“Wow!” can be expected from professional writing not students’ writing.
An English Comp instructor told me that after reading a student’s essay, she wants to think, “Wow! These are amazing ideas.” I’ve also met ESL writing instructors who also looked at her students’ writing in a similar way. She wanted them to write about “something significant.” She wanted to be entertained. She wanted to learn something new.
Actually, those are not what we are trying to accomplish in our ESL writing courses. And even if they were the goals, how could they ever be honestly evaluated? I’ve witnessed a conversation between two instructors in which one of them was in total amazement about one of her student’s essays. In it, the student, who was African, described how happy the people in her village were and how people there did not experience depression even though they were some of the poorest people on earth. The other instructor yawned and said, “I already knew all that.”
After I read an essay, I might say, “Wow!” but it’s not because of the student’s profound ideas. It’s because s/he used a technique in a way that really help explain his/her idea.
What were a looking for in essays is how well they are using writing techniques. These are tools that we can teach students, that they can apply to other writing tasks, and that we can evaluate.
Needless to say, we don’t just list the techniques and expect students to apply them. The art of teaching ESL is leading students to learning the techniques so they can have them available in their “tool box.”
Here a just a few of the writing techniques that we can teach our students:
Dependent and Independent Clause
My students are always quite surprised when I tell them this true story about subordination*. Several years ago, I taught Academic ESL at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP). I had discussions with the chair of the English Dept. about how they determine which students (American and International) are qualified to take English 101 Composition. Not surprisingly, he said all new students write a placement essay. But this is the surprising part: the readers/evaluators do NOT consider the idea-development, nor the paragraph organization, nor the grammar. Instead they looked for only one aspect: whether or not the writer could use subordination (dependent and independent clauses) correctly. Their research found that that one aspect was the most reliable predictor about which students would be successful in English Comp.
A learning opportunity
In October 2016, Tiffany Martínez, a Latina student at Suffolk University in Boston, was accused of plagiarism by her sociology professor in front of the entire class. Huffington Post plagiarism story What caused him to be suspicious? The word “hence.” On her paper, he circled the place where she had written the word “hence” and wrote in the margin, “This is not your word.”
In my many years as an ESL instructor, I’ve witnessed instructors over-reacting in suspected plagiarism situations. It seems as if those instructors were taking it personally, feeling like they were being disrespected. Too often instructors seem to see it as a “gotcha” opportunity.
Many instructors want to not only point out errors on students’ papers but also encourage them with positive comments about what they did well. Unfortunately, it can take a lot of time writing out these comments with clear handwriting, and it involves mental energy trying to formulate what to say in a way that students can understand.
There is a method for indicating specifically what the student did well on any writing task, which takes little time on the part of the instructor and results in improved writing in the future.
Writing three drafts
An academic ESL writing instructor whom I was mentoring recently asked me how I dealt with the different drafts of essays. She was sure that students needed to write at least four or fives drafts, but she wasn’t sure how she should respond to each draft.
At some point in the writing process, the amount of time and energy that the students and instructor put into an essay outweighs the benefits. If our goal is to help students develop writing skills and to develop writing techniques, writing more than three drafts can be overkill. And “marking” more than one draft, can be a less-than-optimal use of time and energy by the instructor.