ELL Writing Sample Analysis
Instruction of students who are learning English as a second language (ELL) requires a distinct method of practice, lesson focus on the targeting of strengths and weaknesses. In compositional education for ELL students, this is particularly so. The account presented here describes briefly the role of the ELL instructor before proceeding to a practical demonstration of this role. Reviewing a writing sample by an ELL student called “Response to ‘The Unwelcome Neighbor,” the account here provides constructive criticism in the areas of grammar, syntax and composition. Hereafter, the account provides suggestions for corrective educational methods, heeding the advice provided by ELL instructional professional Linda Christensen (2003), whose article suggests minilessons and the active participation of students in expressing constructive writing rules.
The English language is a difficult one to master, even for the native speaker. Its many rules and exceptions comprise a language that, in conversation and in writing, can be complex. To the student for whom English is a second language — also known as ELL students — speaking, reading and compositional writing in the American academic setting can be extremely daunting. Learning English, like any skill, improves with practice. For the ELL student, English mastery is an achievable goal, even though the learning process may be fraught with frustration. Therefore, it incumbent upon the instructor to approach students with patience and clarity. Likewise, it is necessary to select corrective and remediational methods that seize on the specific deficits evident in each individual student’s orientation toward the language. Here, we examine the writing sample produced by an ELL student who have a firm grasp on the language but also has many apparent writing deficits resultant from learning needs in a number of grammatical, syntactic and compositional areas. The discussion will dissect the writing sample by reflecting on its local strengths and weaknesses and on its global strengths and weaknesses in order to devise a set of recommendations for instructional and corrective focus.
Before proceeding to this part of the discussion, it is appropriate to reflect briefly on the field of ELL instruction. The overarching goal of the ELL instructor is to help non-native speakers to draw equivalency in meaning between terms and ideas originating from two different languages. With regard to objects, ideas and principles, the symbols which constitute our words are specific to and different within the context of each language, even when the objects, ideas and principles are universally the same in meaning. For a student of a language which is foreign to her, comprehensive instruction is an absolutely essential tool for properly applying linguistic meanings to new words. Our research brings to the forefront such input strategies as the 1+1 approach. Here, the instructor starts first by building discussion and lesson on that which the student already knows (1). In this instance, it will be anticipated that students have built a very basic and simple framework for linguistic exchange. In each lesson context, the instructor will subsequently add a small amount of new or unknown input (+1). By introducing this input through a framework of already learned or understood terms, the instructor can improve the chances of comprehension with new information.
In defining suitable relationships between known and unknown input, it is important for the instructor to effectively utilize terms which attribute equivalence to source and target languages. Therefore, the teacher must first seek to achieve descriptive adequacy. According to linguistic expert James Manley, it can be said that a translated term is adequately descriptive if “it is comprehensible and directs our attention to the object under discussion.” (Manley, 281) As we proceed to examine the writing sample provided by the ELL student, this is important as it helps to put the sample’s many shortcomings into a more constructive context.
Strengths and weaknesses of the ELL’s grammar and syntax (local[sentence] level):
This is important because it can provide a more comfortable setting in which the student can flourish. So remarks Christensen, who tells that “we start by telling them what they’re doing right. Too many students are scarred by teachers’ pens in the margins yelling, ‘You’re wrong. Wrong again. Ten points off for that comma splice. Where is the past tense?’ Language arts teachers become accustomed to looking for errors as if we will be rewarded in some English teacher heaven for finding the most.” (Christensen, 1)
This can cause the student to fear writing, Christensen warns. Therefore, at reviewing the mistake-riddled work by the ELL student here, we can at least indicate that it achieves 90% descriptive accuracy. The sentence structure in particular, though impacted by errors, were sufficient to convey meaning. A direct retelling of the initial story is largely accomplished. Sentences such as “in conclusion ‘Unwelcome Neighbor’ by Santhini Govindan is an interesting story” reveal a basic and fundamental understanding of English syntax. Subject and verb agreement are accurate and the sentence’s descriptive intent is achieved.
This constitutes a block upon which to build as we attempt to point out some of the most pressing errors in the sample Again we refer to Christensen, who remarks that “in her book Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy wrote, ‘The teacher must try to decipher the individual student’s code, examining samples of his writing as a scientist might, searching for patterns or explanations, listening to what the student says about punctuation, and creating situations in the classroom that encourage all students to talk openly about what they don’t understand.” (Christensen, 2) Thus, in the case of the writing sample before us, it is appropriate to reflect on a number of the grammar and syntax errors which appear to suggest a pattern of deficient understanding. This way, we can hope to isolate specific stumbling blocks to achieving a more coherent ability to use the written medium.
