Sunday, April 27, 2008

Teaching English to L2 writers: A review of literature

Christine Maddox

Students representing various cultures and speaking numerous languages are entering the American writing classroom intent on learning to successfully write in English. Accordingly, there are countless theories and strategies regarding how to best teach English writing to non-native (L2) English speakers. Much of the research in this area of study focuses upon the challenges of teaching L2 writers within the English classroom, specifically what languages should be included within the classroom and what teaching methods are most successful with L2 writers.

L2 student writers should be encouraged to write and speak in both their native language and English within the classroom (Bean et al., Sook et al., Steinman, McCarthy). Research shows that incorporating both languages into the writing classroom leads to increased proficiency in English (Bean et al., Sook et al., Steinman). More specifically, prewriting in the native language and later revising into English allows L2 writers to develop richer, more detailed ideas (Bean et al.). L2 students tend to feel less inhibited and more comfortable when writing in their home language, and so writing initially produced in native languages is often more descriptive and less restricted than writing originally written in English (Bean et al., Mlynarczyk).

Language is a social construct that develops through social interaction of “input” and “output” (Sook et al. 76). Language input occurs through a processing of what other people are saying and language output takes place during a linguistic response to the input. This means that students must be able to observe (input) and use (output) both languages freely in order to gain a solid understanding of and comfort with the new language. Therefore, encouraging L2 students to write and speak in both languages maintains the social aspect of language and facilitates a smooth transition into the English language.

Furthermore, the L2 students’ efforts to learn English are always influenced by current knowledge of their native tongue. These home language influences should be embraced within the classroom, because they guide the student’s ability to learn English (Steinman). For instance, a Spanish speaker’s knowledge of the Spanish tense pasado perfecto will help her understand the similar past perfect tense in English. Knowledge of how one language works will benefit the student as she attempts to discover and understand the intricacies of another language. Thus, writing instructors should encourage L2 writers to reflect upon their native language as they learn English and consider how their first language can help them in this process (Steinman).

Furthermore, research shows that it is helpful for teachers themselves to be able to speak both languages in order to create “interactional spaces” for L2 writers (Sook et al. 85). This fosters the development of both languages simultaneously and further aids in the English acquisition process. Since L2 students do not stop developing their home language following introduction to English, it is reasonable that writing instructors should encourage concurrent growth of both the native language and English within the L2 classroom (Steinman, Sook et al.). This can be done through the instructor’s own practice of both languages within the class.
Ultimately, separation of languages within the classroom leads to a separation outside of the classroom. Students will not feel comfortable writing in both languages in the real world if they don’t do so in the classroom and will most likely insist on solely using their native tongue for real-world written communication (Sook et al.). If the goal of writing instructors is to prepare students to write outside of the classroom, instructors must prepare students for the real-world interaction between both languages that inherently accompanies second-language writers.

Also, allowing for the use of both the native language and English within the classroom shows a respect for the L2 writer that will facilitate the adoption of English writing practices (Bean et al., Carr). The Western world has subjected non-Western peoples to the process of “otherization” – the identifying of non-Western cultures simply by the fact that they are not of the Western world (Carr 192). Thus, it is imperative that non-Western students hear all voices, Western and non-Western, within the classroom, in order for them to feel included and accepted as English students (Carr, McCarthy). This inclusion will help them feel comfortable enough to embrace the English language; thus, L2 writers must be given opportunities in the English classroom to tell their stories, speak and write in their native languages, and interact with their native cultures (Carr). Ultimately, this respect and comfort for their native languages will show itself in their willingness and eagerness to adopt and respect English writing skills (Steinman, Bean et al.).

While native language writing has proven beneficial to L2 students, writing instructors must remember that not every situation is conducive to native tongue writing within the English classroom. For example, exploratory and personal writing works well when written in the student’s native language, but exams do not because students will need to translate their writing into English and there will rarely be time for this during the exam period (Bean et al.). Each classroom assignment is situational and should be evaluated as such.

