Assessment of ESL Students in the Mixed Classroom Environment by Rose Burt, San Diego State University
Early in the 1970s, as increasingly diverse students were granted access to higher education through measures like the G.I. Bill, the discussion surrounding ESL students in the composition classroom began to note a distinction between how instruction should be designed for English language learners as opposed to instruction for native speakers. Authors argued that ESL students could not be assessed in the same manner as other students. Following this assertion, authors such as Ann Raimes posed questions about the relationship of composition instruction to ESL students. In her 1976 essay, Raimes asked questions like “What do teachers do?” “What is composition?” “What is composition for the ESL student?” and “What is the teacher’s task?” In the subsequent decades, many authors attempted to answer these questions in books and articles presenting comprehensive arguments about how to instruct students for whom English is a second language, mostly focused on how to structure composition classes designed either specifically for ESL students or for basic writers, with whom ESL students are often grouped.
However, the implication of these questions and the research that followed has changed dramatically in light of recent educational trends. The ability of college campuses to provide special services for speakers of other languages has been supported as the best means of ensuring success at the post-secondary level. Yet, according to the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates in California, nearly 40% of California K-12 students are from a language minority (ICAS 3). At the college level, this distinction is perhaps even more predominant: “on some campuses, especially in the CCC system, ESL learners represent a growing majority of students” (ICAS 9). These numbers don’t include students termed “generation 1.5,” who may have received most formal education in English but still speak another language predominantly outside of school and thus encounter much of the same cultural dissonance as other ESL students. California’s post-secondary schools are increasingly inclusive of students with mixed language backgrounds, to the extent that it is no longer feasible or advisable to create separate ESL classes for all non-native speakers.
Perhaps now more than ever, it is important to reconsider the questions Raimes asked of all composition teachers. Given that many of our students will be in traditional composition classrooms without previous or simultaneous separate ESL instruction, we must attempt to address the needs of ESL students without simply forming a dividing line of instruction and assessment between ESL students and native speakers in a mixed classroom. With an increasingly diverse student body, a definite line would be nearly impossible to fairly draw. To date, educators and composition theorists have focused mostly on how to prepare the classroom for effectively instructing ESL students, including what prompts to write, how to measure student proficiencies, how to conduct discussions, and what behaviors to avoid. Despite its educational impact, most of these studies place only tertiary significance on responding to ESL texts, behind fostering an environment sensitive to cultural diversity and communicating clearly. Achievement of the latter two will directly affect the student performance being assessed, but too little emphasis has yet been placed on how to effectively respond to essays by English language learners. Even if we create clear, concise prompts that do not presuppose a single cultural-linguistic perspective, how we respond to the essays our students turn in will have a dramatic effect on their perspectives of their own abilities and the writing process. Rather than assessing ESL students in isolation, we must now question how we will respond to students from many socio-linguistic backgrounds in a traditional (mixed) composition classroom. In light of this new environment, suggested methods of effective response to and assessment of ESL student texts include discussion of the relationship of culture to language, giving priority to comments on content over surface revisions, ensuring that responses are delivered clearly and require active student engagement, and remaining flexible in assessment techniques.
The Relationship of Culture to Language
With the explosion of cultural studies in the 1990s, composition theorists began to discuss language as both culturally constructed and socially significant. In composition theory focused on English language learners, the idea that culture and language are interwoven suggests that instructors must read student work with greater attention to potential rhetorical subjectivity. In 1989, William Grabe and Robert Kaplan published “Writing in a Second Language: Contrastive Rhetoric,” which would later become one of the most often-cited essays by other educators and theorists concerned with composition for ESL students. In their essay, Grabe and Kaplan claim that writing in English (L2) can only be fairly assessed when compared with the student’s primary language of composition (L1). They describe the relationship of culture to language in these terms as a confluence of constructed rhetorics: “Contrastive rhetoric predicts that writers composing in different languages will produce rhetorically distinct texts, independent of other causal factors…literacy skills (both reading and writing) are learned…they are culturally (and perhaps linguistically) shaped” (Grabe and Kaplan 264). If we accept the view that language is socially and culturally constructed, instructors should begin their assessment of ESL student writing by identifying student goals in the target language of communication, discussing conventions of the language of origin and English, and learning about the student’s background culture and language as appropriate.
