Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education



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In fact, all this can be linked with Linda Flower’s (1992) comments on writer-based prose. She has noted that although student prose may often be inadequately structured for the reader, it does possess a logic and structure of its own just like composition in different languages and different cultural contexts. This structure serves important functions for the writer’s effort to think about a subject—a strategy for dealing with information. Flower (1992) concludes: “If we could see writer-based prose as a functional system—not a set of random errors known only to English teachers—we would be better able to teach writing as a part of any discipline that asks people to express complex ideas” (p. 23). Exactly the same can be said about recognizing cultural differences when teaching composition in a second language or basic writing setting.

If we bring together all the aforementioned views and comments, it seems that if we as writing instructors and researchers strive toward promoting a more common knowledge of contrastive rhetoric within the general field of composition, and not only among those concerned with ESL writing, we may become more effective in closing this gap between professional talk and practice (Lisle & Mano, 1997). At the same time, it is important to remember that contrastive rhetoric is not a methodology for teaching, although some of its findings can be applied to the teaching process (Grabe & Kaplan, 1989, 1996; Kaplan, 1988; Leki, 1997). Indeed, with the increasing number of international and culturally diverse students enrolled in American colleges, and the increasing number of all students regardless of culture, taking part in academic discourse communities in the cross cultural context, it is equally important for the teacher of L1 English composition courses, as it is for the ESL (L2) teacher to be aware that different rhetorical structures and styles exist.

In the final analysis, contrastive rhetoric can serve as a reminder to writing teachers that what seems to be perceived as inadequacies in a student’s writing performance simply is a result of coming from a cultural tradition that is not rooted in what most of the time is considered appropriate academic discourse by the dominant culture. In order to address this problem, Lisle and Mano (1997) have suggested that we work on finding approaches to composition instruction that emphasize the cultural knowledge that diverse students bring with them to the university.



Contrastive and Traditional Rhetoric: Applications in ESL Writing and Basic Writing

Sandra McKay (1992) has stated in the introduction to her book, Composing in a Second Language, that part of the problem of teaching composition in general, and ESL writing in particular, is due to the lack of consensus of what composition actually is, which is something that researchers of basic writing (L1) often find themselves debating as well (Bartholomae, 1993). Recurring terms such as “thinking process,” “style,” “organization,” and “form” reflect the complexity of the process of composition (McKay, 1992, p. vii). Current research that has been focusing on writing as a dynamic and recursive process involving activities such as generating ideas, planning, evaluating, and revising is interesting the cross-cultural and ESL context as well as in a basic writing context, as there certainly are cultural differences in how individuals go about these tasks—both between languages and between different cultures within the same language. In the basic writing field this becomes an issue as well because we often will find classrooms including a wide variety of cultures although the students may, or may not, share English as their first or native language.

In any event, a shared knowledge of rhetoric and writing seems to be fundamental for success in an academic writing situation, and the more that can be learned about cultural differences as well as language and dialect differences, the more effective we can be as writing teachers. The necessity of such knowledge can be illustrated by Leki (1995), who has pointed out that not only writing teachers, but even more so subject area teachers, show a disturbing degree of confidence in the universality of their judgments of ESL student writing. According to Leki’s (1995) research, most instructors seem to believe that their definition of good writing represents the norm for the entire academic community, and very often that norm has to do with the correctness of form and grammar rather than content, development, and support of ideas. Consequently, Leki (1995, 1997) calls for a need for more faculty awareness of different student backgrounds and differing assumptions about writing that faculty are likely to hold. With such awareness will come a better preparation of students and their writing in academic contexts, which is essential with the increasingly diverse college student population, including ESL writers and native English speaking, culturally diverse writers. Leki’s point is very similar to Sternglass’ (1998) lament that writing instructors frequently have preconceived opinions about the so-called basic language skills of second language and second dialect college writers, and therefore, in teaching these students, end up paying more attention to language technical skills rather than content in their writing, which is a disservice to the students.

This is where some knowledge of contrastive rhetoric could become a very important and useful tool for any writing teacher, although currently almost exclusively ESL teachers seem to be familiar with such research, which is unfortunate. Connor (1996) has acknowledged that “contrastive rhetoric research owes much of its current revival to the important role that the teaching of writing plays in undergraduate education in colleges and universities in the United States” (p. 59). The teaching and research of composition at the college level have simply helped transform contrastive rhetoric, and this has begun to make it more visible for other researchers and professionals, not only those concerned with ESL (L2) writing.

Furthermore, given that the importance of traditional rhetorical theories in relation to ESL writing has generally received very little attention, and seen in the light of the new cultural diversity of college composition discussed above, it seems relevant to consider traditional rhetoric and contrastive rhetoric together in college composition instruction for the benefit of both L1 and L2 developmental writing. Berlin (1984) has stated that for effective composition and communication to take place a writer must have reasonable social control over the language in use, which is often just as much an issue for a native English speaking, academic newcomer (i.e., new to the college community and discourse) as it is for an ESL writer (Sternglass, 1998).

At this point, I would like to turn the above discussion of contrastive rhetoric around and suggest that in order to successfully incorporate theories of contrastive rhetoric into the broader field of writing instruction, we need to look at it not as an alternative, but rather as a supplement to more traditional theories of rhetoric. As a starting point here, I am reminded of James Berlin’s (1984) views on the concept of “reality.” He states that “[e]very rhetoric has its base in a conception of reality, of human nature, and of language” (p. 1). Rhetoric is, he continues, “. . . ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. . .” and, moreover, “. . . it is the center of a culture’s activities” (p. 2). If this is the case, one would think that academic writing would create quite a few problems for a basic writing student who has to wrestle with this new academic culture and learn to create the type of discourse deemed appropriate in such a setting. The world consists of numerous different cultures, which consequently would have as many different rhetorics, which again would lead to almost just as many realities. These realities and rhetorics, then, are something to be aware of in both the ESL classroom, which seems to have been the case, and the basic writing classroom, which seems to not have been the case. This is exactly where knowledge of contrastive rhetoric gains its importance and can expand into native English composition. Prior (1998) also has acknowledged this by stating that it is important for any student writer to become aware of social, cultural, and historical conventions of written language that may vary from context to context. In the final analysis rhetoric can be paralleled with communication, which in turn links up with the current emphasis on communicative competence in second and foreign language teaching and learning. Again, this focus on communicative competence could successfully be expanded into the basic writing classroom.

Perelman (1982), another rhetorician, has argued for a “new rhetoric” (p. 45) acknowledging and stressing awareness of different rhetorical styles in communication and argumentation, whether these are between cultures or academic disciplines. As teachers we should practice this awareness in the composition classroom. Consequently, Perelman’s new rhetoric argument seems to further emphasize that it is important to bring ESL and English L1 composition closer together, as both are concerned with communication through writing. As argued by Connor (1996), classical, traditional rhetoric has “given researchers and teachers tools for analyzing invention and text strategies of persuasion and argumentation cross-culturally, with the ‘new rhetoric’ providing a focused examination” (p. 64). All this seems important in considering L1 and L2 college composition as two parts of an integrated whole, and crucial for the teaching profession to deal with when discussing and researching the problems and concerns novice writing students may have.

The Composition Curriculum:

In order to fully explore the intersection of L1 and L2 developmental composition, it is important to consider the curriculum within these two sub-fields of writing instruction. Given the above discussion of research on contrastive rhetoric and literature on composition and traditional rhetoric, it seems inevitable that we also try to integrate L1 and L2 writing in terms of the curriculum.



Curriculum Content and Pedagogy

Unfortunately, most research on curriculum making and pedagogy within the field of writing has followed the same trend of treating L1 and L2 writing as almost mutually exclusive. At the same time, the terms curriculum making and pedagogy within the general field of education sometimes seem to have been considered too much as separate entities in terms of theory, practice, and research. Doyle (1996) has stated that “the meeting point between these two domains has always been somewhat fuzzy” (p. 486). He attributes this partly to the fact that the terms are associated with separate phenomena: “curriculum making” specifies what is to be taught, content selection and arrangement; whereas pedagogy generally refers to the human interaction during actual teaching or, in other words, the how of instruction. As a result of this distinctiveness, Doyle (1996) asserts that much work and research “within each domain has gone on as if the other did not exist” (p. 486). However, it seems essential that we find a common ground for curriculum making and pedagogy in L1 and L2 college composition given the convergence of skills needed in both.

Alderson, Clapham, and Wall (1995) have stated that validity and reliability should be among the overarching principles when we are designing a way to teach and assess our language learners and their writing. In terms of assessment it would be safe to say that essay writing will almost always present itself to be one of the most subjective areas of instruction. It is often the responsibility of the teacher to clearly state what the requirements and objectives are in different writing assignments, and hopefully this will minimize students’ confusion about what is expected in terms of their academic writing performance. However, very little research has been addressing how expectations of form and content are communicated between teachers and students (Prior, 1998). In these terms, the tasks of the ESL student writers should not be significantly different from those of native English speaking college composition students, whether these are basic writers or not. Almost all writing students will have to face the fact that composition to a large extent is much more subjective than their calculus or geography class. For instance, one consequence of this subjectivity is that the freshman writing instructor teaching basic writing or ESL should be able to take a more significant role as a curriculum maker than other teachers. In the classroom, this would mean that the writing teacher should not only partly control the how, but also a good slice of what should be taught, and consequently should create a healthy fusion of the curriculum and the classroom pedagogy.

