L2 Writers: Difficulties in Mainstream Composition Classrooms

Several weeks ago, I addressed the topic of the placement of international students in first-year composition classes in the institutions of higher education. Several options were mentioned including mainstream classes, basic writing classes, and courses designed specifically for L2 writers (Silva, 1994). While the combination of these options is aimed at meeting the unique needs of international students, not all universities are able to provide them all due to financial and curricular restrictions. In many cases, being able to understand challenges that L2 writers may experience in mainstream composition courses becomes the responsibility of writing program administrators and instructors, so that perhaps other types of support can be offered to students.

In today’s entry, I would like to refer you to three studies that explored the difficulties of L2 writers in mainstream classrooms.

Braine (1996)
Study: ESL students in first-year writing courses: ESL versus mainstream classes
The purposes of this study were to describe the ESL students’ preferences for either mainstream or ESL composition classes, to examine the ESL students’ performance in both types of classes, and to find out the reasons for their high rate of withdrawal from mainstream writing courses. The study employed the method of statistical analysis of students’ grades on a final written test, as well as a questionnaire and interviews with students.

The results indicated that the students enrolled in the ESL writing classes performed better than the ones in the mainstream classes, who had lower passing rates on the final test. It was also found that the withdrawal rate of the ESL students from the mainstream courses was five times the withdrawal rate of the students from the ESL courses and three times the withdrawal rate of the native-speaking (NS) students.

Braine also found that, when given an option, the majority of the ESL students preferred taking a writing course designed specifically for international students. The reasons for such a choice were primarily related to their feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, inhibition, and even anxiety, which they had in the classes with the NS students. Braine suggested the existence of multiple options for the placement of ESL students in freshman writing courses be an important component of college writing programs.

Hsieh (2007)
Study: Challenges for international students in higher education: One student’s narrated story of invisibility and struggle
The purpose of Hsieh’s study was to examine the issue of international students’ identity struggles, which many frequently face in American classrooms. The research was designed as a case study and was conducted to look at the reasons a female student from China kept silent in her American classes. Data were collected through formal and informal interviews with the participant, researcher’s field journals and interview notes, as well as examinations of the participant’s autobiographies.

The study found that because of the participant’s silence in classes, she felt that her American classmates perceived her as incompetent and unintelligent, and this caused even more isolation of the participant from her classmates. She reported the feeling of a useless person in all class activities. However, Hsieh stated that her participant’s silence in class and the lack of desire to interact with other classmates, which in turn made her develop a marginalized role and poor self-perception, was not a result of the young woman’s personality. Hsieh claimed that the core of the problem was rooted in the unequal power relationships between international and American students, and her participant became “the victim of this disempowering nature of American higher education settings” (p. 379).

In my opinion, this exploratory study provides a foundation for future investigations of similar issues in first-year writing courses. The disempowering nature of American classrooms, which was discovered to be a major negative influence on the participant’s identity, may be especially detrimental in the context of writing classrooms, causing students’ resistance to participate, which in turn may result in writer’s block or poor writing quality. The suggestions offered by Hsieh may be taken to consideration by writing teachers and writing program administrators. These general suggestions include providing a supportive and comfortable atmosphere in American classrooms and creating a power-sharing environment in which international students will not feel segregated, and in which American students will be able to develop more tolerance and acceptance towards cultural diversity.

Kennedy (1993)
Study: Non-native speakers as students in first-year composition classes with native speakers: How can writing tutors help?
This paper addressed five problems that may be encountered by ESL students in freshman writing classes:

  1. decoding instead of reading for meaning
  2. accessing information from learner native language
  3. summary writing
  4. cultural differences in rhetorical organization
  5. culture-bound course textbooks

While the first three problems can be characterized as linguistic issues, cultural differences in rhetorical organization and culture-bound textbooks may be caused by the students’ lack of cultural awareness. Kennedy argued that the existence of these issues confirms that mainstream composition classes target the average American student and rarely consider the ESL population. She briefly outlined possible solutions; however, interestingly enough, she offered no suggestions with regard to the textbook issue. Perhaps this topic is still up for discussion.

I hope that these studies can help us understand how we can better help our ESL writers. Please share your experiences, as well as report on the readings that you found particularly helpful with regard to the aforementioned issues.

Braine, G. (1996). ESL students in first-year writing courses: ESL versus mainstream classes. Journal of Second Language Writing, 5, 91–107.

Hsieh, M. (2007). Challenges for international students in higher education: One student’s narrated story of invisibility and struggle. College Student Journal, 41(2), 379-391.

Kennedy, B. (1993). Non-native speakers as students in first-year composition classes with native speakers: How can writing tutors help? The Writing Center Journal, 13(2), 27-38.

Silva, T. (1994). An examination of writing program administrators’ options for the placement of ESL students in first year writing classes. WAP, 18(1-2), 37-43.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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