Teaching ESL Students in Mainstream BYU Composition Classrooms

Teaching ESL Students in Mainstream BYU Composition Classrooms:

Strategies for Success

Elise Silva

English Language 105 was instituted in the fall of 2004 as an alternative to English 150 for ESL (English as a second language) students at BYU. Even though the course is offered, many ESL students still find their way into mainstream FYW courses. Research shows that ESL students have a much higher rate of failing in mainstream classrooms than L1 (English as a first language) students for many reasons, including “feel[ing] intimidated by their NES [native English speaker] peers who are obviously more proficient in English and comfortable in U.S. classroom culture” (Matsuda and Silva 248). In order to combat this and provide a meaningful experience for the ESL students who find their way into English 150 classrooms, small changes can be made in the training and teaching practices of mainstream teachers to combat the “fear and embarrassment” that many of these students experience (Matsuda and Silva 248).

Tamara Burton-Lamm created ELang 105 as her thesis project for the English Language Department. She was also an English 115 instructor before the English 150 curriculum replaced it. While in training, Burton-Lamm noted, “L2 students were only briefly mentioned in English 115 training. When instructors asked composition program administrators for additional advice on evaluating second language writers, they were told to consult a handbook or instructed to do the best they could to be fair” (1). This observation is the driving force behind my research and suggestions on this project. Although ELang 105 is a wonderful development for the teaching of FYW with international students in mind, mainstream classrooms still see their fair share of L2 (or English as a second language) students. An informal survey I took suggested that over half of the graduate student instructors who responded had an opportunity to work with an ESL student in their 150 class in the past year. I suggest that through promoting an ESL-informed approach in training instructors, preparing lesson plans, conferencing with ESL students, and responding to ESL writing, BYU English 150 instructors can ensure a more effective teaching model for the L2 students in their classroom—one that is beneficial to both mainstream learners and ESL students. Training materials can be made mandatory, or simply provided as supplemental materials for teachers who are interested in improving their relationships with ESL learners.

Difficulties for ESL Students in Mainstream Classrooms

An ESL-informed approach starts with understanding the different reasons ESL students are present in mainstream classrooms. Students who do not speak English as their first language have the option of fulfilling their FYW requirement with ELang 105. The students who take the class must be international and must be L2 learners (for example, although Australian students are international students, they would not be considered L2 learners). American citizens, regardless of their language background, do not qualify for the course. Some international students may be advanced enough that their teacher encourages them to take English 150, but there is no way to “test out” of the course. Students must “test in.” In order for an international L2 students to take ELang 105, they must have a high enough TOEFL score on the writing section, or pass a 1.5-hour essay screening evaluation. If these requirements are not met, the student is asked to first enroll in ESL 304—a course devoted to writing essays, reports, and papers for American universities. The student may also enroll in English 150 to fulfill the requirement because there is no screening process for this class. This option represents a kind of loophole for international students who do not want to take both ESL 304 and ELang 105.

Obviously, there are many other reasons for international students not to take ELang 105, especially because only three sections are offered each semester, and the enrollment is between 18–20 students per class. Many ESL students have specific time constraints for graduation or need to take the requirement a specific semester. Some L2 learners genuinely prefer mainstream classrooms as well, but even if these students chose to be in mainstream FYW or do not qualify for ELang 105, the difficulties of composing in a second language are still significant.

Understanding how to teach ESL learners effectively can partially come from an understanding of the difficulties that L2 learners face in institutions of higher learning in general and in composition classes specifically. Beyond the considerable differences among international students (indeed, the heterogenetic nature connoted by the diverse international student population itself needs to be realized), within the United States language learners are present in many forms, from resident bilinguals to students from multi-lingual families. For my purposes here I’ll be looking at three specific areas of difficulty that a wide variety of L2 learners may encounter in mainstream composition classrooms.

