By Christen Bouchard, Writing Studio Consultant
Some of the most memorable moments from my first two months in the Studio have been with English Language Learners (ELLs). For instance, a few days ago, an ELL and I shared a good laugh over this observation: “You Americans always have to be so polite and positive when you write…in Latino culture we just say it like it is, no matter if it’s nice or not!” Crossing barriers of language and culture can be fun, but it also brings a unique set of challenges. If you’re like me, one of the biggest challenges is the perennial ELL request: “Can you help me check my grammar?”
Grammar typically isn’t our top priority in the Studio. When a writer leads with the grammar request, we try to acknowledge their concern but help them understand that we should focus first on “higher order” revision issues—thesis, organization, etc. We don’t want to waste time fixing grammar in sentences that will end up being deleted or rewritten in the next draft. But as much as we consultants may try to de-emphasize grammar, in my experience grammar is literally the number one concern of most ELLs I meet in the Studio. I’ve gotten the grammar request from every ELL writer at some point in the session without exception. I’ve even had some ELLs direct me up front that they’re confident in their ideas and they only need help checking their grammar.
In responding to these concerns, I often do spend quite a bit of time addressing grammar with ELLs, more than with native English speakers—and I don’t feel guilty for doing so. Here’s why. For ELLs, grammar mistakes in writing are equivalent to a foreign accent in speaking. Native speakers might feel a little sheepish about bad grammar, but ELLs feel set apart and marked by it. I hear comments along these lines all the time from ELLs: “I’m the only international student in my class. I miss a lot of points for my grammar, but the other students don’t have to worry about it because English is their first language.” True or not, ELLs perceive that their grammar mistakes make them different from—and less competent than—their native-speaking peers.
In truth, ELLs do not necessarily make more mistakes than native speakers; they just make different mistakes. Here’s a simple example:
- Native speaker error: Growing up, soccer was my favorite sport.
- ELL error: I loved to playing soccer with my friends after school.
The first error (a misplaced modifier) is a mistake native speakers make all the time. The second one (an incorrect word form) is not. It stops us in our tracks when we encounter it because it sounds so unnatural. The tricky thing about these ELL errors is that, although they’re easy to identify and correct, they’re often hard to explain. What exactly is the problem with “to playing”? If you’re a native English speaker, you likely never had to learn a grammar rule for this in school. You just know that “to play” is the way we say it. You may find yourself coming back to this line a lot when working on grammar with ELLs. “I don’t know why, but that’s just the way we say it in English!”
When grammar discussions get dicey, we may be tempted to slip into editing mode—correcting errors without much explanation—or avoid the subject altogether. But I’ve found that ELLs are immensely appreciative when I make the effort to address some specific grammar points in our session. They leave reassured that their text is more error-free, and empowered to self-correct errors in their future writings. The key is to make discussions about grammar strategic by focusing on patterns of error. With ELLs, this means reading through enough of the text to identify errors that are both recurring and impactful. That is, we want to work on mistakes that show up consistently (which likely need some remedial instruction) AND that significantly interfere with communication (which will likely cause confusion for the text’s ultimate audience).
Of course, as you’ve probably noticed, the patterns of error in ELL writing often include some pretty hardcore grammar topics! Verb tenses, relative clauses, agreement, articles…using them in our own writing is second nature, but teaching them is much harder. I have a master’s degree in TESOL and 6 years of experience working with ELLs, and I still struggle sometimes to explain grammar clearly. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources out there. One of my favorites is the book Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners by Keith Folse. Folse is a professor of TESOL at UCF and a master of clear ESL grammar explanations. His Keys book highlights the 15 most problematic grammar points for ELLs and offers great tips on how to teach them. For a preview, including a free chapter download, go to http://www.press.umich.edu/223460/keys_to_teaching_grammar_to_english_language_learners/?s=look_inside.
Also, I highly recommend taking the Keys quiz: “How well do you know ESL grammar?” (http://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472032204-quiz2.pdf). It’s an eye-opening, brain-stretching introduction to English grammar from the ELL perspective—and a good first step to being able to meet your ELL’s grammar request with a confident, “Sure, let’s take a look!”