Working with L2 Students
Working with L2 Students
By Galina Romantsova
The number of international students (L2 learners) on American campuses is increasing. Their cultural and language proficiency make it challenging for them to meet academic expectations in courses designed for domestic (L1) speakers. For L2 learners, these expectations constitute a distinct cultural bias, and they are caught in a double bind. First, the assignments contain cultural content “designed with American students in mind” (Cox, 2011). Second, the evaluation of L2 student writing does not take into account written accent and the language acquisition process. These biases present very real barriers to student learning. As WIC faculty, we need to make sure that our assignments are not inherently biased.
Many assignments require a sophisticated understanding of American culture, information that is unfamiliar to international students who have not spent much time in the United States. Additionally, these writing projects require students to analyze, synthesize, and apply this culturally-biased information in their papers. Lacking this knowledge, L2 students are unable to perform at the level of their domestic peers, and, as such, receive negative evaluations based on the content of their writing.
Lacking an understanding of the language acquisition process, faculty often evaluate L2 writing as inferior and mistake students’ lack of linguistic proficiency as a lack of intellectual readiness (Cox, 2011). To perform at the same level as a domestic student, L2 learners must acquire two types of fluency: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)—the language skills needed to survive in social situations—and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)—the language and skills we employ in the academy (Cummins, 1979). According to Cummins’ model, BICS takes about 2-3 years to develop, while CALP takes an additional 5-7 years. Unfortunately, not every L2 student has had the requisite 7-8 years of intensive exposure to English that they would need in order to perform at a level comparable to that of a domestic student.
Many of the L2 students we see are in a transitional mode from BICS to CALP. Normally, graduate students have higher levels of CALP. However, even at CALP-proficient levels, students might still have a measure of written accent (missing articles, incorrect prepositions, etc.) in their writing. These written accent features do not diminish our understanding of student writing and, as such, could (and should) be overlooked. Punishing students for their grammar/accent only leads to lower L2 student participation in class discussions and negative learning experiences. In addition, creating biased grading rubrics that give grammar too high an emphasis (up to 50% of a grade), shifts focus from the content. As such, biased evaluation gets in the way of student learning.
L2 students in a writing class are often seen as “a problem” that disrupts the curriculum. Seen through a culturally-biased lens, L2 learners’ linguistic challenges make it difficult for faculty to see whether students understand course content and also make it difficult for faculty to evaluate student writing. However, the presence of English language learners is a great opportunity to create curriculum that promotes learning opportunities for a diverse student population. According to Paul Matsuda, a leader in the field of second language writing studies, “As teachers, we cannot make students learn; we can only create a condition in which learning can happen” (2012). If grammar is one of the priorities on a rubric, then the number of points for grammar should be proportionate to the amount of time spent teaching it in class (Matsuda, 2012). By adjusting the instruction of the course to suit the needs of a diverse student population, teaching faculty can offer assignments and evaluation practices that do not punish students for their linguistic challenges, but instead provide them with the instruction they need to achieve the outcomes of the course (Matsuda, 2012).
Cox, Michelle. (2011, December 21). WAC: Closing doors or opening doors for second language writers? Across the Disciplines, 8(4). Retrieved February 20, 2013, from http://wac.colostate.edu/atd/ell/cox.cfm
Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49(2), 222 - 251.
Matsuda, Paul. Let’s Face It: Language Issues and the Writing Program Administrator. WPA 36.1 (Fall/Winter 2012), 141-163.