The Right Placement for ESL Writers

In today’s entry, I would like to address the issue of the placement of international students in college composition classes. As we all know, institutions of higher education in the United States host a large number of international students drawn from a wide range of countries. This number is increasing each year. “Today universities are among the most diverse organizations in the world” (Harrison, 2012, p. 224). Along with the benefits that foreign learners obtain from pursuing their education in U.S. colleges, they also encounter challenges of linguistic, educational, financial, social, cultural, and psychological origins.

These problems are especially visible during the first year of a college experience. A freshman year, broadly speaking, can be a difficult intellectual and emotional experience for anyone. International students, however, face additional trials, which are related to language barrier, culture shock, intercultural conflicts, and immigration regulations, to name a few. College life in the United States, with its newness and high academic standards, oftentimes overwhelms students from other countries.

First-year composition courses, which are required in most American universities, are not exceptions to these issues. In many universities, international students are placed in mainstream classes; some of these students may feel they have to unfairly compete with American students in English, something that is natural for the latter and difficult for the former.

Being an international student myself, I have encountered some of the difficulties mentioned above, and thus this topic has its meaningfulness to me on a personal level. In addition, as I started teaching a first-year composition class last year, I began to wonder if a mainstream class was the right place for my ESL learners. Here, at Purdue, the Introductory Composition Program also offers a freshman writing course designed specifically for international students; this may also be the case with many other composition programs throughout the country. Would international students benefit more from ESL writing courses? In addition to mainstream and ESL composition classes, some colleges offer basic writing courses, which, as some may think, can be the “golden middle” for ESL writers.

However, each of these options has advantages and disadvantages. As Silva (1994) rightly pointed out, mainstream composition classes are the easiest option in terms of the logistics and teacher preparation. However, they present considerable linguistic, cultural, and rhetorical challenges for ESL writers. Basic writing classes, created for inexperienced native writers, may not be a fully appropriate solution for ESL students either, as many of them are very skilled writers in their native language. Finally, while ESL writing classes allow international learners to develop a sense of camaraderie with other classmates from other countries, these courses are often seen as remedial and “given second class status” (p. 40).

Another problem related to the placement of international students in a suitable composition course is that not all universities are able to offer a range of writing classes. In many programs, mainstream composition courses are the only option. In those classes, as mentioned earlier, international students run into a whole variety of challenges, which I may discuss in more depth in my future posts. But for now, I will conclude by saying that I truly believe that college writing instructors should be able to offer a positive learning environment in their classrooms that will meet the needs of international students.

What are your experiences with appropriately placing ESL students in composition classes?

Harrison, N. (2012). Investigating the impact of personality and early life experiences on intercultural interaction in internationalized universities. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36, 224-237.

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 originally from Russia and has been in the United States for 7 years pursuing her education, most recently her doctorate in second language studies at Purdue University. Elena received her master's in TESOL from Brigham Young University and has taught various ESL classes both in academic and community settings. Currently, she is an instructor of first-year composition courses in the English department at Purdue University.
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