ESL Literacy: Live by the Form, Die by the Form

Heide Spruck Wrigley

Good Morning,

First please let me make it clear that I am the only person on this panel who is not actively involved at this time in the teaching in writing (although I have both taken ESL writing classes as a student and taught writing classes in the past; I don't remember which was scarier). I stand here illustrating the maxim that "those who can do, those who can't teach and those who can't teach do staff development". So the thoughts I share are based on visiting programs, observing classrooms, working with teachers, and interviewing students, and NOT on spending every Sunday night reading what learners wrote the week before with Mike Wallace on TV grilling some poor soul in the background.

Even from the outside looking in, it is clear to me that teaching writing is becoming increasingly challenging, as new mandates such as outcome-based reporting and state-wide initiative such as Work-First are taking hold. Since progress in writing is hard to quantify and "creative self-expression" is seldom seen as a standard to strive for in work force preparation, we are likely to see, at the beginning levels of ESL in particular, an increased emphasis on "document literacy". And since ESL programs at the lower levels allot relatively little time to writing (beyond asking students to copy things from the board or practice sentence structures as part of homework assignments), many of us worry that even less time will be spent on helping learners develop "prose literacy" (generally defined as 'coherent and cohesive texts'), particularly writing that focuses on self-expression and the sharing of ideas that encourages learners to make loud and clear what exists in their minds and gives voice to their ideas.

But these new initiatives aren't solely to blame for our reluctance to involve learners in writing that is more than "organizational literacy", designed to manage information. A lack of emphasis on prose writing is evident in other types of ESL classes as well, particularly in areas where competency-based or "life skills" curricula are the officially sanctioned approaches. From beginning to intermediate levels (where most of the learners are), "life skills writing" tends to start and stop with filling out forms and applications, writing lists, and taking phone messages on a preprinted "while you were out" slip. I am not saying acquiring these skills are not worthwhile. Knowing how frustrating and intimidating forms are to many adult learners, I am the first to admit that forms are a fact of life in modern society, and we would be remiss if we were not help students find ways of negotiating through them. But is it really necessary to present students with the same kinds of application form day after day so that the properly completed form takes on a life of its own as a mark of great progress? In my mind, what intimidates us (and our students) the most about forms isn't so much the lines and boxes that need to be filled out, but rather the faceless and often vengeful bureacracy that lies behind the form. In that sense, the form becomes the gatekeeper that facilitates or limits access to such goods and services as green cards for one's relatives, childcare vouchers and food stamps, jobs that pay a living wage, technical training and higher education, and entry into public school for our children. Instead of having our students practice form filling until they can give address, phone number and social security number in their sleep, might we not spend some time talking about what the access points are that they are trying to get beyond and then treat forms as one way of negotiating the system, along with strategies such as asking others for help, finding out what translators are available, or sharing tips and information with others who have been in similar circumstances.

But back to writing. There is a second concern I have about the overemphasis on forms. I often see that the strong focus on document literacy limits rather than expands experience with writing and the confidence that comes with seeing your ideas written down. As we all know, form filling is most often taught as a mode of writing in which factors such as voice, audience, coherence, or focus don't come into play. Instead, the efforts of the writer are taken up remembering details such as address and social security number, determining which answer goes into which slot, and figuring out whether it is Mexico, or Canada or the United States where the month comes before the day or the day before the month and whether or not the form makers expect you to leave a blank slot after the area code and the phone number and what to do when you realized that you guessed wrong. In the end, the ne plus ultra becomes correct spelling, legible hand writing and staying within the predetermined lines and boxes. It is the kind of writing where perfection is expected and is also, sadly, I think, achievable, although certainly not on the first round. Sadly for those who are (or could be) great and imaginative story tellers, there are no opportunities to shine beyond the basics. We just don't hear "I tell you, the way you filled out that application, it took my breath away".

"What about language experience ?", you might ask; that's prose literacy. That should be evidence that quite a bit of narrative writing takes place at the lower levels. Yes and no. In visiting programs and observing classrooms, I am heartened to see the learner-generated stories, poems, and autobiographies that balance out the ubiquitous forms. They offer a refreshing contrast to the "copy from the board" or "fill in the blanks" type of writing that inexperienced teachers sometimes limit themselves to. When teachers and learners take the time to develop, discuss, and share these stories, engagement with writing increases and rich learning can result from spending time thinking about what to say and ways of saying it in a new language.

