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ESL college writing in the mainstream classroom.


Some attention has been given to non-native writers' performance in the ESL classroom, but no studies to my knowledge have examined ESL student writers' achievement in the mainstream college classroom. With a survey of college writing instructors, this study investigates ESL students' success in writing courses designed for native speakers. The main findings indicate that linking courses on social issues with writing courses can benefit ESL students and that teachers should take advantage of their ESL students' ability to transfer writing skills between languages.


Though there is a fair amount of research on college-level Second Language Acquisition (SLA), the studies that focus particularly on writing are few. To succeed academically at the college-level, it is important for English as a Second Language (ESL) students to become proficient in speaking, reading, listening, and writing. The latter is perhaps the most difficult to master, and not just for ESL students. In fact, many native speakers, who are fluent in speaking English, are not good writers. At least in some respects, learning formal written English can be equated to learning another language, as the appropriate language style is rather different than that used in conversation. The English written language can be especially difficult to learn without focused attention on its expectations and conventions. In particular, many ESL college students struggle with genre writing, as discourse communities in the academy have different expectations for writing in specific disciplines. Both researchers and instructors should then consider more carefully the role that writing instruction has in the ESL college classroom.

The current study focuses on advanced argumentative ESL college writing. A survey of writing instructors from the University of Southern California (USC) was conducted to determine how ESL college students function in the mainstream classroom alongside native speakers. This article attempts to address the following questions concerning writing research and teaching methodology: What advantages and disadvantages are there to linking college courses on social issues with writing courses? How important is it for instructors to consider ESL students' writing background when designing writing lessons? Should instructors challenge ESL students with complex writing tasks? How can ESL students succeed better in a writing course designed for native speakers?

Theoretical Framework

The conceptual framework is informed by theories that have influenced Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research. Chomsky (1965) theorizes that one has a genetic predisposition to acquire language competence; he refers to this innate ability as universal grammar. Drawing from Chomsky's work, Cummins (1994) develops a related theory on the transferability of knowledge and skills learned from the first language (LI) to the second language (L2). According to Cummins (1994), language learners have a Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) in which "literacy-related aspects of a bilingual's proficiency in L1 and L2 are seen as common or interdependent across languages" (p. 18). Chomsky's and Cummins' theories have since exerted a considerable influence on both language acquisition research and teaching approaches.

These theories are particularly important to this study because of the potential benefits of writing competence transferability from the L1 to the L2. In addition, this study is concerned with the appropriateness of creating challenging writing assignments for ESL students, which is also addressed by SLA research. In one of his theories, Lev Vygotsky (1978) discusses the importance of instruction targeted in the zone of proximal development, which is the distance between the actual development level and the potential development level with assistance. Stephen Krashen (1982) further develops Vygotsky's theory with his emphasis on relevant and challenging materials that serve as comprehensible input (i+1), which is the knowledge a student is familiar with and the knowledge that goes a little beyond the material the student knows.


The writing course titled "Writing and Critical Reasoning" is a requirement for all USC undergraduate students, most of whom take it in their first-year of college. They are required to concurrently enroll in both a writing course and a social issues course (e.g. "Environment and Ethics," "Geopolitics," "Social Issues in Gender"). Though each class has its own requirements, all written assignments for the writing course relate in some way with the subject matter of the social issues course. ESL students are expected to take this course alongside native speakers, though there is a more remedial writing course, titled "Introduction to College Writing," which can be taken before enrolling in this one. Roughly half of the ESL students enrolled in "Writing and Critical Reasoning" are what many refer to as non-English dominant students, meaning that they were educated in the United States, but that English was not their first language and probably not the language most spoken by them or in their homes while growing up. The other half consists of international ESL students who have, for the most part, come to the United States to study at a university, though in some cases for their high school and college education.

For the study, ten writing instructors from USC were surveyed. They were asked to compare their ESL students' writing to that of their native speakers in the writing course. The instructors, who were all native English speakers, had taught at least one previous semester of "Writing and Critical Reasoning." In most cases, they had multiple years of experience teaching the course. For the most part, the instructors were enrolled as graduate students at USC in the English or Professional Writing programs, though some were pursuing different degrees in the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Each survey respondent was encouraged to answer the questions with open-ended comments. Here is a list of the questions from the survey:

* How well do English as a Second Language (ESL) students generally do in your course compared with native writers?

* Do you think the link between your writing course and a social issues course particularly helps ESL student writing?

* Do you generally see good improvement in ESL student writing? In what particular areas?

* Given the complexity of argumentative writing assignments, do you find that ESL students have problems in understanding the prompts?

* In your experience, is the level of complexity in ESL student writing similar to that of native student writing?

* What particular problems do you notice with ESL student writing? Are they the same problems that your native students have?