All this corresponds well with Clandinin and Connelly (1996), who have stated that college teachers have more autonomy and “influence over their work and course design” (p. 385) than teachers on other educational levels. College composition certainly is no exception. However, Alderson et al. (1995) bring up a point that may lead us to believe that this fusion will not work as well when we are talking about college level ESL writers. They state that the problem is that ESL writers may have difficulties with the conventions of technical use of such words as “discuss” or “illustrate,” which are commonly used terms in assignments for college composition classes. Therefore, we need more rigid attention and set goals for working with vocabulary items and other technicalities when teaching ESL writing (Alderson et al.). Although it is true that while evaluating ESL student writers, we need to make sure they know what these terms involve, it is very likely that L1 basic writing students often have similar difficulties with such terms.

Many native English speaking students come out of high school and have never had to do much essay writing, much less had to deal with what it means to “discuss” or “reflect” on a particular writing prompt; these terms represent to them an unfamiliar academic discourse. For example, I continuously have to stress to my basic writers and regular freshman composition students what these terms mean and what is expected in such an assignment. On the other hand, I have often had ESL students with fairly extensive writing experience in their own language who would have no problems with the terms, as long as they knew the actual lexical translation, simply because they had developed some academic skills in their native language or culture. So, in that respect, it seems that the novice composition students are very similar regardless of whether they are regular L1 college composition students, basic writers, or ESL writers. Consequently, what happens in the writing classroom for all these groups of students should not be significantly different. In short, the research and the shaping of the writing curriculum and the pedagogy should be considered very similar for all these college composition learners.

Additionally, ESL students often may have to face other, more program-specific complications. In order to illustrate this further and show how it relates to the intersection of research, curriculum making, and pedagogy for within any type of college writing, I will draw on some of my experiences in the Intensive English Program at Southern Illinois University (SIU), especially the part of the program called English for Academic Purposes (EAP), which is the last step in the program before the students enter regular credit bearing courses. Looking at Doyle’s (1996) definitions, the curriculum or content in this program has already been strictly written out in the program handbook. The positive aspect of this practice is that it at least ensures some kind of plan or general standard according to which the students’ writing will be assessed. However, the written products of the students are graded analytically according to a very rigid scale, as opposed to holistic scoring, which is the norm in most L1 college composition including basic writing. This assessment, then, is instrumental in deciding whether these ESL students are ready to move on to regular L1 composition classes. Although holistic scoring may be questioned in terms of its validity in ESL writing (e.g., Tedick & Mathison, 1995), it seems that such inconsistency in using analytic and holistic scoring in ESL and L1 writing respectively does not allow the ESL writing teacher the same autonomy and flexibility in both the content and the process as the L1 writing teacher, which in turn may constitute a disadvantage for the ESL writer compared to the L1 student writer.

One of the main reasons that the ESL program at SIU and most other programs like it tend to have stayed this rigid for so long is probably the influence of the ESL writing textbook. There is a plethora of textbooks on how to organize and structure ESL composition classes, and they all address issues that they consider are important for ESL writers. Most of them end up focusing heavily on a rigid structure and organizational issues (i.e., the somewhat outdated five paragraph essay) as well as sentence level problems rather than higher order skills that are generally recognized by the L1 writing field as necessary for effective college composition. It is common for an ESL writing program to adopt one of these textbooks and base the curriculum of its writing course on it.

On the other hand, most traditional L1 college composition programs are de-emphasizing rigid structure and sentence level issues in writing, and tending to focus more on critical thinking, involving issues such as stating and developing arguments and using supporting details. L1 basic writing seems to be split between a rigid structure similar to ESL writing and the more progressive approach of traditional college composition. In any event, in an approach emphasizing content, development, and critical thinking, the teacher is left with more freedom to choose a thematic direction of the course and use this to select a textbook, which often is an anthology containing a number of readings concerning the course focus. Through this critical reading of texts, the teacher is allowed more flexibility in terms of writing specific content for the course and consequently is much more in charge of his or her own curriculum in the writing class. There still are some overall curricular issues to address, but the teacher and the students avoid the confining feeling that Venezsky (1996) refers to when discussing a “prescribed curriculum, which is textbooks and other curricular materials that define or prescribe not only the content of courses but also the sequence of topics and quite often the pedagogical strategies to employ in teaching them” (p. 439). Such a strategy does not leave the class or the teacher with room for much creativity in the learning situation. Unfortunately this may still be the case in some basic and ESL writing programs.