While it appears as if researchers agree that both languages should be used within the L2 writing classroom at some point, there are many discrepancies about how to best teach L2 student writers. Recently, the United Kingdom passed a ban on bilingual dictionaries in L2 examinations citing a 1998 study by Hurman and Tall which reports that dictionaries give L2 students an unfair advantage (East). However, not all research supports this ban; a 2007 study by Martin East reports that non-native students should be allowed to use bilingual dictionaries on L2 writing exams because they don’t offer significant advantages. Furthermore, L2 students report preferring access to bilingual dictionaries because they are helpful for looking up unfamiliar words (East). East’s research stands in opposition to UK’s ban; it argues that dictionaries should be permitted since they don’t provide advantages and are preferred by L2 students.

Another disagreement among L2 writing instructors focuses upon the types of L2 assignments and how best to structure an L2 writing course. Some research shows the benefits of regular journal writing in English as a means of increasing English writing skills among L2 students (Mlynarczyk). Journals encourage freedom and a removal from precise writing rules. Studies have shown that this freedom ultimately leads to an increased English fluency because L2 students don’t feel constrained by their lack of mastery of the English language (Bean et al., Mlynarczyk).
However, not all researchers subscribe to the idea of journaling as the best option for L2 writers. Others feel that lessons on the technical aspects of the English language are most successful with L2 students and should be considered a central part of the L2 writing classroom (Zielinksa). Instead of focusing on a departure from English language rules and boundaries as do journals, technical writing theories emphasize teaching students how to communicate for practical purposes. Examples of technical aspects taught within L2 classrooms are awareness of purpose and audience, completion of secondary research, organization of texts, recognition of sentence type, and formation of coherent paragraphs (Zielinksa). Proponents of this teaching method maintain that familiarity with technical writing rules enhances a student’s ability to write well in English.

Yet other research shows that creating connections between the students’ home languages and English facilitates optimal growth of English writing skills (Steinman, Bean et al., Sook et al.). For this reason, assignments such as Literacy Autobiographies and Contrastive Analysis Projects are employed within some L2 classrooms because they combine native languages with English (Steinman). Literacy Autobiographies invite students to explore how they developed the literacy of their home language while Contrastive Analysis Projects compare home languages to specific dimensions of the English language such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. This unification of the two languages builds a language bridge so the L2 writer can transfer skills from her native language to the English classroom (Steinman).

Another method about how to best teach L2 student writers doesn’t focus on the specific assignments within the classroom as much as the theories driving the assignments. Some research shows that genre pedagogies are the best way to teach L2 writers because they provide real world applicability, reassurance for L2 writers, and opportunities for collaboration and scaffolding (Hyland). Through genre rules and conventions, L2 writers learn how to successfully write in English because they can recognize a “regularity and structure” with the new language (Hyland 152). Genres provide reassurance for L2 writers, allowing them to memorize and follow rules that are socially constructed and established. Furthermore, genres make writing assignments meaningful and social for L2 writers, increasing their connection to the writing assignment and their growth as English writers (McCarthy).

Genre pedagogy also provides clear standards for assessment so L2 teachers can be detailed and thorough with student feedback (Hyland). Instructors know what is expected of students within certain genres because the rules are established. This is beneficial for both L2 student writers and instructors.

Clearly, there is a large amount of scholarship regarding L2 student writers and how to best help them achieve English literacy. Despite the large numbers of articles and research regarding this topic, educators have yet to agree on how best to teach non-native English speakers. Much of the research as it stands today is informative yet contradictory as researchers seems to complicate and/or contradict each other in their attempts to discover optimal teaching methods and classroom settings for L2 writers.

The lack of agreement among L2 researchers can partly be attributed to a dearth in research directly comparing native and non-native English student writers. No one has systematically looked at the differences between two similar groups of native and non-native English college-aged writers in regards to thinking and writing processes. How does thinking in a different language and the act of translating from mind to paper affect one’s writing process and the text produced? The current research will seek to answer these questions by examining two student populations at the University of Dayton: L2 student writers and native English student writers.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

No comments: