September 20, 2007

Defining the basic writer

Posted in English as a second language at 10: 47 am by MK

I’ve been reading quite a bit about basic foundations of literacy.  Paul Kei Matsuda explores defining “basic writers” in his article, “Basic Writing and Second Language Writers:  Toward and Inclusive Definition.”   Currently a professor at Arizona State University, Matsuda is well-known and respected theorist in the field of Composition Theory.  His article made me think about the future Z. and G.—when they are leaving high school and hopefully furthering their education.  At that point, should they still be in an ESL classroom?  Or should they be in a basic writing classroom with American students? 


According to Matsuda, immigrant and refugee students who have been in the U.S. long enough to develop strong aural language skills but still struggle with the written language are in danger of falling through the cracks.  Matsuda cites William Slager (a former staff member of Michigan’s English Language Institute) as saying,

Even though they have serious problems in English as a foreign language, the immigrants do not profit from classes that are specifically devised for the newly arrived foreign students.  They need special work on grammar of usage.  But they often need no help at all in aural comprehension; and since they have lived for some time in this country, they need very little orientation. (Matsuda 70)

Historically, our higher education system did not have a place for these students.  Institutional change most noticeably began to happen when the open-admissions policy in many urban institutions changed in the 1970s.  This new policy allowed colleges to accept students who otherwise would have not been.  Matsuda discusses CUNY in particular as a good case study of the policy.  By 1980, 21.4% of new students and 18% of transfer students were born outside of the United States. (Matsuda 73)  CUNY attempted to distinguish between basic writers and ESL writers, but other colleges did not.  These other schools simply tracked ESL students into basic writing classes, ultimately ignoring the unique needs and circumstances of their ESL students. 


Matsuda argues that due to the make-up of the U.S., all writing teachers must be adept (on at least a basic level) at teaching ESL students.  ESL students will still continue to be tracked in basic writing classes.  It seems that in a perfect world students could be tracked in three ways:  basic writing, basic writing with an ESL focus, and ESL.  However, as schools (particularly smaller schools) struggle with funding and other obstacles, this ideal probably won’t happen.  Therefore, if writing teachers are aware of these differences, and trained to work with ESL students, perhaps some of the gaps will be filled.


I have been tutoring E., a woman who emigrated from Russia roughly six years ago.  Over the summer she took a basic writing course at Hudson Valley Community College.  We worked on her essays, which mostly required grammar changes, including word choices, sentence structure, and subject-verb agreement.  She spoke English well and had no difficulty understanding me.  However, her writing skills needed work.  Thinking back on that class, I wonder if her professor had ESL teaching experience.  I wonder if he knew about E.’s unique situation.  She is definitely a student that could easily slip through the cracks if a professor or a college is not aware of the extra help she needs. 


She seems to be the student Matsuda is talking about and, for me, puts his discussion in tangible terms. 


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