Matsuda and Moving Forward

Paul Kei Matsuda’s article provides a useful overview of the history of ELL research in the field of composition as well as draws attention to a significant topic that is still relevant today: how can composition studies contribute to ELL research, as numerous ELL students are placed in composition courses across the country. Although NDSU has ELL courses, both offered through the Modern Language Department and the English Department, these courses stop at first-year writing. While students undoubtedly learn about many writing conventions and rhetorical practices in their early writing courses, they cannot possibly get enough practice in retaining the skills if they do not have another English course until their upper-division writing courses. Matsuda points out that “even when ESL students are enrolled in special ESL courses before taking required writing courses, the unique difficulties that ESL writers encounter in English composition are not likely to disappear after a semester –or even a few years– of additional language instruction” (789). I would argue that this is definitely true for some, if not all, ELL students.

Working at the Center for Writers, I see ELL students who struggle to understand American rhetorical and citation conventions every single day. Specifically, last semester I worked with a student from China quite frequently who was in his Writing in the Sciences Course. This student struggled with paraphrasing; every time I worked with him, he would bring in pages and pages of copy-and-pasted texts from websites. I had explained to him that in the US, it is considered plagiarism to use other people’s words and tried to help him paraphrase the sentences, but he always said that he did not know how to put them into his own words. He also significantly struggled with creating a thesis and integrating is opinion into his writing. He came to the Center for months, and I struggled to help him make even small improvements.

Some may argue, “Well he should have learned that in his lower-level writing courses,” but how can that be a guarantee? I do not think that this student’s situation is unique; I have worked with numerous other international students who have difficulty adapting to American writing standards even after spending several semesters in ELL writing courses. How can composition instructors better help these students? Matsuda suggests that English departments provide training for composition instructors on how to teach ELL students, which I think is a vital step. However, how much of this is done? This leads me into my concluding questions:

Q1: What accommodations can be made for ELL students in upper-division writing courses who still have not fully grasped American writing standards?

Q2: What are some practical methods that composition instructors can take to assist ELL students in their writing courses?


4 thoughts on “Matsuda and Moving Forward

  1. Your questions are rather intriguing, Celena. I believe that it is impossibile to tach writing to ESL students who have had only 2 or 3 years of English at the High School level. It take years of practice to be able to write in your second language in a way that is rhetorically appropriate and linguistically viable. Even when you have written extensively and published articles in your second language, you still struggle with the writing process because your culture, your way of thinking, and of course your mother tongue are always ‘interfering’ with your cognitive process.

    I am not enthused by the concept of ‘interference’, but it is around this concept that paradigms in SLA (Second Language Aquisition) research have been constructed. Interference is not always a problem, as it were, when you know how to use the latinate vocabulary of English you certainly have an advantage, so speakers of romance languages can at least tap into a repertoire of linguistic resources that they find congenial to their communicative needs.

    With Chinese students and speakers of language that don’t have a connection with English, well, the situation is far more complicated. I don’t think that two or three semesters of writing classes can really make a difference unless these students constantly devote time and energies to writing, unless writing becomes a daily activity, unless they listen to NPR every day or watch TV shows with English subtitles. What I am trying to say is that we cannot possibly expect a Chinese student to become a proficient user of Academic English in two years. It took more than ten years and constant practice for me to write effectively in a variety of genres.

    However, Matsuda does provide good advice, especially when he brings up the technique of patchwork. It seems to me that the student you tutored at the writing center could copy words and structures from the paragraphs that she finds online. Existing texts can provide the syntactical framing that can host new content. A student who copies and pastes, but then extensively revises and bends the existing text to her communicative needs has found a good approach to writing in a second language.

    I wish Matsuda has said something about online language databases or corpora that are freely available to students. The COCA corpus is the biggest and most used language database: a tremendous resource for L2 students who can both investigate how language works and what is conventional by means of simple queries. However, in order to be able to use this resource, both native and non-native speakers of English must have meta-knowledge of the English language; in other words and simplifying a bit, they have to study linguistics and be willing to be ‘Maylath-ed’ for one of two semesters.
    The study of the principles of linguistics can certainly help users of English to use language in a more effective way. I agree with Charles Fries.


  2. While I haven’t been teaching writing classes for very long, I have taught classes that included international students and required a paper at the end of the semester. Knowing that the 100-level general-education class I was teaching would require a final paper, and knowing that many of my students had very little experience with college-level writing (particularly during the fall semesters), I often assigned short writing exercises despite the fact that it wasn’t a writing class. They were usually low-stakes exercises, such as “write a 2-page paper analyzing a Super Bowl commercial” or “write a brief, 1-page essay about your reaction to X event on campus over the weekend,” worth a minimal amount of points so as not to stress my students out. In addition, the course I was teaching required a total of 3 exams throughout the semester, all of which consisted mostly of essay questions.

    As such, my students had ample opportunities to practice their writing. This seemed to work out well for my international students, as well, which has led me to believe the old adage that “practice makes perfect.” Granted, since I was teaching a non-writing course, I was less focused on form and more focused on content, less focused on grammar and formatting and more focused on whether or not my students were actually making decent arguments, grasping the correct information. And I obviously agree with Massimo, that it can often take years for ESL writers to learn to write effectively in English.

    One tactic that Matsuda and Hammill mention that resonated with me was that “focusing on the effects–rather than the rules–of particular errors…may be effective in developing students’ sense of how a reader might respond to their work. This can help students focus their attention on both the form and the function of language, which is crucial for developing their linguistic and rhetorical knowledge” (276). I mention this particular tactic because it is one that I have often employed with my international students in the past, and it definitely seems to help. I think one-on-one work, like the Writing Center offers, is generally pretty useful when working with ESL students. This may be one of the best ways to help them better grasp the confusing language that English is.


  3. The research in how ESL, ELL, L2 students acquire English has finally moved away from immersion acquisition theories where students are plopped in a classroom and are expected to absorb the language (without context) and become fluent by association. Still, educators might have difficulties knowing what allowable accommodations are; some states’ education boards say that students get ESL accommodations but leaves it up to the teacher to decide if and how to implement them:


    I found very clear accommodations and teachings suggestions for other states:


    The college level is more problematic. There is an assumption that the students are adults and should have already learned English, but as learning English in a classroom is much different than actually attending a class taught in English.

    When I taught in areas with a large number of non-native, international, or dual languages students, and had an active ESL program, we were given rubrics and training on what not to grade—lapses in articles, -ed and –ing drops, and adjective order error. We needed to grade on meaning and not more than 10% on mechanics. However, institutions that had a different ESL focus privileged grammar over purpose. The students did not seem to do as well in courses outside of the ESL department.

    I though this website might be interesting for some of you. I found a website that lists all colleges that offer ESL programs by state:


  4. You raise interesting questions in regards to what can be done by composition specialists. I do agree that L2 writers use the rhetoric of their native language when writing in English in most cases. Maybe it would help to direct research to studying the Rhetoric international students come with. I believe that this investigation should involve asking the students, as Matsuda suggests, about the Rhetoric of their native languages. Only then can we decide how much effect that has on the L2 Writers’ writing and become able to address the issues by comparing the two Rhetorics whether as teachers in composition classes or as tutors at the writing center. I think that writing center as a support system can benefit from such interrogations and discussions in order to serve the international student population better.


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