Each of these methods refrains from any indication that English is superior, as a language or rhetorical strategy. Couching the approach in these terms, composition instructors are free to discuss with the student why, as a culture, we value expressing ourselves in certain ways without suggesting that the student should give up their first language or culture. In order to best begin this conversation, Guanjun Cai, Ken Hyland, and Sundem et. al. advocate for instructors to learn about students’ home culture and language and to help the student identify a target language and form of composition. As Hyland argues, this is a rhetorical method: “Writing is a practice based on expectations: the reader’s chances of interpreting the writer’s purpose are increased if the writer takes the trouble to anticipate what the reader might be expecting based on previous texts they have read of the same kind” (Hyland 149). As readers, it is important for us to figure out the target audience and to learn as much as we can to become symbolic members of that target audience. In doing so, we also model for students the rhetorical conventions of English, as we value effective communication as a function of the text’s context. Discussing the targeted goals of communication will also encourage students to consider the forms and conventions of English without asking them to give up other linguistic ideals. As Cai asserts, “only such explicit teaching of English discourse ideologies can produce changes in the discourse strategies of ESL students’ writing, because change in language use comes from change in guiding ideologies and expectations” (Cai 183).
As instructors increasingly conscious of the challenges of teaching a diverse student body, we often question the extent to which we should consider unconventional linguistic techniques (otherwise called “errors”) as a function of cultural influences rather than misunderstandings of the reading or conventions of English. These theorists assert that we can come closest to negotiating and understanding this difference when we learn as much as we can about the students’ own languages and L1 conventions. There are now many books published to assist instructors in quickly learning key elements of other languages. Sundem, Krieger, and Pikiewicz’s book 10 Languages You’ll Need Most in the Classroom is a tool for just such a study. By and large, these texts are geared towards TESOL or TEFL instructors and K-12 teachers rather than college-level students who already have some level of English proficiency, but they are still useful for a cultural introduction. Essays focused on college-level instruction often guide instructors through the discourse of students from a single language background.
Even if instructors lack the time to research conventions of literatures in other languages, the first step in responding to student texts begins in considering the target language and form of communication. In doing so, we model the rhetorical process we want students to engage in, and avoid the blunder of Anglo-American nepotism. As Land and Whitley remark, we should not promote English as a perfected, singularly-ideal language: “To do so would be to ignore what is happening to our culture and our language: they are becoming more pluralistic, not coincidentally with the rise of English as the world language. If we are indeed a part of a culture which admits change, this change will obviously appear at the linguistic level because one’s epistemology underlies one’s language” (Land and Whitley 292). Approaching even a first-reading of a student essay with this in mind, we are more likely to perceive the writer’s intentions and to place revision power in the hands of the student rather than the reader.
Tension in Instructor Comments: Global vs. Local Responses
Just as perceptions of the confluence of culture and language have changed with the rise of cultural studies, so have perceptions of the content and methods of appropriate responses to ESL student essays. The largest shift in composition theory began with educators and social scientists who challenged the current-traditional model of assessment by conducting studies into error correction. In Raimes’ 1976 essay, she posited: “What does the research tell us? Not much. There are some research studies in the teaching of composition to native speakers, but there are hardly any in composition for English as a second language” (Raimes 185). In contrast, Leki’s Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers, published in 1992, cites many studies that could be interpreted as proving that there is little benefit from the standard method of error correction as a means to acquire language. Interestingly, the scientifically supported method of studying language acquisition, a cognitivist approach to composition theory, evolved to support theories that place more importance on the individual student’s argument and less on the structure of “correct” language determined by the academy, an expressivist approach. The contest between global and local foci has divided many educators seeking a definitive way to approach student texts, but in the context of ESL writing, critics have (at least theoretically) favored comments on the strength and development of the argument over sentence-level constructions.
There is an outpouring of criticism against sentence-level error correction for ESL student essays, which can be generally grouped into three categories: error correction as counterproductive, error correction as ineffective, and error correction as useful only as an editing technique. Land and Whitley’s criticism falls into the first two categories. The concluding section on evaluating student essays begins, “Research suggests that evaluative focus on sentence-level mechanics may be a waste of the teacher’s time…and confusing and even harmful to students” (Land and Whitley 291). Leki echoes this criticism of error correction as ineffective for language acquisition, though sees some use for grammar at the proofreading level. She admits, “learning the rules of grammar, punctuation, and so forth is useful only to monitor, or edit, writing, not to create it” (Leki 135). Furthermore, she asserts that encouraging students to think about sentence construction while they write will significantly extend the amount of time it takes for them to produce a completed text and will reduce the total amount of words they are willing and able to construct (Leki 147). For Leki, error correction is most effective when it can be done selectively in consideration only of the most prominent and consistent errors that impede understanding, and even then should not precede responses to the content.
