Emphasizing Composition in ESL

“Who was your last teacher?” asked the English composition instructor to Lupe, a former ESL student of mine. “Mr. Halderman,” innocently replied Lupe. This was one of the more embarrassing moments of my English teaching career. My colleague, the English composition instructor, took further initiative and looked up Lupe’s course history in the records’ office at our college. She discovered that all through our ESL (English as a Second Language) program Lupe received A’s and B’s. I was Lupe’s last ESL instructor before she exited our ESL program and went on to mainstream English composition classes.

At the beginning of every semester of English 100, a basic composition course and the first course after exiting the ESL program, instructors require students to write an in-class diagnostic essay. This essay is used to evaluate the students’ entry-level writing ability. Unfortunately, Lupe seriously underperformed for entry level Engl. 100.

Alas, the inevitable clash of ESL and English composition fell upon our program. Many questions arised. What happened exactly? Who was responsible? How can we remedy this situation? This event occurred in 2001 and we have taken many preventive measures to avoid a reoccurrence of this situation. Some of these changes have included program implementations and greater communication with the English basic skills program. But in addition to those changes, I’ve modified my class curriculum to further reflect the community college mission.

Not only are ESL instructors responsible for teaching English, but also we are to encourage and prepare students to enter a four-year institution, earn an AA degree, or pursue a vocational certificate. However, much of the students’ success hinges upon their ability to write at the academic level. In order to enter a four-year institution, earn an AA degree, or pursue a vocational certificate, students need at least to successfully pass, with a “C” grade or better, basic English composition courses.

A variety of factors contribute to successfully transiting from ESL into basic skills composition. Ironically, many of these factors appear paradoxical. Chief among them is the responsibility instructors have to both students and society. Perhaps no one more perceptively or articulately addresses the contraries inherent in teaching English composition than Peter Elbow in Embracing the Contraries in the Teaching Process. Identifying and acknowledging the paradoxes prior to constructing a class syllabus is crucial for both teacher and student. Acknowledging the significance inherent in such a paradox, provide a foundation on which teachers of composition can build. Elbow writes, "I think the two conflicting mentalities needed for good teaching stem from the two conflicting obligations inherent on the job; we have an obligation to the students but we also have an obligation to knowledge and society" (65). These obligations ought to be faithfully observed when faced with the task of compiling a syllabus and implementing its content.

In 2003 our ESL program conducted a comprehensive student survey and discovered that the majority of our students prefer to develop their English conversational skills as opposed to reading, grammar, and especially writing. Most of the students view both pronunciation and conversation skills necessary for living, working, and functioning in the United States. Ironically however, academic success in a college setting requires competent English composition skills. Sufficient pronunciation and conversation skills, although essential in the working world, are already expected in academia. Thus, success, measured by the college mission statement, is found not in merely improving pronunciation and conversation, but instead in successfully acquiring degrees and certificates. In order to complete any certificate or degree, all students must successfully pass a basic composition course. Here therein lies much of our ESL dilemma. In an effort to remedy our problem, I have incorporated a variety of composition exercises and activities in my class curriculum.

ESL pedagogy often employees TPR (total physical response) approach to reinforce the target material by physically acting out the definitions of words and phrases. The same holds true for composition. Maximizing both writing and reading assignments establishes an intensive curriculum designed to reinforce the importance of academic English skills. In compliance with the ESL's total physical response approach, composition students stand to benefit from steady, continuous writing exercises.

The aim of extemporaneous essays (in-class essays), if nothing more, reinforces the obligation teachers and universities have to knowledge and society. The "real world," as it's often termed, requires employees to write briefs, memos, and reports on command. The university requires students to write a coherent, clear, extemporaneous essay prior to graduating in order to prepare them for the expectations in the working world. To address this issue, the CSU system mandates all graduating seniors meet the GWR (graduating writing requirement.) As a result, all of my classes incorporate various forms of extemporaneous writing, some as a diagnostic essay and some for class credit.

Journals have always been very successful with ESL students. Writing in English often intimidates and discourages Americans. As one can imagine, this insecurity is compounded ten-fold for ESL students. Subtle nuances, intricate implications, and culturally complex inferences, more readily understood by native English speakers, contribute to the feeling that strong, clear, coherent writing is unachievable. Journals provide an excellent opportunity of ESL students to write freely, unshackled from the pervasive chains of inflection and syntactic rules. They begin to engage in the simple, rudimentary process of pen in hand, and pen to paper. It is here they find their own writing voice and gain confidence in their writing ability. For assessing their journal entries, I generally provide only comments of encouragement by primarily addressing the message and content, not only the form and syntax. Journals also provide great opportunities for the instructor to identify patterns of errors in the students’ writing, which in turn allows the instructor to make impromptu grammar lessons. Furthermore, allowing ESL students to design the cover of their own journal enhances the appeal to write in it. The effectiveness of journal writing is reaped in both ESL and the proceeding composition classes.

After the prewriting stage has been established, drafting follows, which is considered one of the most difficult steps in the writing process. From the chaos of clustering and freewriting, themes, dominant ideas, divisios, and theses begin to take form. Centers of gravity, as Peter Elbow terms it in Writing Without Teachers, begin to emerge. "The turning point in the whole cycle of growing is the emergence of a focus or a theme. It is also the most mysterious and difficult kind of cognitive event to analyze. It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having a center of gravity. There is a shape where a moment ago there was none (Elbow 35). Generally, the students work independently during this stage. They wrestle with their disheveled ideas alone. This stage can often be a journal exercise too with some optional teach invoevment.

Each expository, out-of-class, essay goes through the procedure of prewriting, drafting, workshopping, revising, and final drafting. Each stage's success clearly depends on the completion of the previous stage. Thus, sufficient time must be given to each stage of the writing process. During the different stages, various people will intervene for different reasons. Collaborative learning groups, or peer critique groups, benefit not only the student who receives the comment but it also benefits the students giving the comments. Each stage of the writing process serves a significant function and relies heavily on the participation of the individual as well as fellow classmates. ESL must perform well with out-of-class essay in order to successfully achieve their certificate or degree. All basic English composition courses require expository essays. ESL students need to learn basic formatting, citing, and Microsoft Word functions. Expository, out-of-class, essays provide ESL students ideal English language and academic learning opportunities.

Composition pedagogy seldom lacks debate, and the addition of new or revitalized developmental approaches continually adds paper to the stack. Although I in no way attempt to revolutionize composition and/or ESL pedagogy, I incorporate some principles familiar in basic composition courses in order to better prepare our students for mainstream English courses. I hope sometime in the near future a basic-skills composition instructor will ask a former student of mine, “Who was your last instructor?” My former student will then say, “Mr. Halderman.” To which the instructor will reply, “Oh, you write very well.”

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press 1973.
---- Writing with Power. New York: Oxford University Press 1981.
---- Embracing the Contraries. New York: Oxford University Press 1986.

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