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For those of you presenting the film to faculty at your school, you may be presenting to ESL faculty, composition instructors, first-year writing graduate teaching assistants, Writing Across the Curriculum faculty, or any number of different audiences.
The questions below are meant to help you facilitate conversations after viewing the film. They draw on faculty's own classroom experiences and encourage faculty to think through the issues in terms of their own teaching. At the end of this section, there is also a short list of commonly asked questions.
You can find background discussion and reflection about many of the topics by clicking on the discussion link following the question.
Jean Kaunda, the student from Malawi, talked about her fears of writing about politics. What kinds of issues does that raise for you in your classrooms? How might you deal with that issue with your international students?
Interestingly, politics was one of the things I hadn't anticipated when starting the film. However, to my surprise, it came up repeatedly in the interviews. Some of the students were worried about writing about political issues because, like Jean, they felt that type of writing was dangerous and could get them in trouble. Others were concerned that their own true opinions on matters of politics would be so different from their instructors as to automatically get them a bad grade. For example, a student from Saudi Arabia told me about a paper in which he was asked to criticize an aspect of US international policy. Because it was a sensitive issue, the student worried he would be penalized, so he hid his real opinions and wrote a boring paper which got a mediocre grade. He told me that he hid his real ideas because his experience with Americans showed him that it was alright to criticize the US as an American but that criticism can be taken differently when it comes from an outside source. Still other students complained that they just didn't know enough about American politics to take positions or write significantly about them.
As Tony Silva points out in the film, there are good reasons for writing instructors to use politics in the classroom, but they should be sensitive that international students in their classes may be uncomfortable. If possible, faculty might consider letting students write about something similar in their own countries. In the introductory writing course at OSU, students are asked to read articles and then write about and criticize the American educational system. For international students, they are usually allowed to apply the ideas in class to their own country's systems.
What research-based issues have you noticed in international students' writing? How do you handle those issues?
Often, faculty will assume that international students will have all the same training and expectations that Americans have around research. (Not that all American students can research and cite correctly.) Sometimes, the issue with international students has to do with their lack of experience writing research papers or just their misunderstanding of professors' expectations. One of the surprises from the interviews was how few international students had written a research paper before coming to the United States. This issue came up in about ¾ of the students I interviewed. Instead of having been asked to write research papers, many said they had been asked to write mostly narrative, descriptive, or expository pieces. Jean Kaunda told me that during her entire academic career (through all her secondary education and 4 years of college), she had been asked to write one research paper. And one graduate student from Thailand (who had taught for several years at a Thai university) claimed that almost none of his students had experience writing either research or analytical papers. In a few cases, students had other interesting points to make about writing research papers. One Ghana student told me, for example, that there weren't any libraries near his village nor was there any access to the Internet.
Other students have difficulty becoming accustomed to citation because they come from cultures or educational systems where it is just fine to use sources without citation. For example, in the film, Lili Xu talks about how citation and giving credit “isn’t a big deal in China.”
Unfortunately, a lot of international students end up down at the student conduct office accused of plagiarism. This happens so much at OSU that the conduct officer has actually created a handout for faculty about culture and citation expectations.
To what extent do you think we should accept cultural preferences even though the students are writing for American classrooms?
This is all about negotiation between the teacher and student. It depends on the assignment, the instructor’s goals, the student’s goals, the rigidity of the form, and the issue at stake. For example, a student who is taking a writing intensive class in Human Development and Family Sciences and is putting together grant proposals (a typical assignment in HDFS courses at OSU) would probably get a lot less leeway than a student writing a personal reflection or even a standard research paper. That is because the audience for that particular type of writing (U.S. private and government donor agencies) have expectations the students are learning to meet.
Even in instances, however, when faculty have decided that the international student needs to write in a U.S. style for that particular assignment, they need to understand just how frustrating it can be to change one’s writing to fit a new cultural model. A brief story will illustrate this point.