Whole books have been written on how to address (or ignore) sentence-level errors in essays by English language learners. As much as theorists continue to discourage a local focus on language construction, educators continue to seek advice for formulas they can apply to “fix” student writing. This division between theory and practice is not exclusive to instructors – many students seek surface corrections on their text over rhetorical comments which might strengthen their argument. To some extent, research suggests that this may be merely a factor of cultural habits interfering with composition pedagogy. In other words, instructors believe that they should comment more on global issues than local issues, but in practice fall back on marking sentence-level errors. An alternative interpretation is provided in Montgomery and Baker’s “Teacher-Written Feedback: Student Perceptions, Teacher Self-Assessment, and Actual Teacher Performance:”
The final important insight of this study was that in general teachers gave a substantial amount of local feedback and relatively little global feedback throughout the drafts of the compositions. Giving feedback in this manner in part conflicts with what the teachers were asked to do at the ELC and what the teachers believed they did. These findings can be interpreted [to mean] that teachers are aware of the needs of the students and recognize that students need a great deal more of local feedback than the teachers have been asked to give. (Montgomery and Baker 94)
In this interpretation, composition theorists and school administrators who rely on composition theory are determined as out of touch with actual student needs. This interpretation is not well supported even within the essay, and Montgomery and Baker conclude fairly quickly without addressing the issue further. As such, it is most likely that pedagogy is sound while practice fails, as instructors tire of the time-consuming task of commenting on rhetorical strategy.
In her initial response to what teachers do in the classroom, Raimes emphasized a kind of tension between global content and local structure which she called the “controlled/free dichotomy.” Controlled assignments ask students to practice structure, while free assignments practice content. The instructor has a choice between the two, and as she says, “he will emphasize control or freedom, or he will vacillate” (Raimes 165). The next few decades of composition theory regarding ESL student texts focused highly on developing prompts that would allow for some measure of freedom of content with a specified audience or purpose, thus aiming to negotiate this difference for students somewhat. When it came to evaluating and commenting on student essays, however, theorists concluded decidedly in favor of addressing content primarily, with sentence-level constructions addressed in a limited format only as a technique for revision. A content-based, global focus on student essays will provide a better format for encouraging students to write freely to create high quality arguments rather than merely composing correct sentences. In a classroom with mixed students, this emphasis on the content of the essay over the language construction will also provide a measure of equality.
Methods of Response Delivery
In addition to addressing theories of how to approach evaluation of student writing, many different methods of marking student texts have been offered in ESL composition studies. These elements vary widely, but are focused directly on fostering clear communication between the instructor and student. The emphasis is three-fold – clarity, active student engagement, and instructor flexibility are all required for the feedback given to be most effective.
Clarity must be offered in the grading standards as well as comments made on the essay itself. In a mixed classroom, providing written criteria for evaluations will be most effective in communicating with a linguistically diverse audience. In her book, Assessing English Language Learners, Lorraine Valdez-Pierce argues that “clearly specified scoring criteria in the form of checklists or scoring rubrics can help ensure that teachers are evaluating each student’s work along the same standards” (Valdez-Pierce 46). Communicating expectations in writing allows language learners to review the criteria multiple times, and ensures to other students that all work will be assessed fairly. Other texts, such as New Ways of Classroom Assessment, suggest that alternative assignments might be used to better meet the needs of language learners in a mixed classroom, but still advocates for distributing information about the scoring criteria in advance. In creating clear rubrics for assessing student work, ESL students are also more likely to be able to do a self- or peer-assessment prior to handing in the draft and in future revisions. Rubrics that identify what makes an essay strong, effective, or ineffective also allow ESL students to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement without feeling like they are completely missing the mark. Clear, concise, well-written rubrics aid all students in knowing the standards they will be held to, but are most useful for ESL students who will likely seek to track progress in various categories more than just to receive letter grades.
Clarity is also necessary in the comments marked on the essay. Many of the suggestions Sundem, Krieger, and Pikiewicz make for speaking to English language learners are appropriate for essay evaluations. To avoid confusion, they encourage teachers to “converse by pointing to the phrases you wish to communicate” (Sundem et. al. xxii). This can be done easily on essays as well. Rather than referring to many sentences, paragraphs, or ideas in end comments, instructors should try to literally draw connections between their comments and the actual student text they are commenting on. Similarly, the authors suggest that instructors “avoid slang, incorrect usage, and difficult sentence constructions in your own speech. Whenever possible, strive for clear, concise phrases” (Sundem et. al. xxi). While this seems intuitive, it is not often done in practice, and is a useful reminder of our need to be culturally sensitive and to act as models of our own instruction.
