Let’s Chat about our English as a Second Language (ESL) Students and Writing

Warning:  I’m about to climb up on top of a giant soap box. Maybe you’ll climb up with me, or maybe you won’t. But I would like to hear your experiences with what I am about to talk about if you are willing to share.

Disclosure: In Canada we have two official languages, French and English, but I am fluent in only one (I’ll let you guess which one). I have also always said that I was gifted enough talent in one language to make me forever incompetent in all other languages. I have tried to learn French but it is a struggle. My kids are in French Emersion for school and beyond about grade 3, I lost my ability to help with homework because I can’t read the instructions.  I have tried to visualize myself going to a foreign country and having to learn in a language that was not second nature for me. I have great admiration for anyone who can speak fluently in more than just English. I expect it is a great sign of intelligence. These are my biases. But I have to assess student writing ability nearly daily in my work and I’ve put a lot of thought in how I should address the writing problems of all students.

ESL students, EAL student, L2 students, whatever we are calling them these days are NOT worse writers than our domestic students. It almost feels like a big sigh of relief to get that out.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately since I started my series of research studies looking at writing self-efficacy in nursing students. The body of literature on writing ability in undergraduate students focuses mostly on generic undergraduate groups, or L2 specific groups, and it is rare for researchers to separate out their ESL students from their domestic students and make a comparison. I’m not sure if the lack of comparative studies is because researchers think the comparison is unnecessary or if it is because there may be an inherent assumption that ESL students are worse writers than our domestic students so no one bothers to actually test and see if it is true. In the writing self-efficacy research literature I’ve only come across one study (Williams & Takaku, 2011) that overtly compares these groups.

Certainly in my own teaching experiences I’ve witnessed a number of things that I find disturbing. These experiences span my entire career, and not just my teaching career but also my student life and have been witnessed at more than one institution; many instructors believe that ESL students in English language programs have poor language skills.

I’ve never considered myself an ESL instruction expert and I once considered this a deficit in my ability to teach writing. So one year, after I’d been teaching academic writing to nursing students for about 6 or 7 years, I attended a workshop geared toward understanding the needs of ESL students, in particular with regards to issues of plagiarism.  It was a wonderful workshop. I learned a lot and we had some great discussions as a group. It changed my perspective on how plagiarism should be viewed.

But I also walked away from that workshop wondering why it was labeled specific to ESL students. Everything that was discussed, I had also seen with our Canadian born students.

So in my studies, I decided to ask the question. Do self-identified ESL students have lower writing grades, lower writing self-efficacy and higher anxiety than non-ESL students? Here is what I’ve found so far, bearing in mind this is the experience of one educational institution, a college in a prairie province in Canada that has, up to this point, admitted nursing students with a minimum 60% average and tests students for language ability prior to admission for a minimum standard (Degrees of Reading Power score of 75 minimum).

And yes, I have ethical approval for this work.

Here is a table from the first set of data, that I’ve clipped from my notes about my findings. Comparisons were made between ESL and Not ESL students for paper grade for the first year course (Paper %), final writing course grade (Final %), Writing self-efficacy at three time points (WSES), an APA and grammar knowledge test (APA/G), and state and trait anxiety . The findings were so unremarkable that I didn’t even fill in all the slots on the table:

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-2-55-21-pm

Two years later I did a follow-up study with the same group. Yesterday I ran these results. The sample sizes are smaller and the means more variable as a result, but the results are again showing no difference between ESL and non ESL students on the following measures:  Paper grades for year 1, 2, 3, three clinical practice scores, GPA, the Degrees of reading power admission score, writing self-efficacy measures using two different measures, my own — which will be published in the spring — and the Post Secondary Writerly Self-Efficacy Scale, and anxiety using a visual analog scale.

In addition I ran a chi square examine ESL and year in nursing program. You see, in the follow up study, all these students were supposed to be in third year but many of them had fallen out of synch. I thought it might be worthwhile assessing if there was a difference in progression between self-identified ESL and non ESL students.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-3-38-34-pm

The numbers are small so view with caution and the second year ESL count violates the assumption of at least 5 observations per category, but it appears that there is no difference in proportions of ESL and non-ESL students who fail to progress on schedule within the program (X2 = .253, p = .71).

Do ESL students struggle with writing and language? Yes they do, but so do all the other students as well. Williams and Takaku (2011) had a similar finding — in fact, they found that over time and with help seeking as a mediator, ESL students would out perform the domestic students. Domestic born students, in qualitative research, also acknowledge difficulties understanding academic and research language. I hear complaints about difficulties with language every day in my classroom from students of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, ages, and voices.

So what does this mean for how we approach students and writing in groups of mixed ESL and Canadian born students:

  1. Many students struggle with writing. The elements of writing they struggle with and the reasons for their perceived struggle may be slightly different but they struggle, and many also approach writing anxiously and question their ability to write — some more than others, but it has nothing to do with first or second language status.
  2. Having an accent and a foreign name does not mean one is a poor writer or that that individual has low writing self-efficacy. Not having an accent and having a North American name does not mean one will write well.
  3. Treat each student who asks for help as an individual and address their individual needs and concerns.
  4. Be conscious of unfounded assumptions or biases about any particular student for any reason.

In our program before admission, every student completes a language test and has to meet a minimum standard. It is OK to acknowledge that you have trouble understanding a student’s accent. I have a colleague who is researching internationally educated nurses and those nurses acknowledge they have trouble with accents as well. It is not OK to hear an accent and assume that is a signal for a weak student and a weak writer.

Oh, and if you ever need to give an example of when statistically non-significant findings are important…..

 

 

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