When I started making this film, I had an Ecuadorian student from the department of public health visit my office. Her professor had told her that her writing was just too hard to understand. It contained too much irrelevant information and went off in digressions that seemed to have little to do with her main argument. Furthermore, the instructor was upset that the student wasn’t making her case point by point but, rather, seemed to talk around issues related to making those points. According to the instructor, the student's ideas needed to be clearer, and the links between those points needed to be made so simple that “any idiot could figure them out” (actual quote from the end comment). When I met with the student, it was true that she provided a lot more background information than I would have expected in an American essay, but the student reasoned that she had to make a connection with the reader. She said that she wanted to show some of the things that both she and the readers could agree on before starting to argue her case. When I asked her about making her points more clear (adding transitions, topic sentences, etc.), she seemed upset. She didn’t want to treat the readers like children. Being that explicit would infer to her readers that she thought they were stupid.
My first reaction, of course, was to defend my way of doing things. And, in a way, I was correct. The things that would build goodwill in Ecuador would frustrate an American reader. But then I thought about how frustrating it would be if I were studying in Ecuador and a professor told me that my writing was overly simplistic and rude. How would I respond if he or she then asked me to start making my points a little less directly and making my agenda a little less obvious? Would I know how to do that? Would I want to? Wouldn’t I have a similar reaction as the Ecuadorian student and believe my way to be proper?
How do you approach surface error in ESL student writing? Do you correct a lot, a little, none? What has worked or hasn’t worked so well for you in the past?
Obviously, sometimes marking certain errors can be a good learning experience for the student. As Jose Cedeno points out in the film, he really likes more in-depth comments that teach him something about American expectations or give him a good example of concepts he can work on (concision, for example). The flip side of this is that teachers usually mark up papers too much. As Jose goes on to say, “Sometimes there’s more red than black on the paper…I don’t know if you may cry but it’s really sad.”
I think the principle to remember here is something that I was taught in my training as an ESL teacher in Japan. My head teacher said the most important thing to remember was not to correct the students too much. The Japanese students we were teaching were usually taught with a quite formal method which focused on grammatical accuracy. In other words, students were usually graded depending on how well they did on grammar tests. Unfortunately, these classes usually have very little emphasis on actual communication, so students come in reluctant to speak or make mistakes. This is a kind of teaching, which while it is changing in some places, remains the norm for most students coming to the United States. The worst thing a teacher can do is reinforce these ideas. When teachers corrected their students speaking too much, students stopped speaking at all or communicated in short sentences they knew would be correct.
The same, of course, is true in writing. When faculty mark every error, it reinforces the idea that the most important thing for them to do is avoid errors. Unfortunately, in order to become better writers, students have to be willing to make mistakes. Marking every error makes them falsely believe that correctness is more important than ideas, rhetoric, or linguistic sophistication. It’s also true that in order to become good writers, students must have confidence.
One of the ideas mentioned in the film is that many of the errors that non-native speakers make have nothing to do with learning grammar rules, but are instead matters of advanced memorization. How do you handle this issue when working with non-native speakers? What is fair?
Once of the first questions that comes up as a result of the film is the notion of fairness. Instructors often question, and rightly so, why we should somehow grade differently for non-native speakers. They point out that we require grammatical accuracy from our native speakers and regularly grade down for grammatical errors. At first glance, these arguments seem convincing, but they are based on a false sense of the nature of language, lexis, and grammar.
I agree with instructors that they can feel free to mark down non-native speakers for the same kinds of errors they mark for native speakers. In other words, they can mark sentence fragments, misuse of punctuation, awkward sentence constructions, misuse of tense, lack of clarity, awkward sentence construction, etc. These are grammatical errors that have rules or are based on rules that can be remembered and practiced.
