The Parallels of ESL and Composition Pedagogy
"The aim of functional objectives is to develop fluency," I interjected during a teachers' meeting in Tokyo, Japan in 1995. Functional objectives became our school's new buzz phrase. At that time, our pedagogical approach began to shift from the more accuracy-oriented approach of the target structure to the more fluency-oriented approach of functional objective.
Just a few years
later while attending yet another teachers' meeting but this time for English
composition here in California, I encountered this familiar debate. However,
the discussion wasn't about accuracy versus fluency in ESL pedagogy, but instead
product versus process in composition pedagogy. Based on my experience of orienting
the ESL students' communicative ability toward an informal audience, I have
discovered and since adopted an approach which I feel, although effectively
encompasses both fluency and accuracy, is more fluency-oriented. The importance
lies not only in recognizing this dichotomy, but in accepting and working with.
In Pat Peterson's article A Synthesis of Methods, he identifies interactive
processing, first pioneered by E.A. Nida, as a combination of meaning-driven
and form operations.
Nida was able to integrate both fluency and
accuracy in his approach. He avoided the split
which occurred later between theories which
recommended one kind of language activity at
the expense of the other. (Peterson 109)
Clearly aware that composition and ESL Pedagogy have some distinct differences, their similarities, in terms of the intricate reciprocal relationships between individual, subject, and audience must be acknowledged. Based on my ESL teaching experiences, my current pedagogical approach (current being the operative word since all effective teaching constantly undergoes re-evaluation and assessment) "embraces the contraries" of product and process.
Perhaps no one more perceptively or articulately addresses the contraries of process and product in the teaching of English composition than Peter Elbow in Embracing the Contraries in the Teaching Process. "My argument is that good teaching seems a struggle because it calls on skills or mentalities that are actually contrary to each other and thus tend to interfere with each other" (65). Identifying and acknowledging these opposing skills 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 proceeds, "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. Simultaneously and effectively blending the contraries of these obligations ultimately dictates the focus of our classes.
ESL (English as a Second Language) 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 both the process and final product. In order to address some of the demands placed on both the writing process and the final product, I've found that an approach that synthesizes some of the theories in the total physical response, new rhetorical and expressionist approaches works most effectively.
The crucial balance between form and content has always interested composition pedagogy. Critics often differ in their opinions of which approach best serves the students. And from this vast wealth of combined knowledge the four major philosophies of composition have been defines as expressive, mimetic, rhetorical, and formalist (Fulkerson 551).
The four philosophies cover a broad range of methods and techniques that have all, at one time or another experienced some praise and popularity. Expressionists value writing about personal subjects and experiences and developing one's writing voice. In order to achieve such objectives, journal-keeping is an essential exercise. Through journal-keeping the student learns that content drives from, allowing form to develop organically. Formalists exist in direct opposition to the expressionists and judge writing primarily on form and the number of errors, or lack thereof. Good writing is "correct" writing (Fulkerson 552). Mimeticists claim a connection between good writing and clear thinking (Fulkerson 553). Formal logic, topic research, and an accurate reflection of truth characterize the mimetic approach. New Rhetoric, or what might be called Epistemic Rhetoric by James A. Berlin (Berlin 562), argues writing is a dynamic field and it attempts to synthesize opposing elements
Truth is dynamic and dialectical, the result of a process
involving the interaction of opposing elements. It is a
relation that is created, not pre-existent and waiting to be
discovered. For the New Rhetoric truth is impossible
without language since it is language that embodies and
generates truth (Berlin 562).
The New Rhetoric, Berlin claims is the most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interest of our students (Berlin 556).
Although each philosophy claims to serve valid functions, my understanding of the ESL debate between fluency and accuracy leads me to conclude that a combination of approaches most accurately reflects the writing process.
After reviewing and experiencing the merits of the various approaches and extracting the exercises conducive to my theory of teaching ESL, I have devised a syllabus aimed to address both the process and product, content and form. I have discovered through trial and error that executing activities, implementing exercises, and facilitating discussions, theory is just that - theory. And though it often reads well in a book, applying theory in the classroom exists as another challenge in itself. In compliance with the ESL's total physical response approach, composition students stand to benefit from steady and continuous writing exercises. In a ten-week quarter system, students write the maximum number of essays allowed: five. The three out-of-class essays will all go through the procedures of prewriting, workshopping, revising and final drafting. These procedures slow the writing process and show writing as a set of important progressive stages. Each stage's success clearly depends on the successful completion of the previous stage. In addition to undergoing a set of progressive stages, the essays will also inevitably aim at some pre-existing form of rhetorical writing, employing at least one or two of the nine patterns of development. Arguably, the nine patterns of development are description, narration, illustration, division-classification, process analysis, comparison-contrast, cause-effect, definition, and argumentation-persuasion (Macmillan 157). Striving to utilize any of these any forms may appear formalist in approach but The Macmillan Writer argues the contrary:
Most types of writing combine two or more patterns.