Unfortunately, they way we use language experience stories in our classes, doesn't always take advantage of these rich learning opportunities. In many cases, a language experience story, even if published as a part of a collection of learner writings, constitutes both a first and last draft (in part, because students often resisist working on a story that in their minds is "finished", meaning they wrote the last word and put a period after it). In using language experience, we have a tendency to stop too soon, to give the impression that any writing if done by a learner is in and of itself worth showcasing and publishing. I think we cheat students by not setting up the kind of writing environment that encourages them to think further about what they want to say, to talk about their story with others, to experiment with language. Non-native speakers, especially often feel that they only have one way of staying things and are delighted to discover new words and new expressions that give life to their ideas.

At the risk of being misunderstood, in my view, what's missing in much of the early learner stories, written while learners are still developing their language skills is a chance for students to experience what a good story can be like, even if written in simple and imperfect English, a standard, if you will. Not an external standard, and certainly not an "objective one", but a standard nevertheless that lets us see that some stories are more powerful than others; that finding just the right word and thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it can be exhilarating experiences for both the writer and the reader. We shouldn't cheat students out of the joy that comes from reading a story well told or the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from telling it.

Let me clarify. I am not suggesting that we should insist on endless re-writes and editing. Of course our students are reluctant to rewrite when they have little basis for comparison and therefore see their writing as "good enough" once the last words appear on paper. I am proposing instead that we share what others have written with our students and help them discover what makes personal writing powerful. We all know that even beginning ESL learners can read or listen to several simple poems, songs and stories and decide which account was their favorite (and why), which story resonated in their hearts, which made their blood chill, and which stories grabbed them by the throat (the story that Hillary Stern offers here is an example, as are the "escape stories" written by Susan Gaer's students and available on her webpage and the personal narratives in Voices Magazine; for students who have lived in the United States for a number of years, but are still struggling with literacy, poems written by Langston Hughes or ?? Baca and read aloud can showcase the power of the written word as spoken. The video series: the United States of Poetry can add further examples. In some cases, examining early drafts of learner-generated stories that have made it into print can help students see how writers struggle with saying what they want to say in a way that is compelling and how discovering the word or phrase that says just what you want to say is worth the struggle it takes to find it. In exploring and comparing stories written by others (not from the same class), students may also appreciate the chance to talk about which stories left them cold (and why), which sounded flat and which were just plain boring and confusing.

Let me bring things back to "outcomes" and assessment, for a minute. If we encourage learners to share their writings by responding to similar topics across levels, programs, districts and even countries, we can have at our fingertips not only a rich array readings to be enjoyed, read and talked, but also a pool of writing examples that can be used for assessment. These examples can turn into samples that illustrate what real learners with varying levels of proficiency in English, different experiences with literacy, and yes, different degrees of talent do and can do with language and print. Such a pool of writings can help learners discover what they and others consider "good writing" and demonstrate that good writing touches us and is not necessarily dependent on proficiency level (a few pieces of atrocious writing penned by native speakers whose words are impeccably spelled and whose sentences are grammatically correct should illustrate that point). It would also allow us to draw on examples of learner writings to show what writings looks like, aiding not only in progress assessment, but in staff development as well.

A Word About Portfolios

As portfolios are taking hold as a way of assessing learner progress across classrooms and across levels, a number of programs are well on their way to developing standards for narrative writing. Learning portfolios allow students to choose a story that they might want to polish before it is show cased and shared with others. Such portfolios allow even beginning ESL students to move through the writing process, even in cases where learners may be able to attend only irregularly, since they can come back and work on their earlier writings at any time.

When portfolios become part of an assessment process, individual writings can serve as "benchmarks" or anchors, illustrating what we might expect to see at various levels of language and literacy development. The characteristics of these writings can be captured as "rubrics" that explain the ways in which an "ordinary" piece of writing might differ from an "outstanding" one. Inviting students to review current rubrics and giving them a chance to add criteria of their own will allow them to discover the standards the academic community uses to judge writing efforts.

I know that there are many who find the mere idea of a person's writing being judged by others offensive. Who is to say that one person's story is better than another or that there are certain criteria that need to be met for a piece of writing to "pass". As Janet points out, the mere idea of teaching writing to everyone might be ludicrous, given all the many "necessary skills" that one should acquire and all the joyful and worthwhile acts one could be engaged in when not locked into hand-to-hand combat with words on paper. Perhaps we must come to some kind of accommodation with our learners, our programs and our funders not only on assessment, but also on the role that writing should play in our program, and the kind of writing we want to emphasize. In the end, it might all depend on the passion for the printed word we can engender in our learners and in ourselves.

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