The following post is by Norah Fahim, who is a Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.
In light of the recently updated CCCC Statement on Preparing Teachers of College Writing, there is an ever pressing call for action to provide graduate teaching assistants (TAs) with multiple professional development opportunities to aid student learning and success, specifically when “working with diverse populations such as non-native speakers of English (L2 writers), students with special learning needs, non-traditional students, and at risk student populations.” While the increase in international and domestic multilingual student enrollment in US academic institutions is now familiar to many compositionists and Second Language Writing scholar-teachers, one question that unites our responsibilities is
How can First Year Composition programs, specifically those working with TAs specializing in various subfields in English Studies, provide more relevant professional development to help address the needs of an increasingly multilingual student population in mainstream composition courses?
Given recent changes in student demographics, this question is especially pertinent when FYC TAs (like many writing instructors) are encountering a considerable demand on their time, and a heightened sense of uncertainty regarding the extent of their professional responsibilities when giving written feedback and meeting with students during office hours.
As such, this post presents a programmatic initiative taken by the University of Washington‘s (UW) Expository Writing Program (EWP) as a response to these increasing sentiments of professional uncertainty expressed by TAs. Given the scope of this post, I will showcase some the recommended feedback strategies for students’ writing as presented in the “Statement on Supporting Multilingual Language Learners.” This statement aims to “help empower students—multilingual learners and native speakers alike—to become self-editors of their own work and to research their grammar errors as a means to learn through self-correction.” A link is provided for access to the complete policy statement for the interest of other institutions.
The UW, similar to numerous academic institutions across the USA, witnessed a noticeable increase in international student enrollment, amounting to 17.6% of the total number of newly enrolled undergraduates in 2014; Holistically, the total number of international student enrollments, including that of graduate students, had tripled since 2008 (a 245% increase). Other US academic institutions may relate to these changes in demographics and the accompanying concerns expressed by TAs regarding the recommended amount of written feedback: this can especially be the case when TAs have limited experience working with L2 writers.
The creation of the Statement on Supporting Multilingual Language Learners was a direct result of cross-disciplinary collaboration between graduate TAs, Faculty and WPAs with various specializations such as Language & Rhetoric, TESOL and Literature and Culture in the Department of English at the UW. All parties involved were united in their drive to clarify instructor responsibilities while fostering multilingual student success through normalizing students’ needs. A key element in these discussions was asking what kind of feedback best served the needs of not only international L2 students, but also the often less identifiable domestic multilingual L2 students. Thus a considerable number of suggested practices were based in SLW methodology: it is worth noting that all students, regardless of their language background, still require self-editing strategies that help with higher-order concerns of content, as well as lower-order concerns typically described as “grammar” issues.
Many instructors, whether novice or experienced, would likely agree that an academic quarter or even semester is not a sufficient amount of time for L2 writers to become their own “self editors,” as also indicated by L2 research. While we all wish we had more time to work with our students, it is more manageable to have a set of suggested strategies. Students can be encouraged to take ownership of “tools that help with using grammar strategically, intentionally, and persuasively in various situations,” while having the time to focus on higher-order concerns.” Similar to “Developing Strategies” in “Activating Learning,” instructors need to introduce students to the range of self-editing strategies and campus resources available to them, as well as offer a consistent form of error feedback to help students take charge of their learning progress.
The following sections offer strategies presented in the Statement on Supporting Multilingual Language Learners:
- L2 writers can become their own self-editors by developing important writing and reading strategies and skills.
- The support of feedback from composition instructors, writing centers and peers, and access to effective resources (such as handbooks) related to grammar, usage, and style can enhance students’ ability to take ownership of their final redrafting process, and can help with future classes.
On Self Editing
- Studies have shown that students are able to self-edit their work when instructors circle or mark a check next to “grammar” errors, which has proven to be as effective as when instructors correct.
- Cueing students to the presence of an error (without fixing the error or marking what type of error it is) and ensuring that they are aware of the available resources is sufficient for self-editing.
- If errors prove overwhelming to reading comprehension, an instructor should invite the student to have a conversation with him or her or a Multilingual Learner consultant in addition to a range of other resources. While these resources vary across institutions, they are crucial in helping TAs feel supported in their desire to better serve the needs of their students.
- First Pathway: Revision Throughout—Fewer Assignments, Multiple Drafts of Each. This pathway allows students the opportunity to work with revision throughout the quarter, producing multiple drafts of each shorter and/or major assignment, with grammar feedback on later drafts. In this approach, instructors focus on higher order concerns in early drafts before prioritizing and selectively marking errors on later drafts, which students then edit during the portfolio sequence. This can be a good option for instructors who have a high percentage of students struggling with sentence structure issues, as it provides students with a head start on revising for their portfolios.
- Second Pathway: “Higher Order” Feedback-Focused, Defer Grammar Cueing for Portfolio. This pathway allows for reading through error until the portfolio sequence of the course. In this approach, instructors focus mainly on higher order concerns throughout the first two sequences before attending to grammar concerns during the portfolio sequence. As such, this option requires that instructors provide the full two weeks allotted for the portfolio sequence. Note that even if you choose this pathway, you may work on a few shared grammar patterns among your students throughout the quarter, and help individual students target their most pressing issues early on.
While FYC programs learn more about their student populations, listening to the needs of TAs, who are often the backbone of the teaching workforce in FYC courses, can be a promising start for incremental change in department policies. As a continuation of such communication with TAs, we learned that novice TAs who worked with the Statement were finding that feedback practices based in SLW research also offer productive outcomes for all students, regardless of their language and cultural backgrounds. Such genuine conversations between WPAs and TAs can allow for cross-disciplinary collaboration that results in sustainable teaching practices that benefit both our students and instructors.
We just need to remember to listen to each other first.