Where we need to be understanding and accept a certain amount of “accent” is for the kinds of errors that are lexically-based or require years of practice and memorization. These are structures and uses of language that native speakers know just from being native speakers. Some of these structures function like vocabulary. For example, certain prepositions are linked with particular verbs, nouns, and adjectives. There are no rules for those linkages; they simply function together. For example, we say we “turn in” a paper, not “turn on” a paper. Why? Shouldn’t we be able to say “turn on” a paper if we put it on the instructor’s desk? These prepositions function to give new meaning to the verbs they combine with. Just consider some of the combinations used with the verb turn: turn in (go to bed or submit), turn on (to excite or switch on), turn down (refuse or switch off), turn up (arrive unexpectedly or increase), turn over, turn back, etc. All the thousands of combinations of prepositions with other words simply have to be memorized.
Other kinds of errors have implied rules but are so complex that proper use is usually memorized rather than applied grammatically. This is the case for articles and for order of adjectives.
What’s tricky is that very often things that look like grammatical mistakes are, in fact, lexical errors. As one example of this, consider that some verbs in English take a gerund, while other verbs take an infinitive. For instance, the verb “enjoy” always takes a gerund. We say, "I enjoy skiing" or "I enjoy surfing." But we can’t use the infinitive with the word enjoy. Any native speaker immediately knows it’s a mistake to say “I enjoy to ski” or “I enjoy to surf.” The verb “want,” on the other hand, always takes the infinitive. We say “I want to ski.” If we try to stick a gerund after it, we think it sounds strange. Imagine someone saying, “Yes, I want skiing.”
Some verbs can take both the gerund and the infinitive. For example, we can say "I like to ski" and "I like skiing," and they mean the same thing. On the other hand, “I stopped to smoke” means something very different than “I stopped smoking.” Why does one verb take the gerund, while another takes the infinitive? Why do some take both and keep the same meaning, while others can take both but have very different meanings? There’s no rule that explains when to use one and when to use the other. Native speakers, from years of practicing and developing an innate sense of English lexis, automatically know which is better.
One of the major problems is that these errors look so easy to native speakers that teachers think they are easy to fix. They’ll write sharp comments on a student’s paper recommending the student edit more carefully next time or that they hand in clean work. The reality is that such errors are the most difficult to overcome.
So the question is whether we can expect non-native speakers to have memorized and be able to apply enough of these things to write cleanly before they begin studying in the United States. The foreign service estimates that it takes approximately 2,500 hours for a non-native speaker to be able to write fluently. This time can be compressed greatly if the languages are very similar. Spanish speakers, for example, might only take 700 or 800 hours. The problem is that for most students, there is no realistic way we can expect them to learn these structures completely fluently. Many faculty from other countries have lived in the U.S. for many, many years, write and speak in English every day, yet still make many of these errors.
Another problem is that these kinds of errors are often the kind that Microsoft Word © or other grammar programs have the most trouble fixing. For example, Microsoft Word © can do nothing to determine if the proper preposition is used in a phrasal verb.
Obviously, the film has a clear perspective on not grading down for these minor kinds of errors unless they affect meaning or there are so many as to make the reading very hard. The problem is that these kinds of errors have nothing to do with the student's understanding of grammar, nor are they careless errors. Rather, they are difficulties that are almost unavoidable until the student gets more practice in English. Unfortunately, most native speakers aren't used to accent in writing and find it hard to read. But that is exactly what they need to learn to do--read through the smaller errors to see the larger points and overall quality of the writing.
Won’t the native speakers in the class complain if non-native speakers are given extra time or given special allowances?
This is a question that comes up quite a bit because instructors assume that other students in the class will feel that they are being put at a disadvantage. However, I have never had a native speaker complain in this situation. Along with other pre-exam announcements, a simple announcement telling the class that international students and students with learning disabilities who need more time to complete the test should make arrangements with you will usually suffice.
Very often, both students with learning disabilities as well as non-native speakers feel embarrassed to approach instructors for extra time. In addition, even if a student were to complain that we were giving extra time to a student with a learning disability, would that stop us from giving it?
When it comes to testing and assessing international students, teachers need to keep in mind what they are trying to test. In other words, we should try to anticipate the difficulties international students will have on our tests and then act accordingly. For example, if we know from experience that even native speakers sometimes have trouble completing exams in the given period of time, obviously non-native speakers are going to have even more trouble. Another problem that can easily be predicted is that students sometimes will not understand the way a particular question on an exam is phrased or know the vocabulary that is used. To help solve this problem, instructors can allow students to ask questions during the test, or better yet, keep a dictionary with them during the exam.
