Accuracy or Fluency? Responding to ESL Student Writing

By Steve Frandzel

More than 1,500 international students are currently enrolled at Emory (forty-seven of whom attend Oxford College). And each year that number grows by about 10 percent. The sizeable international contingent is a point of pride for the university, but it also means that a growing number of students whose native language is not English need help achieving linguistic proficiency. That’s where the English as a Second Language Program (ESL) comes in.

“This is not a tiny population of students and we have to figure out how to serve them. There’s a real range of ability among these students,” said Stacy Bell, a lecturer at Oxford College who teaches ESL.

At a workshop in September, Bell and Jane O’Connor, director of ESL in the Office of Undergraduate Education, talked about some of the key issues relating to ESL, including its practical limitations. “ESL students are certainly not going to be fluent and accurate writers by the end of one semester,” O’Connor said. “It’s a process, and I’m hoping when they go through my class that they at least know what their resources are and how they can make their work better.” She urged teachers to temper their expectations for ESL students.

Workshop participants also got some practical advice for reviewing and grading writing assignments:

  • When grading papers for ESL students, offer as few specific corrections as possible. Marking every error takes a lot of time for the instructor and does not challenge the student enough. According to Bell, the best thing you can do for conscientious students is show them the problem then ask them to revise their work after giving them the tools to do so.
  • Do correct prepositions or mistaken attempts to master idiomatic expressions.
  • Distinguish between errors (which occur when rules are not known) and mistakes (which occur when rules are known).
  • Look for patterns. Mark the first few occurrences of a particular error (subject/verb agreement, for example), then ask the student to find and correct the rest.
  • Require students to turn in essay planning sheets with their assignments. This basic tool, said Bell, gets students thinking about compositional components and improves writing fluency. The sheets typically include an introductory paragraph, an explanation of the issue, a summary of the other side’s argument, and a thesis statement.

“If a student has taken everything I’ve told them into consideration, usually their grade will go up significantly,” said O’Connor. “It’s a time-consuming process, but I really think it’s benefited my students.”

Bell and O’Connor also discussed the ongoing and sometimes contentious debate about whether the primary goal of ESL instruction should be fluency (when language proficiency is good enough to get the basic message across) or accuracy (native-like speech or writing). The answer, Bell said, depends largely on a student’s circumstances. For instance, a student who plans to return home after graduating has less incentive to master English than one who plans to settle in the U.S. Age is also a big factor: older students have more difficulty acquiring new language skills.

There’s a lot of disagreement about what ESL students should be able to do, said Bell. “We’re not trying to convince everyone to have the same goals. We just want people to be more thoughtful about what goals are realistic.”