Some of the writing problems you will see derive from inexperience with a particular assignment type or topic, but many have more fundamental causes.
Basic Writers are native-speakers whose writing skills are under-developed. Often these students have difficulty reading as well, or do not read very much. Basic Writers may write "like they talk," in an oral style which may be inappropriate for the academic task they are attempting. You may also see evidence of "chunking," where the first part of a sentence does not fit together grammatically with a following part.
Basic Writers often need help with pre-writing activities so that they can generate ideas for the paper and get started. They also need help with developing an understanding of audience appropriate to the written situation, since the needs of a listener in an oral face-to-face situation are quite different from those of a reader. As with non-native speakers, increased reading will increase vocabulary and improve mastery of literate forms of organization.
Students who speak English as a Second Language (ESL) are often called "non-native" speakers of English. Some ESL students were born in this country, some have been here for six or seven years, and some are recent immigrants. In fact, the term "non-native speaker" may be inappropriate on our campus, because there are so many different situations which don't fit neatly into this category. ESL students who come to the Writing Center often have all the writing problems of inexperienced native-speaking writers, in addition to the problems of second language acquisition and cultural assimilation. Your major role for these students will be to function as a native-speaking (or fluent-speaking) informant about American language, culture, and rhetorical patterns. The following are three major points to remember about tutoring non-native students:
Language acquisition is crucial—Language acquisition is a natural on-going process. Many students speak their native languages at home and with their friends. Even if you feel unable to explain in accurate technical terms the various grammatical and syntactical problems you observe in their papers, your conversations with them about the meaning of their papers are a significant and important part of their English language input (See the "Language Acquisition" section below). For some, a long-term solution is to increase the amount of reading they do in English.
Conscious knowledge of grammar is not necessary—Because language acquisition is an unconscious process, you yourself as a native speaker (or fluent-speaker) of English may not have conscious knowledge of a grammatical terminology or grammatical rules. You know what the correct forms are, but you do not know why they are correct or how to talk about them. This is not a serious detriment to your ability to tutor these students. In fact, you may be a better tutor because of it, as you will be naturally inclined to discuss meaning rather than grammatical forms. In time your knowledge of grammar will increase and you will learn when grammatical intervention is helpful.
A conference with a non-native speaker is not essentially different in goals or procedures from any other—Whatever the visible problems are, the basic rule is this: Deal with global issues-focus, audience, argument, organization-first; deal with grammatical and syntactical problems last. Find out what the writing is about and what it is intended to accomplish before you make suggestions about grammatical changes. Make sure you know what the writer intends to mean before you recommend altering the structure of any sentence.
Stephen Krashen's language acquisition theory has had a profound effect on language teaching and composition. While there have been serious challenges to the theory, and the role of conscious learning and grammatical instruction is not entirely undisputed, what is clear is that language acquisition is an important factor, perhaps the most important factor, in language ability.
1. Acquisition/Learning distinction—Language acquisition is a natural unconscious process, and second language acquisition is very similar to first language acquisition. Language learning, on the other hand, is the development of conscious knowledge about a language-rules, forms, etc. Acquisition is a very powerful process, both in children and adults. On the other hand, according to Krashen, conscious learning has a very weak influence on language use. Thus, such practices as error correction have little effect on acquisition.
2. The Input Hypothesis—This is the most important part of the theory. Language acquisition takes place when comprehensible input is available.
3. The Natural Order Hypothesis—When Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar appeared on the linguistic scene, efforts were made to adapt it to pedagogical purposes, and studies were done to see if transformational approaches were more effective than traditional grammar. The results showed that no grammar-based approach was very effective. Acquisition seemed to take place without much relation to instruction. Krashen and others found that there was a natural order of acquisition--that grammatical forms are acquired in roughly the same order regardless of first language or order of instruction. One of the most interesting discoveries was that the third person singular "s," which is always one of the first things taught in a grammar based syllabus, was one of the last things acquired.
This research tends to call into question the concept of first language "interference," because the natural order tends to hold regardless of what the first language is. There is some evidence, however, that the features of the first language may increase the staying power of certain transitional forms, such as the position of the negative. This research also shows that grammar-based syllabi, even those based on the natural order, are not very effective.
4. The Monitor Hypothesis—Conscious learning can be used to modify output to some degree, if the following conditions are met:
For rules to be useful, they also have to be fairly simple, like "i before e, except after c." The monitor is thus somewhat useful for proofreading, but without a strong acquisition base, conscious knowledge will not increase fluency by much.
5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis—Sometimes acquisition does not appear to occur even when comprehensible input is available. Krashen proposes that input is blocked by what he calls an "affective filter." There are three categories of affect:
Thus a student with low motivation, low self-confidence, and high anxiety will not acquire the second language in spite of the presence of comprehensible input.
Another way to look at the issue of motivation is to say that the input must not only be comprehensible, but also socially meaningful. An individual may live and work in an environment rich in input in the second language, but if this potential input is defined as being directed toward some social group the individual does not belong to, it may not be attended to. For example, an instructor working to improve the literacy of a group of California Conservation Corps employees noticed that the two Vietnamese members of the predominantly African-American and Chicano group paid little or no attention to the social interaction of the other members. The only English language interactions they attended to were direct orders and instructions from the supervisor.
Krashen's insistence on the lack of connection between conscious learning and unconscious acquisition has been characterized by Rod Ellis as the "non-interface" position. Other linguists posit some kind of interface between acquisition and learning. William Rutherford, for example, stakes out a compromise position in which acquisition is still the most powerful factor in second language mastery. However, Rutherford believes that conscious attention to grammatical forms or other features can produce "consciousness raising" which can guide acquisition.
Essential to Rutherford's position is the concept of "interlanguage." An "interlanguage" is a structured grammatical system, constructed by the learner, which approximates the grammatical system of the language being acquired. As acquisition proceeds, the interlanguage system evolves into a better approximation of the standard system. In Rutherford's model, this evolution proceeds through "hypothesis testing," and thus highlighting or focusing on specific differences or mismatches between the learner's interlanguage system and the standard grammatical system can facilitate hypothesis formation and testing.
In practice, language acquisition theory means that reading and listening to a large amount of comprehensible English is essential to improving a student's English language ability. Rutherford's revision of this theory means that highlighting specific points at which the student's interlanguage system is at variance with a native-speaker's grammatical system can help that student form a better hypothesis about how that particular part of the system works, and facilitate acquisition of the proper forms.