  1. Interaction with the Teacher

The student-teacher relationship differs from culture to culture, and the FYW course might be a place where the student is still learning those differences. Teachers themselves can also bring preconceptions to the classroom since “writing assessment is extremely vulnerable to well-known teacher expectancy traits” (Ruben and Williams-James 140). This means that teachers expect certain levels of performance from different kinds of students. These “teacher expectancy traits” include teachers’ preconceptions about characteristics as diverse as the students’ names, ethnic background, and socioeconomic class—all of which can inform teacher-student relations for better or for worse. Many teachers are aware of their own inadequacy working with ESL learners and thus prefer concrete tasks of “identifying surface errors in writing conventions” (Ruben and Williams-James 140) rather than engaging with issues of argumentation, organization, or analysis. Obviously, this is problematic and leads to lower grades for students who may be still learning the conventions of written English. This is also a place where the current English 150 curriculum is helpful for ESL students because the rubric emphasizes argument and organization and does not allow teachers to mark down ESL students’ papers excessively for grammatical errors. However, some English 150 instructors might take points away from the organization or argument sections because they feel like the grammatical errors inhibit these areas of the paper. An awareness of ESL difficulties may help instructors better assess the writing that is submitted by L2 students as they, as instructors, self-evaluate the “expectancy traits” they are bringing to the table in the first place.

Grading, however, is not the only way that students interact with teachers in FYW classrooms. Other methods include in-class discussion and conferencing. Difficulties in classroom discussion and participation become apparent when L2 students feel embarrassment about expressing their opinions because of their abilities of expression. One study found that ESL students often withdraw from mainstream classes because they feel uncomfortable. In fact, “many ESL students stated, generally, the NES students did not help them or even speak to them in class, and the teacher did little to encourage communication. During peer-review of papers in groups, these students felt that the NES students were impatient with them,” and complaints from NES students about inabilities to correct grammatical errors in ESL writing were prevalent (Matsuda and Silva 248). Although class participation is vital for ESL student survival in mainstream courses, the inhibitions that some L2 learners feel can cause them to withdraw from classroom learning exercises. This is something that, if understood initially, can be addressed by informed teacher practices. One example would be to create a “mediated integration of NES and ESL writers” that would help them see each other as “complementary resources” (Matsuda and Silva 249). This not only opens up the discourse between students, but between the students and the teacher.

Teacher-student relationships can also be improved in conferencing—an area where research is still developing, according to Doreen Ewert’s “Investigating Teacher Talk.” Teacher awareness of personal tendencies in responding to L2 students in conferences can be helpful because “[w]hen there is more negotiation around fewer topics, students must attend to the revision topic, which leads to more participation and may lead to successful revisions and learning.” Ewert continues, “Furthermore, it appears that conferences which focus almost entirely on content and rhetorical issues promote more learner participation even with prematriculated L2 adult learners with limited experience in English academic writing” (268). Many teachers with little or no experience in teaching ESL students tend to focus on grammatical errors and more tangible organizational problems rather than “big picture” topics that, as Ewert suggests, should emphasize “content and rhetorical issues.” Conferencing that focuses on rhetorical rather than grammatical problems leads to more student participation in the conference and less of a teacher-dominated scenario, which is typically the case in teacher conferences with ESL students.

  1. Interaction with Other Students

Although interaction with NES students is paramount for ESL learners and one of the benefits for these students in mainstream classrooms, ESL students do not always feel comfortable with their NES peers because of fear of communication problems—including NES students not understanding both oral and written work by the L2 learners. For example, Matsuda and Silva’s “Cross-Cultural Composition” article articulates this fear in the words of an ESL student in a mainstream classroom. He spoke to his instructor and expressed his inhibitions about talking to the class, asking if it was possible to succeed in a class with so many NES students. Later the Korean student reflected, “I was always worried about I can get a good grade in the English course because I would study English with American students. Obviously they speak and write better than I do. This fact really has depressed me” (253). Joy Reid specifically addresses this fear in her mainstream classes by meeting with ESL students and pointing out the various resources they have at the beginning of the semester. This not only helps the students, but preemptively solves the difficulties in group work situations that some ESL students face. She specifically points out the campus writing center, which has “paid tutors, often accessible through the international student services/education office” and adds that “NES friends can also serve as editors and language informants” (86). Obviously, Reid’s knowledge of ESL difficulties in composition classrooms informed the way she set up her curriculum and conferences with ESL students, thus providing them with resources for success from the beginning of the course. By getting ESL learners involved in group work from the get-go and pointing out specific resources that the students have at the beginning of the semester, teachers can help ESL students share more responsibility in the classroom and have a more fruitful experience with the collective aspects of writing. After all, “writing is essentially a social act” (Reid and Kroll 17).