Equally important is the need for students to be actively engaged in the feedback process. In an essay on the psychological reactions of students to instructor feedback, Icy Lee argues that “students tend to be viewed as mere recipients—when in fact they can be and should be active and proactive agents in the feedback process” (Lee 144-145). Providing students with opportunities to work with and against instructor and peer feedback is essential to maintaining student authority over the text as well as absorption of the writing process. For ESL students who are already encountering numerous challenges to their traditional mode of communication, the need for students to remain in a multi-sided dialogue about their writing is even more important. In this regard, comments on ESL texts will be most effective when they are a part of a revision process requiring multiple drafts and that form questions or respond rhetorically rather than altering what students have written (Paulus 265; Leki 143).
As much as possible, comments should also pertain to the target goals established by the instructor and student early in the term. This can be done in a number of ways, and will necessarily be determined on a case-by-case basis between instructors and students. However, these goals are most likely to fit general categories such as discipline-specific research or expository essays, personal/creative writing, or business correspondence. While most students are likely to identify a targeted genre within these categories in English, some students may also seek to further their knowledge of the written conventions of another language’s literature. In either case, it may well be that students are expected to complete assignments that are outside of their targeted genre or language. Whether or not this is the context of responding to the student essay, instructors should encourage students to identify methods that will be most effective to address the prompt, if no flexibility in the assignment is otherwise provided. These methods need not be considered solely in English. As Leki says, “thinking in L1 should not necessarily be avoided while composing in L2” (Leki 148). Effective responses to ESL student texts will encourage students to consider the rhetorical situation they are writing in as a comparison to their target goals and to those of the instructor.
Perhaps most importantly, instructors responding to ESL student essays will need to stay flexible in their assessment techniques. Instructors should expect misunderstandings and cultural dissonance even in the situations they feel best prepared for. As an example, Hafernik, Messerschmitt, and Vandrick discuss perceptions of cheating and plagiarism by ESL students. As they argue, cheating is a culturally-constructed concept which is not universally defined. In this respect, they recommend that “misunderstandings can be ameliorated by classroom discussion of the cultural differences and the ethical and practical considerations of switching to or adopting the American mode of writing” (Hafernik et. al. 49). These authors do not suggest that misunderstandings will be avoided completely through such discussion, merely that they might be mitigated through this attempt. Comments on the use of sources and appropriate citations should be considered in this light. In general, instructors must be aware that identifications of error, dishonesty, or even stylistic changes may be ill-received or misconceived.
Lastly, instructors will need to continue to mix encouragement with constructive criticism. As Coombe, Folse, and Huldey quote in A Practical Guide to Assessing English Language Learners, “Research indicates that teacher written feedback is highly valued by second language writers… Although positive remarks are motivating and highly valued by students, Hyland points out that too much praise or positive commentary early on in a writer’s development can make students complacent and discourage revision” (Coombe et. al. 85). Negotiating the difference between levels of encouragement and problem-posing, rhetorically-driven criticism requires a great degree of flexibility and awareness on the part of the instructor. It is unlikely that instructors with high numbers of students will be able to gauge the kind of response all their students need, so it will be most helpful in a mixed classroom setting if instructors offer both comments of encouragement and constructive criticism to all of their students, ESL and native speakers alike.
Not surprisingly, “nearly one-third of a classroom teacher’s time is spent assessing and evaluating student performance” (Valdez-Pierce vii). In increasingly diverse classroom settings, particularly for post-secondary schools in California, this time will be spent not considering how to divide instruction methods between ESL students and native speakers but rather how to motivate English language learners and encourage them to succeed along with their peers. Through careful approaches to understanding and teaching the English language as something culturally constructed and pluralistic, instructors can create an open, comfortable environment for ESL students to learn. By taking a global approach to evaluating student writing and by adhering to standards of clarity, student engagement, and instructor flexibility, instructors may also lessen the confusion, cultural dissonance, and irrelevance that ESL students often feel in the composition classroom.
With the advent of hybrid courses and distance education, the ability of instructors to use these approaches becomes especially significant. Without verbal cues, instructors may have an even more difficult time ascertaining the cultural and language background of their students. By maintaining these approaches to commenting on student texts, instructors will have a much better chance of meeting the needs of ESL and generation 1.5 students, even if the students remain unidentified. By promoting instruction that grants students greater control over their writing goals and incorporation of feedback, ESL students will be able to learn not only the conventions of English language and rhetoric, but will also gain metacognitive awareness of how to negotiate differences between languages and cultures, a skill which cannot be underestimated in a rapidly globalizing society. In an echo of Raimes, Leki asks “As teachers deal with ESL writing, then, the question arises…what exactly do we want our students to be able to do in English?” (Leki 154). With the aid of their peers, instructors, and the institution, we want all students to gain the skills necessary to learn as much as they can. By maintaining pluralistic cultural and linguistic environments in the composition classroom, students have the opportunity to contribute to a collective body of knowledge and shared experience rather than acting as receptors of somewhat dissonant information. We want our students to be able to become active members of the discourse community in English. By broadening our cultural understandings and responding to ESL student essays in a way that facilitates dialogue rather than passive reception, we are encouraging our students to engage in learning how to learn, and opening the door for their contribution to the academic community.
