ESL Manifesto

As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

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