  1. Interaction with the Writing Process

The final area of difficulty that ESL students may encounter is with the cultural underpinnings of the North American “writing process.” Ramanathan and Atkinson, for example, discuss the ways that the varying ideologies of the individual have influenced composition practices. They critique “the peer review process, critical thinking, and textual ownership” (46), arguing that such skills and attitudes are “based on the very ideology of individualism,” which is a discourse “covertly based on middle-class, mainstream social practices” found in “Anglo-American and Australian” schools (64). Considering the writing process as we present it to our students in English 150 (from our invention strategies to the very rubric we use to grade the assignments), it becomes clear how the process and ideologies underlying it could seem alien to someone coming from a very different background of social practices and values.

I am not suggesting that the “American” writing process cannot be learned, or even that it should not be learned, but what I am suggesting is that the L2 student’s first reaction to it may be bewilderment because of the ideological underpinnings of the process itself. Teachers should be willing to spend more time with these students in order to better explain the process. Reid explains, “ESL students are not typical ‘basic writers;’ for example, many international students’ educational backgrounds have provided them with substantial grammar and reading skills. . . . They need information and practice in specific areas of academic prose such as content and organization” (88). Considering these difficulties that many ESL students may encounter, it becomes more important for teachers to understand the diverse backgrounds from which their students come.

Teacher Training

One way that teachers can be more prepared to work with ESL students in their classes is through formal training. There are many ways that this training can be administered and various resources that can be presented in the training. Here, I will outline a few different approaches for potential training materials and subjects—almost wholly informed by my conversations with current BYU ELang 105 teachers. The following suggestions can be presented in the August training seminar (in a short session), in a WIM meeting, or simply as supplemental material (print or other) for those interested. Although small directions may not change the plight of English 150 ESL students significantly, it can help with the frustration that many instructors feel at their inadequacy to help the students.

In conversations with ELang 105 instructors Alison McMurry and Grant Ekstein, both made the point that ESL students should be encouraged to take ELang 105. Many, they say, are unaware of the existence of the course until it is too late, which is a shame considering that the course was designed to aid them in their success at the university. ELang 105 instructors are especially prepared to work with ESL students because they are required to have an MA in TESOL with specialization in the instruction of writing. The course itself is designed around the needs of ESL Students and teaches the culture of academic writing. According to McMurry, “In many other countries, plagiarism is not only allowed, but encouraged, research and analysis are not part of the curriculum, and of course the writing they do is organizationally different from western tradition. So we teach skills that students can apply to writing in their other classes.” American students receive this instruction in high school.

For students who chose to take English 150, a cultural awareness and sensitivity on the part of the teacher can be helpful to the students’ success. For example, both McMurry and Ekstein suggested that assumptions on the part of the teacher are detrimental—especially assuming that international students know and understand the Western writing style and know the rules of plagiarizing, analysis, etc. In fact, Western writing styles can seem strange and even boring and repetitive to ESL students. McMurray explains, “We have a thesis statement that tells what we are going to say. Then every paragraph has a topic sentence that tells what we are going to say. Then we say it. Then we have a conclusion that says what we said. They think our use of transitions is obvious and reinforces the repetitiveness. For some of them, if they wrote like that in their country, it would be offensive to the reader.” McMurray explains that when she has one-on- one time with the student, transparency is paramount in the instruction of ESL students: “I try to explain why we have these conventions. I try to be aware of their native writing skills and draw on those to help transition them to American academic writing skills.” To be sure, taking all of this into account seems like a lot for an English 150 writing instructor to consider when planning lessons, etc. Yet this awareness can soften frustrations that may arise if these areas are not critically examined in the first place. In no way am I suggesting that holding ESL students to lower standards than the other students is the solution to the difficulties these students face. L2 students, rather, should be required to perform comparably to their American peers. What I am suggesting is that we, as instructors, can facilitate that performance.

Interestingly enough, this experience can likewise help us as instructors as well. Quickly glancing over job postings at community colleges, for instance, shows that experience working with ESL students is becoming a more and more important asset for job candidates in a competitive working world.

Conferences and Responding to ESL Student Writing

Cultural awareness should be present not only in the instruction of the writing process, but also in conferencing and responding to student writing. Specifically in response to student writing, Grant Ekstein suggests that teachers should ease up on their grading of grammar and should understand how the background knowledge of mainstream students differs from that of ESL students in terms of plagiarism, the writing process, research, quotes, use of the library, emails to teachers, requests for help from teachers, and “global” issues like thesis statements. Ekstein also comments on the importance of providing more model papers for international students. More examples help ESL students see the process and the product more readily. Teacher feedback should focus “more on the logical, systematic elements of writing, such as organization through thesis statement, topic sentences, transitions, and so on rather than the more creative aspects of writing such as arguing a complicated or highly sensitive topic or using elaborate imagery or vocabulary.” In addition to this, teachers should be careful about the examples they use in class with ESL students present—topics that require much knowledge of American culture can be confusing to international students rather than helpful in writing instruction (Ekstein).