The patterns of development come into play throughout
the composing process. In the prewriting stage, awareness
of the patterns encourages you to think about your subject
in fresh, new ways. In short, all through The Macmillan Writer
we emphasize that the patterns of development are far from
being mechanical formulas. On the contrary: They are practical
strategies that open up option in every stage of the composing
process. (Macmillan 157-158)
Teaching the students to identify at least five of these patterns will not only enable the students to organize their own ideas but also, as Elbow observes, meet the obligations we have to knowledge and society.
The aim of extemporaneous 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.
Portfolios are incorporated in my class to allow the students and I to chart their progress. They are able to refer back to their essays for reviewing and revision purposes. Individual portfolios complied by the students provide an opportunity to holistically grade essay and evaluate student progress. Elbow points out the benefit of portfolios in Embracing the Contraries. Holistic scoring on small portfolios increases the trustworthiness of the evaluation by reviewing the writing produced over the course of the semester; thus involving more than one sample, genre, and writing occasion (Elbow 222). The portfolio in my class allows the students to make crucial rhetorical choices by forcing them to choose which essay they want to include in their portfolio. Although the portfolio is designed to work within the limitation of a ten week quarter, it still offers many benefits to both student and teacher.
The quizzes, however, for all practical purposes, forces the students to keep up with the required reading. Each quiz encompasses at least two or three reading assignments and requires paragraph responses. The quizzes are designed to elicit thoughtful, short written answers. Furthermore, the quizzes will force more rhetorical choices by offering between eight to ten questions in which the students answer five to seven of their choice. These quizzes are not designed to compensate for other writing activities; therefore, they will occupy no more then ten to twelve minutes at the beginning of class. The grading of these quizzes follow a standard similar to that used with my ESL students. Quizzes will be read holistically, not solely using grammar as the primary gauge to measure their understanding of the question and material. Students receive credit in form of a check plus, check, and check minus.
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. It is here they find their own writing voice and gain confidence in their writing ability. On reading their journal entries, I provide only comments of encouragement by primarily addressing the message and content, not the form and product. 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 composition classes.
Due to the advanced nature of American university students' writing ability, at least compared to that of ESL students, the journals entries take a slightly different approach than that taken with ESL students. My expectations are higher with American university students; thus, I assign individual writing tasks, encourage risk-taking and experimenting with different rhetorical techniques, and request thoughtful responses to the required readings.
In addition to forcing the student to keep up with the reading and in support of the quizzes, homework assignments serve several purposes. The homework assignments are also graded holistically. The students will receive credit in the form of a check plus, check, and check minus. The homework revolves around the exercises and the "invitations to write" at the end of the selected readings. These exercises and "invitations" effectively designed to address the topic at hand and elicit constructive responses. Furthermore, various forms of homework, as I have discovered through the years, provide an effective method for charting progress, checking material comprehension, reinforcing and reviewing that material, inviting discussion, and lower anxiety often induced by larger assignments such as tests and essays. The exercises and the "invitations" play a significant role in my class.
So what do I do when students complete all the assignments required of them? How do I accurately evaluate their writing ability? Which activities should be more heavily weighted? The three out-of-class expository essays are worth one hundred points each. One hundred points per essay appropriately designates the assignments which require the most attention and are intended to reflect the skills necessary to pass the class. The in-class extemporaneous midterm, due to the nature of the test and the first of its kind administered in the quarter, is worth eighty points. I do not find it necessary to place undeserved importance on an essay of this kind at this point during the term. At that point, the material covered in class should be sufficient to sustain an essay of its kind. Considering the WPE is a university requirement for all students, a quasi WPE should demand particular attention and focuses from students and will be weighted accordingly. Their final in-class-essay is worth 100 points. The portfolio essay, a final rewrite of their best out-of-class essay chosen from their first three, is worth seventy points. I find seventy points sufficient for the portfolio essay because the majority of their writing will have already been completed. The portfolio essay allows a final chance to make the crucial rhetorical choices learned during the class. Thus, the students are forced to choose, not only which essay is their strongest but also how to once again improve on it with the techniques practice throughout the course. Homework, journals, wiring lab attendance, class participation, workshops, and quizzes will constitute the last one hundred points. Most of this weight leans toward the five required essays; three out-of-class and two in-class. The five essays constitute about seventy percent of their grade, which is a suitable percentage intended to accurately reflect their writing ability.
