Mike Rose always makes a lot of sense to me. His most recent blog post Colleges Need to Re-Mediate Remediation is no exception. It reflects my attitude toward teaching academic ESL, too.
Describing a typical remedial English course, Rose says
The traditional remedial writing course typically begins with simple writing assignments and includes a fair number of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage.. The readings are fairly basic, in both style and content. Powerful—and limiting—assumptions about language, learning, and cognition drive such a curriculum, although they might not be articulated: Students like Kevin must go back to linguistic square one, building skills slowly through the elements of grammar.
Simple reading and writing assignments won’t overly tax such students’ abilities and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic errors. Complex, demanding work and big ideas—college work—should be put on hold until they master the basics.
He goes on to assert that this approach is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. He and his colleagues looked at the kinds of assignments students are commonly called on to produce in their earliest courses at university and then designed a curriculum that would prepare a student to do those assignments. They
wanted to help him improve his writing in all aspects—grammar, organization, style. But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly build his skills.
They found readings, sequenced assignments, and structured the semester in a way that would truly help the student learn to write better.
To assist students, we organized instruction to include much discussion of the readings and a good deal of writing in which they could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed. And because many students, like Kevin, displayed all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we spent a lot of time on errors—in class, in conference, in comments on their papers—but all in the context of their academic writing.
That is a huge point, and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: Writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and errors can be dealt with effectively as one works with such material.
When I teach ESL at this level, I try to do the same thing. We do real academic work. In and around that, we learn grammar and vocabulary and whatever else the students need in order to be successful. For example, in one class this semester, we have each chosen a different country to study throughout the course. We are reading news reports every week and summarizing them. We are now in the process of learning to write a descriptive essay – introducing the country in general. This will take some time as we have to learn about citing sources, synthesizing information, and a whole lot more. In a couple weeks, we will move on to another type of essay, still about the same country. We will write opinion, compare-contrast, cause-effect, and analysis essays. They will build from one unit to the next. We will talk about their topics and about their readings. We will look at their writing and the problems in it, but we won’t stop there.
Some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we have taken. Successful remedial programs set high standards, are focused on inquiry and problem-solving in a substantial curriculum, use a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive, draw on a variety of techniques and approaches, are in line with students’ goals, and provide credit for course work.
I try to ensure that my courses meet these guidelines. I don’t think I always succeed, but I always try. I think my students deserve it.