College Level Writing – A Challenge for ESL Students

Posted on February 28, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

“Writing may be by far the single academic skill most closely associated with college sucesss” (“Towards a More Comprehensive Conception of College Readiness”, David Conley, © 2007)

I asked our ELL (English Language Learners) students why their parents brought them to the United States. Almost every one of them said to get a college education and career that will lead to a high paying job.  However, acquiring college-ready English is not a trivial pursuit, even for the student literate in their native tongue and most of our students arrive here after the 8th grade which makes learning English all the more difficult.

Since Question 2 passed in 2000, ELL students are mainstreamed much more quickly into normal classes with native English speakers. Most of the students we see at Salem CyberSpace are mainstreamed in year 2 or 3 after arriving in the United States.  For younger students, this certainly makes sense and perhaps even for high school students because the opportunity to learn side-by-side with native English speakers will, I believe, help accelerate their English learning.  However, academic research will tell us that it takes 5 years on average to learn English well enough to understand and write abstract thoughts and it is also known that writing is the last skill one acquires.

Accommodations can be, and oftentimes are, made in the classroom for the ELL students. Sometimes they are given shorter assignments (let’s say a 2 page paper instead of the 5 page paper the rest of the class gets).  In giving accommodations, teachers need to balance the need to get these ELL students college ready with giving them assignments out of their reach resulting not only in bad grades, but low morale and academic despair.

As a result, I see ELL students getting good grades on papers that are absolutely atrocious and well below grade. They are poorly organized and developed as well as use poor grammar and word choice. However, these papers often show improvement, even significant improvement, over prior papers for that individual.

So what do you do?  Grade them on the same scale as their peer group of native speakers or grade them on individual improvement.  If you do the former, these students will never pass English or History. Do the latter and they will never get to the point of being college or job ready.

(Note:I should point out that while writing is a particular challenge for ELL students, there are way too many native English speakers heading off to college without the research and writing skills to write a thoughtful, well-organized research or opinion paper.  Unless students are in Honors or AP English/History classes, too many students exit high school with barely enough skill to write a 2 -3 page, standard, double-spaced five paragraph essay.)

It is difficult for schools to allocate the necessary time to work with students to develop writing skills.  First of all, reading, and commenting on papers is very time intensive. In order to be helpful to the student, you need to comment on all aspects of the paper in a thoughtful way to provide important feedback to each student. I remember my son coming home from school with a grade on a paper.  There were a few edits, a few questions, but essentially nothing to help him understand how to improve his writing. Secondly, schools need to allocate time to address state testing requirements that emphasize reading comprehension and vocabulary more than writing.

There is no easy answer to this. Schools could provide writing interventions in high school in the same way they provide special reading teachers. Given financial constraints, schools could also partner with after-school programs, such as Salem CyberSpace to provide ELL students with Intensive and on-going Writing Workshops for which students would get some school credit. Salem CyberSpace offered a one-week writing workshop but we quickly learned that you can barely scrape the surface in making up the deficiencies we found in writing.

Most educators would agree that more needs to be done in teaching writing. Clearly the writing frameworks to graduate from high school are way off the mark from the skills needed to be college ready — ask any Comp I teacher in our colleges.