Breakdown of Syllabus
The selected readings will reflect the different patterns of development in the writing process, each intended to illustrate a progression of complexity. It must be noted however that the readings often demonstrate more than one or two of the writing patterns. Varying reasons factored into the selection of the following readings. The most apparent reason for choosing the readings is their correspondence to the respective chapters. The patterns of description begin the syllabus and the pattern of definition ends it. The effectiveness of the exercises and the appropriateness of the invitations to write occur during, and at the end of the chapters. Well constructed to elicit thoughtful responses, the chosen exercises and invitations to write are the most suitable for the approach I wish to take. For political and social reasons, I choose readings such as I have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King. This speech stands as one of the most remarkable speeches delivered in the twentieth century. The required readings demonstrate certain selected patterns of development, reinforce those patterns with exercises, and make social commentaries.
A novel is not required for the course for significant reasons. Novels, although demonstrate competent rhetoric, make thoughtful observations, and address a relatively large audience, are plainly not essential for the course. The Literate Writer and the Macmillan Writer possess sufficient poems, prose, drama, and essays to sustain any composition class.
Furthermore, novels often lose their appeal throughout the quarter. What may appear deep and insightful to the teacher may not appeal to freshmen composition students, especially toward the end of the course. I use literature to evoke thoughtful responses prior to and during the "writing process," not to teach thoughtful responses during "the reading process." Freshman composition is a writing class, not a literature class.
The most notable works assigned are The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Gilman, I have a Dream, and Black Men in Public Places by Brent Staples. Each piece exemplifies remarkable rhetorical choices. The Yellow Wall-Paper, written in first person narrative, will be used to demonstrate point of view in an unconventional way. A follow up exercise for the students is to have them adopt a persona, either of an animal, an inanimate object, or of someone the dislike, and have them write a first person narrative. I have a Dream, a historical piece exhibiting imaginative analogies and remarkable figurative language, is in a formalist sense, a model to follow. A follow up exercise, as suggested in The Literate Writer is to choose an important issue to create a metaphor, or a series of metaphors, to communicate a message. Black Men in Public Places, an essay written in a contemporary setting, demonstrates cause and effect and can be used to elicit social commentaries from the students. The assignment asks students to take a stance on a social issue and change that issue using cause and effect to illustrate their changes and the expected results. The assortment of selected reading though short, are intended to address the different patterns of writing and provide a point of departure for discussion and writing exercises.
Each 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 also the benefit 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.
Prewriting, the first stage of the writing process which is often neglected, demands much attention. This process, often misunderstood and taken for granted, sets the writing in motion. I consciously try not to make the common mistakes Erika Lindemann states in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. Teachers often truncate prewriting, especially when they assign a paper at the beginning of a class. Furthermore, many teachers lack the training to suggest specific strategies that make prewriting efficient and effective (25). Introducing different prewriting techniques will help establish the methods available to them. Upon practicing the techniques, students are then able to decide which is most suitable for their mode of writing. Lindemann continues to explain the merits of prewriting:
Prewriting techniques help students assess the dimensions of a
rhetorical problem and plan its solution. They trigger perceptual
and conceptual processes, permitting writers to recall experiences,
break through stereotyped thinking, examine relationships between
ideas, assess the expectations of their audience, find an implicit
order in their subject matter, and discover how they feel about the work. (74)
Although a variety of prewriting activities exist, the three I am most familiar with are the ones I introduce to the students. Clustering or brainstorming will be accomplished through both individual and group efforts. Freewriting and journal keeping are tasks for the individual. I tend to use all these three techniques during the prewriting stage.
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. They create a draft, approximately three to five pages double-spaced, to bring to class to begin the third stage.
Collaborative learning groups, peer critique groups or workshops termed by others, provide exceptional exercises for students by decentralizing the classroom and making the revising skills, pentad questions and heuristic thinking their responsibility. This exercise significantly benefits all those involved. Elbow, in Writing with Power, explains the effectiveness of collaborative learning groups. Revising is always more difficult when done on our own work. We could learn about the writing process if we did not have to learn on our own work. This method usually achieves more genuine collaboration than other methods. Most important, it leads to the best sort of thinking-and writing; new ideas emerge in the mid-course. Moreover, the simple emergence of student comments provides a learning exercise. The comments students receive do not necessarily have to be incorporated into their papers. A comment may even be syntactically incorrect, but it is a learning exercise nonetheless and forces the student to make crucial rhetorical choices. Students do not have to incorporate comments into their papers, but they have to at least contemplate them. They do not have to accept the comments, but they at least have to evaluate them. Each paper will go through two sessions of peer critique groups before receiving my comments. Two sessions will allow ample time for students to make the necessary revisions suggested to them and allow an opportunity to chart each other's progress. The collaborative learning groups assigned to my class engage the students in the writing process on different cognitive and rhetorical levels.