There are a number of recurrent errors that do jump off the page as one proceeds though the response essay to “The Unwelcome Neighbor” by Santhini Govindan. As the ELL writer attempts to relay a summary of the story, she clearly struggles with the issue of subject-verb agreement. Often, this is one of the hardest areas of ELL writing and expression to grasp and master due to variations in tense and the necessary alteration of seemingly small details such as the use of or non-use of an’s at the end of a word denoting plurality or singularity.
Examples of this error in the student’s work are immediately apparent. In the introductory paragraph to the essay, the student writes “at the end of the story, Father Crow got plan from the Old Fox Wise and the plan work.” Before addressing some of the other errors in this work that are indicative of the challenges facing the particular student, we will address the issue of subject verb agreement. Here, there is a clear difficulty in understanding the rules of past and present tense. The resolution of the proposed sentence should be that “the plan worked.” In addition to failing to assign the proper tense, the student has neglected to adapt the verb to any tense at all. This suggests not just an uncertainty in terms of assigning tenses, but demonstrates that the ELL student still has not yet fully grasped the necessity of verb conjugation.
This is a perfectly common issue for students who are attempting to enter into a target language but have carried over some rules from their language of origin. Looking through her work, for instance, we can see that the student has run afoul of the uniquely English positioning of noun modifiers such as adjectives before nouns rather than after as in many Romantic languages. Clearly, with phrases such as ‘snake black’ and ‘old fox wise,’ the student is appealing to familiar rules rather than those upon which compositional English is predicated. So observes Christensen with respect to the issue of verb tenses. The author remarks of recurrent writing missteps that “sometimes the ‘errors’ are part of a student’s home language. In that case, the ‘correction’ process needs to make it clear that the student isn’t ‘wrong,’ but that each language has its own way of making plurals or using verb tenses. Students need to explicitly learn the differences between their home language and Standard English.” (Christensen, 2-3) This is an idea to which we will return in “Suggestions” section. True to Christensens observation regarding such habits, this is a concern that emerges throughout our student’s essay, such as where the student writes, “A snake black was moved into a hole of the banyan tree.” With respect to the particular pattern under discussion here, this error shows the complexity of subject-verb agreement in the English language, especially where ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘are’ and ‘to be’ are concerned. Here, where the writer intended to state that the snake “had moved into a hole of the banyan tree,” it is evident that there was some confusion on how to express the past-participle.
This points to a pattern that becomes problematic throughout the course of the essay, with tense changes creating a disjointed report throughout. The student jumps from one tense to another in the space of two sentences, revealing a discussion which is largely uncertain of its own chronology. Naturally, this makes the work a very unclear experience for the reader such as in the pair of sentences in the second paragraph, which declare that “A few days later ‘This alarms the Crows.’ Father Crows discussed the matter with the other animals that live in the banyan tree.” Again, only with respect to tense changes, the pattern of error in this sentence jumps from present tense (alarms), to past tense (discussed) and then back to present (live). These examples all come from the first few sentences of the essay, and are consistently observable throughout, indicating that verb conjugation is an area of particular need for this student where written expression in concerned.
Other issues that are often encountered by ELL students will concern the proper or improper use of definite and indefinite articles. The decision of when to use ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ may be obscured in the early process of understanding and composing in the English language. In addition to the seemingly negligible nature of these omnipresent words, there is a conceptual challenge in knowing whether the knowledge available to the reader justifies the use of a definite article.
In this essay, for example, the second sentence notes that “at the beginning of the story Father Crow and Mother Crow were worried that the babies would be eaten by the snake. Here, the reader is learning for the first time that the main characters in the story have babies. However, the writer has described this as though we have already been told about ‘the babies.’ Here, it would have been more appropriate to prescribe a pronoun such as ‘their’ babies, rather than to use the definite article. The same is true of the second sentence in the second paragraph, which refers to “the banyan tree” without previously recognizing that the Crows live in this particular tree.
Beyond some of these central grammatical issues, syntax is also an issue of primary concern for the student, who at times struggles to clearly expresses complex narrative aspects of the story. The description of the ‘plan’ hatched between Father Crow and the old wise fox is especially difficult to understand. The student reports that “Father crow had angry the servants necklace. The Crows did exactly as he told them too do. Father Crow flew to get that necklace because wanted to put it in the snake hole. Father Crow give Mother Crow the necklace. The servant saw the Crow drop the necklace in the snake hole.” Here, the combination of jumbled tenses (‘had’, ‘told’, ‘give’), misapplied words (‘angry’, ‘too’) and incorrectly applied definite articles (‘the servants necklace’) produce a garbled presentation of the plan that takes some thoughtful deciphering even for one with extensive knowledge and understanding of the English language.
