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Working with ESL Students

Many of the students you meet at Pomona for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language are able, competent writers. These students may just need help understanding the unfamiliar conventions of American academic writing (i.e., how to state the point of a paper directly and early, how to shape an introduction, a paragraph, or a conclusion). Often these students are not doing as well as they would like in their writing assignments, but neither they nor their professors have recognized what the student’s true writing problems are. One year, for instance, a Greek student made a practice of introducing and concluding her history papers with florid language and literary allusions that she felt were fully appropriate in her Greek compositions, but that seemed like filler to her American professor. Often, the best approach for you to take with such students is to explain that American readers and scholars have a distinct set of expectations about the way ideas are stated and arguments are made in writing. Then you can instruct the student in the particular areas that seem to be giving him the most trouble. When you frame his writing difficulties this way—rather than as a remedial or ESL problem—the student is likely to be less anxious about his ability to produce acceptable papers.

It is also possible, however, that you may work with a student who appears to have serious trouble as a writer, including sentence-level errors. In such cases, start by identifying two or three (but no more) patterns of error that are disrupting meaning—such as verb agreement, run-ons or sentence fragments, and article errors. With ESL writers, it can be easy to mistake surface errors for deeper writing problems. Once you’ve worked together to fix some sentence-level patterns of error, you may both be able to see that the underlying thesis and structure are quite good, and that the errors simply made the sentences initially difficult to understand.

Try to avoid the term ESL during consultations. The term, unfortunately, carries a stigma for some students. And Pomona students, not surprisingly, tend to be resistant to anything that hints of remediation.

A Working List of Situations and Approaches which may be useful.