After two sessions of workshops and revisions, their essays are ready for my comments and suggestions. At this point, I will still be their "coach and cheerleader" in the writing process, and this undoubtedly is a challenging task. As Elbow so perceptively observed, teachers have an obligation to both student and society. The kinds of comments I make and the language I use have different effects. As observed in Twelve Reader Reading: Responding to College Student Writing, competent tenured professors respond to student essays differently all are, arguably enough, valid response styles. The three different types of response styles defined by Twelve Reader Reading are the following:
The first group is labeled dualistic. These teachers' responses,
which are directed chiefly at the surface features of the texts,
imply that there are clearly right and wrong ways to complete the
assignments in question and students should make the prescribed
changes. ..A second group were relativistic in their approach. They
made almost no marginal comments, preferring to render some type
of "casual reactions" in an informal note. They were least willing to
"trespass" on someone else's property. The final group were the reflective
readers. They were willing to make suggestions for changes, but were
careful in the language of their comments to act as representative readers
of the texts, not authority figures. They offered suggestions that the
students were free to take or not. (Straub and Lunsfornd 10)
I make suggestions and comments grounded in the reflective style. As I encourage ESL students to be fluency oriented when caught in the volatile struggle between accuracy and fluency, I encourage composition students to explore, take risks, and be honest. Considered part of the New Rhetorical or Epistemic approach, Kenneth Dowst suggests making comments similar to the reflective style. "To encourage honest exploring and risk-taking, the teacher does not 'correct' or 'grade.' Rather, the teacher writes a few comments or questions in the attempt to help the writer see and articulate the significance of what he or she has done, or has failed to do" (74).
After I make my reflective comments, I return their essays and allow them to make their final revisions. I don't provide another workshop for the final revision stage. Instead, I encourage them to visit the writing laboratory or see me in my office. At this point, I prefer they wrestle with their final rhetorical choices independent of their fellow classmates. After their final revisions, I collect their essays for grading. I attempt to promptly grade all incoming essays throughout the quarter, leaving as little as possible to be graded in the tenth and eleventh week of the quarter.
Reading all the different approaches to composition pedagogy then trying to understand which approach is most effective has certainly proven to be a challenging task. The debate in ESL between fluency and accuracy parallels in many ways the debate between form and content in composition pedagogy. Identifying this parallel helps clarify the processes involved in both form and content. Richard Coe identifies the conflict's core in An Apology for Form; or, Who took the Form Out of the Process, as existing between the traditional formal approach and the renewed process approach (234). Formalists used form to help teach the content and told students only what to do, but not how to do it. The expressionists, who utilize the process approach, operate in contrast to the formalist theory. Coe writes,
Thus the expressionists process approach and the traditional
formal approach are indeed opposites: where the traditional
approach ignores content to teach form, expressionists process
writing enables content, allowing form to develop organically (Coe 236).
The ongoing debate between various approaches demands attention. My class attempts to effectively combine the total physical response, new rhetorical, and expressionist approaches when administering exercises and conducting class discussions, in effect validating the practicality of a synthesis between these approaches.
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 pedagogy, I incorporate some principles familiar in the ESL community. And although ESL and composition are relatively different fields, the pedagogy is at time grounded in common theories.
Berlin, James A.
"Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories." Composition
in Four Keys Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Phelps. Mountain View:
Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996
Coe, Richard M.
"An Apology for Form; or, Who Took the Form Out of the Process?"
Composition in Four Keys Ed. Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Phelps.
Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996
"The Epistemic Approach." Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition
Ed. Tim R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland. National Council of Teachers of English. 1980
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.
"Four Philosophies of Composition." Composition in Four Keys Ed. Mark
Wiley, Barbara Gleason, and Louise Phelps. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing
Kann, David J.
The Literate Writer. Mountain View California: Mayfield Publishing Company.
A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nadell, McMeniman, John Langan. The Macillan Writer. Allyn and Bacon Boston 1991.
"A Synthesis of Methods for Interactive Listening." Teaching English
Second Language. Ed. Marianne Celce-Maurcia; Boston: Heinle & Heinlem 1991.
and Roland Lunsford. Twelve Readers Reading: Responding to College
Student Writing. New Jersey: Hampton Press 1995.
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