Evaluation of ELL’s organization and rhetorical structure (global [essay] level):
This begins to point to the problematic organizational structure of the essay, which runs together sentences in sequences which often defy rational interpretation. An example of an inexplicable sequence comes early in the sample, where the student writes that “Mother Crow started to cry, because she wanted to go away with her babies, but then Father Crow said to Mother Crow that we can live her. Father Crow said ‘NO’ and promised Mother Crow that he would find away to drive away the snake. Mother Crow did not want to lay her eggs.” This sequence of sentences provided here does cause some head-scratching. In introduces a number of inconsistencies into the narrative, particularly the new information that the ‘babies’ may in fact still be ‘eggs.’ To this extent, it is not clear that the writer knows what she is describing. The contrast of Father Crow’s affirmative and negative sentiments in two succeeding sentences is somewhat of a paradox and shows that the ELL student does have difficulty organizing her thoughts into a sensible presentation.
The work also lacks any of the global elements that might make it an insightful work of literary exposition. There is no driving thesis, and therefore no argument to support. And as a basic summary of the story at its center, it does succeed in the Manley introduced term of descriptive accuracy. But it claims initially to be a ‘response’ to the story. The writer does not present it as so, and in the absence of a thesis, is forced to repeat many of the plot details as a way to fill out space. This leads to a conclusion which illogically repeats a random plot element. Here the student indicates that “Father Crow wanted to help his family get away form the snake then Father Crow want to tell the old wise fox to help them so they live happily ever after.” Here, the student attempts to sum up the whole plot narrative of the story in a single sentence. This is a compensation for the relative absence of an organizational oversight. A these statement and some clearly laid out supports may have assisted the student in finding a meaningful final sentiment.
Suggestions for correction and remediation:
In fact, this would be the area of primary focus in the corrections phase for this student. She seems largely not to connect to the material, and therefore struggles to squeeze out sufficient words simply to relay a summary of its plot. In this regard, the biggest obstacle to her effective ‘response’ essay is a failure to view the writing exercise as an opportunity to truly response. Christensen remarks in an example with a student football player with clear literacy and compositional deficiencies that when she asked him to write the way that he ‘felt,’ he was less apprehensive and more successful in his expression. She reports her unique approach with the student, telling that “instead of marking his errors, I asked questions and made comments in the margin of his paper. ‘Show me what you like about football. How do you feel when you’re on the field. Tell me about a moment in the game. Make me see the movie.'” (Christensen, 1)
The outcome in her example would be a markedly positive one, with the student channeling strong emotion in his second attempt at an essay. This would produce a building block upon which to nurture greater accuracy in expression. In the case of the sample student, it would be useful to engage her in broader discussion on the subject of her essay before attacking the subject again. It would be constructive to ask her how the story made her feel, how she responded to the orientation of individual characters, how she viewed the motives of different characters and what she thought the lesson was to be taken from the work. These might have invoked a closer personal attention to the inner-meaning of the text. This could produce a more attentive global structure with a thesis rather than a jumble of summary details.
Naturally, it is also necessary to focus on grammatical issues and syntax needs as identified above. Christensen offers a way of approaching what appears to be a mountain of grammatical shortcomings by breaking these into numbers sub-foci. She remarks that “frequently, many students in my classes make the same errors — punctuating dialogue, for example — and I can teach minilessons. In fact, when possible, I find the best way to deal with these problems is to ask students to generate the rules. They remember their rules far longer than when they read the rule and correct the errors in a punctuation exercise.” (Christensen, 2) This helps to point in a clear direction for helping to resolve the impasses evident in the work of the student particularly in question here. Clearly, one area where the student requires significant attention is verb conjugation. Likely, the student will have already had some introduction to the idea of subject-verb agreement and the conjugation of tenses. Therefore, a lesson should heed Christensen’s advice by taking a departure from the primary curricular thrust in order to reframe the discussion on verb conjugation. Here, I would work with the student in question in order to develop specific ways of framing the rules that are crucial for properly attending to this aspect of written expression.
Ultimately, though the essay in question is evidence of a large array of needs in the area of writing instruction, it is positive to note that she possesses a sense of the English language and its syntactical rules. A closer connection with the subject matter, or even the selection of subject matter which is more compelling, could help to induce a greater understanding of the rules of expressive written language.
Christensen, L. (2003). The Politics of Correction: How We Can Nurture Students In Their Writing. The Quarterly, 25(4).
Manley, J. (1988). Telling lies efficiently: terminology and the microstructure in the bilingual dictionary. in: Jensen Hyldgaard (ed.), 281-302.
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