To what extent does culture influence how students write?
The answer to this question really depends on the student.
The explanation I like to use when thinking about culture and writing is from Helen Fox’s book Listening to the World. In it, Fox explains that the way culture works is best explained in terms of preferences. In Japan, for example, we could say that, generally speaking, people tend to communicate less directly with each other. People may tend to hint more than they do in America or may hold back their opinion to a greater extent, particularly around strangers or people who are in positions of authority. However, just because this is true in general doesn’t mean that individuals have to share that cultural preference. Having lived in Japan for several years, I can count many, many Japanese who would be considered direct even by American standards.
Furthermore, it’s very important to note that it’s quite common for people to rebel against how they learn to write. For instance, Deema AlQuissi, a student from Jordan, told me how she learned to write primarily from copying and imitating traditional Islamic poetry and writings. When I said how interesting I found that, she insisted that she hated that kind of writing. She was a scientist through and through. “Just let me get to the point and forget everything else. I hated writing because my teachers always wanted it fancier.” This kind of rebellion is particularly common in students who decide to study in a foreign country.
Is it really part of our job as teachers to think about where international students are coming from and anticipate the difficulties they’ll have?
I would argue that this is precisely our job. Teachers do this for all students. When we write exams, we try to think about how students in the class will respond and what kinds of questions would be reasonable according to the students' skill levels. For example, think about how differently we would write an exam for a sophomore-level Shakespeare course versus a similar graduate-level course. When we have international students in our classes, we need to anticipate what difficulties they will have and think about how effectively they'll be able to respond to what we ask of them. We need to think ahead of time about whether we will allow international students to use dictionaries or have extra time. We need to think about whether a certain assignment will present problems. Will they know enough about the topic to respond, and is it something they will feel comfortable responding to?
If international students are getting an American degree, shouldn't they learn to write like an American?
There is certainly value in international students learning to write in new ways and for different audiences. One could certainly argue that doing so will improve their rhetorical sophistication. On the other hand, writing is so closely related to identity and personal voice that stripping those things from an international student and making them take on an American voice could be likened to a kind of intellectual colonialism. When companies outsource their technical support units to countries like India, they train their employees to sound American. The point is to hide all the qualities that make them Indian in order to make them more palatable to the American consumer. If we insist on removing the qualities that make an Indian student's writing Indian, I'm not sure it's much different from what those companies are doing.
And while one can argue that learning to write for an American audience can be helpful, there can also be drawbacks. One of the interesting things I learned from making the film is that it is not uncommon for students to go back to their home countries and get chastised for writing too much like an American. In the film, Pablo Zapata gives a good example of this when he talks about an email he wrote to his friends. In their response to him, they complain that his email was very cold and rude to them. That’s when he realizes just how much American writing style has rubbed off on him.
What kinds of writing backgrounds do international students have when they come to the U.S.?
As one would guess, the kind and amount of experience varies tremendously from student to student. One of the students I interviewed grew up speaking a language with no written form, so her first writing experiences were in a second language. As a result, she said that she always felt uncomfortable writing because it had always been done in a foreign language for her. One student I interviewed from India, on the other hand, had been a professional journalist, writing in English.
Despite these differences, however, one clear pattern emerged: most international students don't have familiarity and practice with the same kinds of genres of writing that we expect American students to be familiar with. For instance, more than half of the international students I interviewed said they had never written a formal research paper in their secondary educations. The reasons for this varied widely. One student from Thailand told me that he had been mostly assigned expository writing all through his schooling. A student from Ghana, on the other hand, told me that while he had been regularly asked to write essays on issues facing the country (teen pregnancy, health issues, etc.), there weren't any libraries near his high school nor did they have access to the Internet.
In general, many of the international students told me they had been assigned expository, descriptive, or narrative writing rather than analysis or research.