* When you speak one-on-one with ESL students (especially in conferences), what do you usually address? Do these conversations tend to be different than those with native writers?

* To what extent do you consider grammar when evaluating essays?

* In general, do you find yourself making different sorts of comments on ESL papers?

* For in-class essays, do you think the ESL students in your class struggle with time constraints?

* Are there any other comments you have about your ESL students and their experience in your course?

Findings and Analysis

Many ESL students are overly concerned with surface-level errors (i.e. grammar, syntax) in their writing and feel that it is necessary to perfect their grammar, whether in speaking or writing, in order to be successful academically. Many writing instructors, however, are less concerned than ESL students are about surface-level errors. Of course, writing teachers claim that extensive grammar errors, especially those that impede understanding of the text, will result in a grade deduction. In response to the survey, one writing instructor wrote, "Though the least important part of the rubric, [grammar] makes a huge impact on argumentative force and can factor in for as much as a grade step." Other responses repeatedly indicated that grammar is of little importance; it is only a factor when it "interferes with meaning," "confuses the meaning," or makes the paper "unintelligible at the sentence level." Rather than worrying too much about grammar errors, ESL students, and writing students in general, should focus on the piece of writing as a whole, looking at the text from a global perspective. In fact, the grading rubric for "Writing and Critical Reasoning" emphasizes global writing skills (e.g. cogency, control, addressing the issue, and support), though it also includes grammar and style as secondary evaluative considerations. Research indicates that preoccupation with language (i.e. grammatical structures) does not necessarily help the quality of written product in the target language (Jones, 1985 as cited in Lefrancois, 2001, p. 232). Students who are overly anxious about grammatical perfection in the L2 may actually impede their writing process, as they tend to focus too much on surface-level errors and not enough on global-level concerns, which often results in a less sophisticated, analytical essay.

In order to write complex and sophisticated prose, ESL students (and some native writers) lack what Brammer (2002) refers to as "linguistic cultural capital, [the ability] to recognize and to utilize the necessary written codes for academic success" (p. 17). According to Brammer (2002), becoming part of the written discourse community is no easy task for both native and non-native writers, as there are considerable differences between formal written and spoken language (p. 23). It is important that teachers make their students aware of the expectations of academic writing and consider how to "better assist outsiders in acquiring linguistic capital" (Brammer, 2002, p. 25). Outsiders can be read as basic writers, native speakers who do not have the writing skills expected at the college level, and ESL students, non-native speakers who do not have these writing skills. Many of the teachers who responded to my survey (six out often) agreed that ESL students have problems understanding writing prompts, given the complexity of the argumentative writing assignments. In the survey, writing instructors were asked if the level of complexity in ESL student writing is similar to that of native student writing in their courses. Surprisingly, all but two of the instructors found that their ESL writers had comparable skills in writing complex arguments. Two teachers qualified their remark, finding the "level of complexity of analysis" or "complexity in thought" to be similar but the "level of complexity of rhetoric" or "complexity in form" to be different. Even those instructors who did not generally find the same level of sophisticated argumentative style in the writings of their ESL and native students indicated that sometimes the two were comparable, as there were differences among individuals.

One of the problems often cited in the research is the level of difficulty that some writing tasks present for ESL students. Some argue that teachers should not ask students to write on topics with which they are not familiar. Rather than simplifying reading and writing tasks, instructors could use content-based instruction to make difficult assignments more accessible to students. In my survey, instructors were asked if they thought the link between their writing course and a social issues course particularly helped ESL student writing. There were mixed views on this question, as some felt the social issues course helped ESL students with "critical thinking" and provided them with a "critical vocabulary," while another thought "the complexity that the link [gave] the course may actually [have made] it more difficult for them." Many of my own ESL students have told me that the link was useful in providing in-depth conceptual knowledge to better address the writing prompts. Whether or not content-based instruction is linked to writing instruction in the classroom, it is important for teachers to challenge students---giving them writing assignments with different degrees of difficulty and in a variety of subjects--to help them acquire more advanced writing skills. Blanton (1994), however, does not agree that writing instructors should teach L2 students to write in a variety of academic disciplines: "without knowing exactly what academic discourse is, we have taught academic content, presuming---I suppose---that if we ask students to read in subject areas taught in the academy, how these subjects are written about will surely rub off on our students" (p. 6). Blanton's skepticism is perhaps more about the ability of instructors to teach appropriate academic discourse writing than the ability of ESL students to learn it. Certainly, there is something to be said for the advice that a professor in a particular field might offer to students. Nonetheless, Blanton (1994) seems to overlook the fact that there are basic underlying critical thinking and writing skills that are common amongst academic disciplines. For instance, learning how to structure arguments and counterarguments and provide adequate support for claims in essays would be useful skills for a variety of disciplines.