- Brown, J.D., ed. New Ways of Classroom Assessment. Bloomington, IL: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc., 1998.
- Cai, Guanjun. “Texts in Contexts: Understanding Chinese Students’ English Compositions.” Evaluating Writing: The Role of the Teachers’ Knowledge about Text, Learning, and Culture. Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell, eds. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999. 279-297.
- Carroll, Pamela Sissi, Frances Blake, Rose Ann Camalo, and Smadar Messer. “When Acceptance Isn’t Enough: Helping ESL Students Become Successful Writers.” The English Journal 85.8 (Dec 1996): 25-33.
- Coombe, Christine, Keith Folse, and Nancy Huldey. “Assessing Writing.” A Practical Guide to Assessing English Language Learners. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007. 69-88.
- ESL Students in California Public Higher Education. Government publication by the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates. Sacramento, CA: Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 2006.
- Ferris, Dana. “Preparing Teachers to Respond to Student Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 16.3 (Sept 2007): 165-193.
- Grabe, William and Robert B. Kaplan. “Writing in a Second Language: Contrastive Rhetoric.” Richness in Writing: Empowering ESL Students. Donna M. Johnson and Duane H. Roen, eds. New York: Longman, 1989. 263-283.
- Hafernik, Johnnie Johnson, Dorothy S. Messerschmitt, and Stephanie Vandrick. Ethical Issues for ESL Faculty: Social Justice in Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2002.
- Hinkel, Eli. Second Language Writers’ Text: Linguistic and Rhetorical Features. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
- Hyland, Ken. “Genre Pedagogy: Language, Literacy, and L2 Writing Instruction.” Journal of Second Language Writing 16.3 (Sept 2007): 148-164.
- Ibrahim, Nizar and Susan Penfield. “Dynamic Diversity: New Dimensions in Mixed Composition Classes.” ELT Journal 59.3 (July 2005): 217-225.
- Land, Jr., Robert E. and Catherine Whitley. “Evaluating Second Language Essays in Regular Composition Classes: Towards a Pluralistic U.S. Rhetoric. Richness in Writing: Empowering ESL Students. Donna M. Johnson and Duane H. Roen, eds. New York: Longman, 1989. 284-293.
- Lee, Icy. “Student Reactions to Teacher Feedback in Two Hong Kong Secondary Classrooms.” Journal of Second Language Writing 17.3 (Sept 2008): 144-164.
- Leki, Ilona. Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1992.
- Montgomery, Julie L. and Wendy Baker. “Teacher-Written Feedback: Student Perceptions, Teacher Self-Assessment, and Actual Teacher Performance.” Journal of Second Language Writing 16.2 (June 2007): 82-99.
- Paulus, Trena M. “The Effect of Peer and Teacher Feedback on Student Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 8.3 (Sept 1999): 265-289.
- Raimes, Ann. “Composition: Controlled by the Teacher, Free for the Student.” On TESOL ’76. John F. Fanselow and Ruth H. Crymes, eds. Washington, DC: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1976. 183-194.
- Sundem, Garth, Jan Krieger, and Kristi Pikiewicz. 10 Languages You’ll Need Most in the Classroom: A Guide to Communicating with English Language Learners and Their Families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008.
- Valdés, Guadalupe and Patricia Anloff Sanders. “Latino ESL Students and the Development of Writing Abilities.” Evaluating Writing: The Role of the Teachers’ Knowledge about Text, Learning, and Culture. Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell, eds. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999. 249-278.
Valdez-Pierce, Lorraine. Assessing English Language Learners. Washington, DC: National Educa
 This is a growing reality, though not necessarily an unfortunate one. Mixed classrooms will not inevitably detract from effective education, as Ibrahim and Penfield argue in “Dynamic Diversity: New Dimensions in Mixed Composition Classes.”
 In addition to Cai’s essay, Valdés and Sanders’ “Latino ESL Students and the Development of Writing Abilities” is a useful example.
 For more information on specific semantics and sentence-level errors common to ESL students, see Second Language Writers’ Texts by Eli Hinkel, with a foreword from Robert Kaplan.