In both conferencing with students and giving student feedback, it is important to be clearer with ESL students. This approach differs from NES student feedback, since English 150 instructors are encouraged to mark one or two repeated mistakes and have the student actively take part in his or her learning by finding the rest of the errors. More markings, however, may help the ESL student see the trends more readily than their NES peers. Although teachers should focus on “big picture” ideas, ESL students are usually more willing to receive more feedback than L1 students because ESL students tend to take a much longer time actually writing their papers. Ekstein reiterates the point that conferencing with ESL students should be done differently than with mainstream students, especially considering that one-on-one conferences may be rare in international students’ home countries. Depending on where students are from, they may be quiet during the conference or write down everything the teacher says (even if it does not make sense). This can make the teacher think that the conference was successful, although many times this is not the case (Ekstein). Ekstein suggests that “the best thing for a conference is to focus on areas of higher order concerns: thesis, topic sentences, idea generation, general organization, etc. Grammar should also be discussed as students bring it up. It should not be ignored. Negotiation between teacher and student is important, just as in L1 conferencing, but status inequities should be understood and respected.”


Perhaps the best way to help ESL students in writing at the university level is to strongly encourage them to take ELang 105; yet because many English 150 classes still see ESL students, more training or supplemental materials might help those who encounter international students in their classrooms. The main ways to help L2 students are to understand cultural differences and difficulties that the students may face in the classroom and then make sure that cultural sensitivity is translated into meaningful classroom activities, conferencing, teacher feedback, and the students’ relationships with each other. The English Department might consider screening ESL students that arrive in their classes in the future to ensure that they are aware of ELang 105 by the add/drop date. Until then, however, teachers can be more prepared to help them, and by so doing, the entire class can benefit. Matsuda and Silva consider an integrated NES/ESL approach as a way to help students not only see each other like “complementary resources,” as mentioned before, but also confront cultural differences. In this sense, students must foreground difference and explore “the ground rules for communication across lines of difference and hierarchy that go beyond politeness but maintain mutual respect . . . it can create a shared discourse community” (249). In our English 150 discussions of discourse communities, diverse audiences, and alternative opinions, the integrated approach lends itself to the curriculum better than we might realize.



Works Cited

Coxhead, A., and P. Byrd. “Preparing Writing Teachers to Teach the Vocabulary and Grammar of Academic Prose.” Journal of Second Language Writing 16.3 (2007): 129–47. Print.

Ekstein, Grant. “A Few Questions Regarding Elang 105.” Message to author. 15 Dec. 2009. E- mail.

Ewert, Doreen E. “Investigating Teacher Talk.” Journal of Second Language Writing 18.4 (2009): 251–69. Print.

Ferris, D. “Preparing Teachers to Respond to Student Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 16.3 (2007): 165–93. Print.

Lamm, Tamara Burton. “Curriculum Development of Elang 105: A GE First-Year Academic Literacy Course for International Students.” MA thesis Brigham Young U, 2005. Print.

Matsuda, Paul Kei, and Tony Silva. “Cross-Cultural Composition: Mediated Integration of U.S. and International Students.” Composition Studies 27.1 (1999): 15–30. Print. Rpt. in Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Paul Kei Matsuda et al. Boston: Bedford, 2006. 246–59. Print.

McMurry, Alison. “A Few Questions Regarding Elang 105.” Message to author. 14 Dec. 2009. E- mail.

Ramanathan, Vai, and Dwight Atkinson. “Individualism, Academic Writing, and ESL Writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 8.1 (1999): 45–75. Print.

Reid, Joy. “̳‘Eye’ Learners and ‘Ear’ Learners: Identifying the Language Needs of International Student and U.S. Resident Writers.” Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Paul Kei Matsuda et al. Boston: Bedford, 2006. 76–102. Print.

Reid, Joy, and Barbara Kroll. “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students.” Journal of Second Language Writing 4.1 (1995): 17–41. Print.

Rubin, Donald L., and Melanie Williams-James. “The Impact of Writer Nationality on Mainstream Teachers’ Judgments of Composition Quality.” Journal of Second Language Writing 6.21(1997): 139–53. Print.