The Importance of Higher Order Skills in Composition

The bottom line is that whether we are talking about ESL writing students or students with English as a native language, we will always have to make sure that the learners know the requirements of a writing assignment and that they possess the background knowledge needed to complete it. However, by having the background knowledge come from within the composition class, it becomes easier to control and assess writing only, and consequently it also leaves the teacher more in control of the writing class curriculum. At the same time, the more holistic view of writing assessment in regular L1 composition classes seems to call for more individuality and creativity in the students, which tends to help the learning process as they are actively involved in it and are encouraged to think critically about content. In his discussion of curriculum and pedagogy Doyle (1996) touches upon this issue when addressing the importance of tasks in the classroom (i.e., immediate interpretative demands):

[T]asks frame both pedagogy and curriculum…if, for instance, a teacher asks higher order questions during class discussions but holds students accountable in written work only for knowing definitions of key terms, it is unlikely that students will, over time, pay much attention to classroom discussions. (p. 504)

As a result of the reliance on textbooks and rigid structure of composition, it seems that, in many instances, higher-order thinking is left out of ESL writing classes (Raimes 1991), and according to Sternglass (1998) often also basic writing classes, whereas the freedom allowed teachers in traditional or regular L1 composition classes promotes higher-order skills and critical thinking, and therefore provides a healthier, and maybe more effective, learning environment. For the same reasons, then, it seems that the ESL writing teacher becomes more of a curriculum consumer, concerned only with pedagogy, whereas the regular L1 composition teacher becomes a curriculum maker, concerned both with shaping the curriculum and with classroom pedagogy; and worse yet, L1 basic writing teachers may find themselves somewhere in between these two extremes.

In 1860, Herbert Spencer argued that children and students “should be told as little as possible and induced to discover as much as possible” (as cited in Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1996, p. 73). What Spencer argued about curriculum making and pedagogy some 140 years ago is still a progressive idea and should be an important issue in the field of college composition, regardless of whether for traditional L1 college composition, basic writing, or ESL writing. College composition instruction should end up being very much on a trial and error basis: learning by doing. The instructor should take more the role of a coach or tutor who is guiding the students through the acquisition process—rather than correcting the students and determining or dictating their learning process. This should also enhance student motivation as the learning process will seem more applicable to each student’s own individual situation and therefore improve the outcome. However, the continuous rather rigid outlook of many ESL composition and some basic writing courses seems to put these writing students at a disadvantage by not providing these opportunities to the same extent that they are provided for regular composition learners.

However, recently we have been seeing scholars and researchers of L1 basic writing focus more on overall global skills in writing instruction. Bartholomae (1993), for instance, has emphasized the importance of the integration of reading and writing skills in order to develop the critical thinking and reflection that is necessary for successfully performing the type of academic writing and discourse that is required on the college level. Bartholomae’s philosophy is, basically, that a course in writing is a course in reading and vice versa, which means that students should learn how to work on what they read through writing. His premise is that students may show reluctance and uncertainty in talking about and reacting to what they read, but when teaching written composition, our aim should be coaching students in these tasks, and thereby helping them develop as writers and critical readers and thinkers.

As a result, critical reading further becomes a focus of academic writing instruction through presenting students with challenging texts in order to empower and provide them with the tools necessary for analyzing and responding to what they read. Bartholomae (1980, 1993) holds that instead of focusing on writing in isolation, we should make it an issue to have the students read a lot, not only concentrating on what our students read, but focusing more on what they can learn to do with what they read in terms of producing their own argument and reactions, and reflecting on it in writing. This view is also reflected in much of the empirical research done with basic writers in recent years, and Schriver (1992), among others, has called for scholars to conduct more research on the thinking processes and experiences of student writers and readers in cultural contexts. At the same time, both Prior (1998) and Sternglass (1998) remind us that composition instruction and academic writing should not be looked at in a vacuum. Freshman writing instruction should rather be considered an important step in helping these students acquire academic discourse—parts of a learning, acquisition, and enculturation process into academia that takes time. This approach to writing instruction can be further illustrated by Gee (1989), who has stated that “discourses are not mastered by overt instruction, but by enculturation (apprenticeship) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the discourse” (p. 7).

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