The transference of writing skills is possible not only among disciplines but also among languages. In fact, many believe that one's writing ability in the L2 is highly dependent on one's writing ability in the native tongue. As mentioned previously, Cummins' (1994) theories suggest the transferability of content skills; knowing how to write the basic structure of an essay and how to formulate arguments in the L1 can greatly enhance one's ability in the L2. Many cultures, however, have different expectations for essay structure, which would suggest that the transferability of writing skills depends in part on one's exposure to similar background knowledge. The relative proximity of the languages seems to influence transference, and "les aspects positifs du transfert se font davantage sentir dans le processus que dans le produit de l'ecriture" (Lefrancois, 2001, p. 240). [1] In addition, Carson (1992) cautions that cultural learning differences can both enhance and complicate second language acquisition, and thus teachers should take into account ESL students' cultural expectations of and preferences for learning English writing skills: "knowing about the educational background of their students can provide ESL writing teachers with insights into the ways in which ESL writers may approach the often formidable task of learning to write in English" (p. 56). Instructors should keep in mind that they often value writing practices from a westernized point-of-view. Their expectations for writing may be different than those of other cultures, as they may place importance on different writing aspects. One survey respondent, recognizing the cultural barriers that ESL students often have, wrote that she sometimes discusses cultural differences when meeting one-on-one with her ESL students.


The current study suggests that the overall goal of writing instructors should be to build on the writing skills that ESL students already have. Encouraging students to improve arguments (a global-level concern) and treat grammar secondary (a surface-level concern) is of utmost importance. Writing instructors should avoid making assumptions about students' writing background and use comprehensible input to design assignments that are challenging and relevant. Perhaps the most important role of ESL writing teachers is to model writing process stages (e.g. prewriting, drafts) so that students understand the method and expectations for academic writing.

Writing instructors could also find innovative ways to utilize group work for student writing development in the classroom. In particular, students negotiate meaning when working on drafts, which allows Vygotsky's scaffolding to take place. Providing handouts with guided questions would also help students focus more on global writing concerns. Carroll, Blake, Camalo, and Messer (1996) found that "mixed peer review groups" (i.e. those with native and non-native speakers) tend to work better when the activities involve "writing, not oral, response" because native speakers tend to be more tolerant and understanding when responding in writing to an ESL student (p. 29). Writing instructors could utilize authentic materials from a variety of content areas such as political science or literature. They might consider using journal articles as long as they provide comprehensible input. In fact, Ballard (1995) suggests that teachers focus on helping ESL students recognize critical thinking through the close analysis of academic journal discourse. It is especially important that students are provided with appropriate models of good essays, whether or not the samples come from academic journals.

Although many believe that ESL student writers are not ready for complex writing assignments, more focus should be placed on the potential support that may come from combining content-area instruction with writing instruction. Future studies could examine the effectiveness of particular writing process strategies for native and nonnative writers in a mainstream classroom. Research studies could also compare nonnative writers' progress in a stand alone writing course to their improvement in a writing class linked to a content-based course. Given the research findings thus far, instructors should become more aware of their students' writing backgrounds. Formulating useful writing activities is a complicated task since writing instruction needs vary greatly among individuals. Instructors will have to adjust their teaching techniques and approaches depending on the writing skill levels and cultural backgrounds of their students.


Ballard, B. (1995). How Critical is Critical Thinking? A Generic Issue for Language in Development. In T. Crooks & G. Crewes (Eds), Language & Development (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED390772, pp. 150-164). Jakarta, Indonesia: Indonesia Australia Language Foundation.

Blanton, L. L. (1994). Discourse, Artifacts, and the Ozarks: Understanding Academic Literacy. Journal of Second Language Writing, 3(1), 1-16.

Brammer, C. (2002). Linguistic Cultural Capital and Basic Writers. Journal of Basic Writing, 21(1), 16-36.

Carroll, P.S., Blake, F., Camalo, R.A., Messer, S. (1996). When Acceptance Isn't Enough: Helping ESL Students Become Successful Writers. The English Journal, 85(8), 25-33.

Carson, J. G. (1992). Becoming Biliterate: First Language Influences. Journal of Second Language Writing, 1 (1), 37-60.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Cummins, J. (1994). Primary Language Instruction and the Education of Language Minority Students. In Charles Leyba (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework (pp.3-46). Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

Lefrancois, P. (2001). Le Point sur les Transferts dans I'Ecriture en Langue Seconde (Transfers in Second Language Writing). Canadian Modern Language Review, 58(2), 223-45.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: the Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jennifer Mafia, University of Southern California, CA


[1] The positive aspects of the transfer seem to be more in the process than in the product of writing.

Malia, a Ph.D. candidate in English, is an instructor for the Writing Program at USC.
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Title Annotation:english as second language
Author:Malia, Jennifer
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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