Circular writing and other horrors: Why your students may be better writers than you think

stairs-689625_640I was recently tasked with reviewing some writing task responses by 4th and 5th grade English learners. The responses had already been coded by some of my team members for various features – run-on sentences and fragments, capitalization and punctuation, misspellings, and so on – and I was comparing the coding for accuracy. One student had written a strange chunk of language in the middle of the response, and neither coder quite knew how to treat it. Was it a fragment? A capitalization error? I had the niggling suspicion that the chunk may have been taken from the task prompt, and in fact it was. Another student began every sentence with “I you.” “I you take…” “I you look at…” The coders both noted the strangeness of this construction, but neither knew how to classify the error. I had a lightbulb moment though: The student was writing as though s/he were speaking, that is, with an accent, and intended to say “If you.” In speech, this error would go largely unnoticed, but in writing, it completely inhibited meaning.

I and my colleagues may have also coded occurrences as erroneous that in fact, may not be errors. I just read Douglas Magrath’s posts on the influence of L1 culture and cultural patterns in ELL writing. He writes about how rhetoric and structure can greatly differ from one language to another. As teachers (and perhaps, assessment scorers, or members of entrance or exit committees), it’s possible that we aren’t giving students credit where it’s due when it comes to writing. For example, some of the responses I was reviewing had independent clauses strung together with “and.” Sometimes, the clauses were punctuated, other times, they weren’t. It’s hard to code an entire response of “and, and, and, and,” because you tend to ignore the good writing in between the conjunctions, and get hung up on the fact that sentences aren’t well-defined. Come to find out from Magrath, that connecting ideas and sentences with “and” is a feature of native Arabic writers (That’s just one, glossed-over gem that I took from the many good pieces information in his posts). The data I’m working with doesn’t capture the L1 of students, and even if it did, there would be no way to know the extent that these 4th and 5th graders are drawing from cultural resources, but it almost doesn’t matter. Simply by mentally storing this tendency of Arabic writing practice, it may save me from throwing my hands into the air next time I encounter a weird writing response, and make me more sympathetic to the nonnative writers that produced it.Chinese rhetoric saves the thesis for the end in order to maintain reader attention, rather than giving away the good part. Many languages have a more poetic, flowery style compared to English. Indian English allows stative verbs to be used in the present-progressive tense (e.g., “I am being sad today,” “I am smelling your wonderful perfume.”) While our job as teachers is to expose students to [American? UK? Australian?] English writing genres and styles, and equip them with the tools to produce culturally-acceptable writing, it would be negligent to ignore the deep influence of L1 on every aspect of self-expression, writing included.

It is also important to help students like my friend of the “I you” fame above, in ensuring that students practice writing the words they produce in speech, too. English spelling is tricky, but that’s even greater reason to ensure students recognize and write new words as they learn them (and it’s a key point that we highlight about writing in our curriculum).

Equipping ourselves with knowledge of other cultural writing styles is fodder for good teaching, too. When we, ourselves, can articulate differences between English and various other languages, our students develop metalinguistic knowledge and self-awareness as they practice linguistic shifts, whether by language, genre, domain, or register. If anything, comparative linguistics blows students’ minds: “In English, we have prepositions, but in Japanese and others, there are POST-positions! Here’s an idea of how those work. Minori, have you noticed this difference as you’ve learned English?” Drawing on your students as experts in their language is also huge for community-building, and for making culture relevant to all of your students.What kind of trends have you noticed among your young writers? Do certain native speakers bring certain habits into their writing?

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