronoun was a printer's invention during the early part of this period. I do know that in manuscripts from the Old and Middle English period, the forms were ic (OE) and ich (ME) and were never capitalized in script.

"— discovered by
Dale W. Simpson
Professor of English
Missouri Southern State College
Joplin, Missouri"

Well, thank you Marcia, I find the subject interesting. I also agree with you; it would be nice to know more about Edward’s experience

My experience in teaching comp. to non-native speakers is almost identical to Gary's. I see classmates in peer reviews being stuck at sentence-level corrections, and the non-native speakers asking for them. As part of encouraging students to develop as writers, I like to give them many opportunities to ask for what they need, specifically. So if the non-native speakers ask me and their peers to "correct my grammar," it's easy to get sidetracked into doing only that. But that needs to be balanced with the bigger issues I see in their writing.

I plan to add the background question -- "Did you graduate from a U.S. high school?" to my one-on-one writing conferences. That's a good one that I hadn't considered.

In trying to make connections between the various readings, I suspect I may have a tendency to categorize some issues as ESL language issues that are actually more just part of that "annual influx of freshmen who, although usually graduating with high grades in English, don't have a clue about how to produce any kind of writing....worth anything at all at the university level or beyond." (Williams, 314) Perhaps what I need is less a methodological shift, and more an attitudinal one, as another of our other readings suggested. I may need to actually focus less on "this student as an ESL student" (which causes me to lose confidence in my ability to help, because "I don't know enough about ESL issues") and more on "this student as a student."

Since I've generally been in the habit of commenting on the content of my students' writing instead of their grammar I feel a little encouraged by Reid's essay. Knowing whether a student was educated outside of the United States is, I think, also helpful because those students often have a better grasp of English grammar than students who were educated within the United States. I've been more inclined to offer detailed grammatical advice on my foreign students' papers than I have been on my other students' papers because I think they at least know what a clause is. Ann, I was curious about your suggestion that you often need to encourage your NNS students to include more examples and details in their writing. Do you think this is because they're NNS students or because they're undergraduates? I have noticed that some of the NNS students I've had are reluctant to include their opinions in their papers, but I'm not sure that I've seen an unwillingness to include examples.

I like Thea's observation about attitudinal shifts versus methodological shifts, and I think that this applies not only to instructors but to peer reviewers as well.

Marcia notes that we all know about error gravity, but do we really? Once we've commented on content issues, and really dig into usage/grammar/mechanics (so this refers to formal "finished" assignments) it can be difficult to prioritize. I tend to think in terms of three tiers (for ALL students): tier 1--seriously impedes credility and comprehension; tier 2--raises some questions about meaning (tenses, subject-verb etc) ; tier 3--doesn't mess with meaning, but still needs to be addressed if everything else is fine (articles, prepositions, some word choice issues.

Gary raises a good point about peer groups. When we put students into groups and ask them to respond to each other's writing, we need to model the response process. I do this the way Ann does, by asking students to indicate, with a wavey line, phrases or sentences that truly confuse them...sometimes adding marginal reflection questions: "Do you mean....?"

Finally, I like the way Reid helps me to understand what goes on for students w/minimal literacy in their L1 and L2. I also like seeing the examples she provides, as they are far more issue-laden than anything I see these days--a humbling reminder.

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