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Minorities and the Writing Classroom

4 replies, 5 voices Last updated by Francesco Levato 9 years, 7 months ago
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    Pedro Esteban Ponce


    I recently observed one of my colleagues make inaccurate assumptions about the language skills of an ESL student. My colleague thought the student’s English was weak, but I disagreed. In mulling over this situation, I began to wonder if U.S. minorities and/or students from abroad encounter problems in writing classrooms distinct to these groups. If so, how frequently? Has there been research done about this, or about best practices, particularly for first-year students from underrepresented groups? I thought I would put this out there for other members of this forum. Any advice would be greatly appreciated–feel free to respond to my e-mail address–pponce@stlawu.edu.


    Pedro Ponce


    Shanda H. Easterday

    Hi Pedro,  I often encounter minorities in my classrooms, and, because they are online classes, I sometimes feel handicapped when I respond to them.  They cannot see my smile or the twinkle in my eye as I try to reassure them that their command of English is excellent but spelling, grammar, language usage and sentence structure problems are getting in their way in writing. Another issue is that a student’s writing style may not “match” the style the professor is looking for.  Some cultures are quite verbose in language usage but college writing often wants “just the facts” and fairly concisely.


    Pamela Herron

    Hello Pedro,

    My university is right on the Texas/Mexican border so the overwhelming majority of our students learned Spanish first and English is their second language. We also have a large number of Mexican nationals who attend along with students from other foreign countries. My experience is that our weakest students are the ones who have come through the local bi-lingual elementary/secondary education program. Their spoken English is usually stronger than their written English. Many of them must take remedial classes to reach a level to be successful and I frequently send them to our Writing Center for assistance the saddest thing is that the students who are least prepared are mostly Education majors who plan to teach bi-lingual education and so the cycle continues. On the other hand, I find stronger English writing and reading abilities from the foreign students including those from Mexico, but htey may be shy about their speaking abilities. My theory is that they had a more rigorous education as children and thoroughly acquired fluency in their native language. In our area, at elementary and secondary level our students (excepting those in the dual-language program which is more rigorous) don’t really acquire full fluency in either their native language or the target language English. The problem is too many Texas teachers (at least in El Paso) teach fully in Spanish without properly scaffolding and introducing English. I have seen students graduate from high school and still not be able to write a paragraph without errors. I would be happy to talk with you more outside this forum if you are curious about our situation here on the border. Feel free to message me directly if you like.


    Erin Garner

    The sociolinguists have produced a good amount of work on this subject.  I recommend Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson’s Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools (2011) as a good reference and a good start.  As a grad student and a tutor, I have come across similar situations with ESL and African American students who do not speak or write in standard American English or academic-speak.  I’d like to know more about this subject. Please post additional resources as you continue your research, Pedro.


    Francesco Levato

    Hi Pedro,
    Below is an article that might be of interest:

    The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued

    Contesting the monolingualist assumptions in composition, this article identifies textual and pedagogical spaces for World Englishes in academic writing. It presents code meshing as a strategy for merging local varieties with Standard Written English in a move toward gradually pluralizing academic writing and developing multilingual competence for transnational relationships.


    I find it productive to view this from a descriptive linguistic standpoint, that language is born from and evolves through complex social interactions, as such the structure of language is constantly in flux. Descriptive linguistics seeks to analyze, understand, and describe language as it is used, not how it “should” be used; a concept fraught with socio-political implications. The prescriptive view of grammar implied in Standard Written English not only fixes language use in the disciplinary structures of the dominant culture, it casts students from differing cultures as other. My concern in the composition classroom is that this othering, via rigid adherence to concepts of Standard Written English, has the potential to shut down a student’s ability, or willingness, to critically engage with the subject matter, as they might become too concerned with conforming to a specific concept of grammar, rather than with deeper considerations of their thesis. The challenge for me is in finding a balance between a corrective approach, and allowing the student as much freedom as possible to engage critically.

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