Vol. 3. No. 3 R-13 September 1998
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Decoding ESL: International Students in the American College Classroom

Amy Tucker (1995)
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook (originally McGraw-Hill, 1991)
Pp. xvi + 304
ISBN 0-8670 9-359-5 (paper)
US $30.00

Being an ESL writing teacher, I am often asked by English professors, content area teachers, and tutors, "What do I do with this international student in my section?" As if a five-minute pat answer existed for all ESL writers regardless of age, origin, and past experience. As if I could answer that question without knowing not just the student's intentions and strategies but also what the teacher carried into her "reading" of academic texts. What is acceptable to that instructor? What is inappropriate or viewed as "error"?

Yet, how guilty am I of such oversimplification in my interactions with students? What cultural baggage do I consciously or subconsciously bring into my reading of student texts?

Amy Tucker's book Decoding ESL: International Students in the American College Classroom examines such complexities of text construction and deconstruction within the academy. In her classes at Queens College, Tucker sets out to equip her international students with the skills needed to negotiate U.S. rhetorical conventions. At the same time, in her courses and in this book, she asks teachers to question these very conventions, to examine our own pre-conceived notions about academic writing, ESL writing, and what she feels is the one-sided pedagogy predominant in academia, which does not entertain input from outside the mainstream.

In each chapter in the book, Tucker provides readers with excerpts from and analyses of student texts, transcripts of interviews with students, and an amazing array of second language and composition research, from syntax and sociolinguistics to social constructivist rhetoric and the reading/writing connection.

Part 1, "Cross Cultural Literacy: What do Readers Need to Know?" (playing off E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s (1987) title), consists of two complementary chapters. In chapter 1, Tucker presents her original interpretations of two students' texts. She then couples these in chapter 2 ("Rereading Chapter 1") with a revision of her interpretations based on subsequent interviews with the writers themselves. By engaging in dialogue with her students, Tucker is able to articulate a much more complex set of strategies students used to reach their new audience, and she uncovers the ways in which her views were mediated by overgeneralizations of students' home cultures and background experiences. [-1-]

The second section, "In the Composition Classroom," comprises chapters 3-7. Teachers of internationals will find this section quite informative in terms of helping them to uncover some of the reasons for sentence and discourse level choices or "errors" in student work. The chapters look at different writers with different first languages, providing particular examples of trouble spots, evidence from the first language which may account for such difficulties (à la Learner English (Swan & Smith, 1987), but much livelier), and a nice review of relevant second language and contrastive rhetoric research.

Chapter 3 focuses mainly on the acquisition of articles by a Russian speaker. Tucker outlines article rules, noting their complexity, and examines her student's negotiation of these rules over several semesters through an analysis of his interlanguage.

Student affect is the focus of chapter 4, which looks at a Greek student's (Koula's) autobiographical essay about a "turning point" in her life. Tucker notes the ambiguities in Koula's work, from pronoun antecedents to unsubstantiated claims and abstractions. The underlying reasons for Koula's difficulties, which I found fascinating, lie not so much in her inability to manipulate syntactic rules but in her resistance to the demands forced upon her by her course assignments and rhetorical situation. She was not incapable of composing "acceptable" discourse. When writing about resistance to conformity or assimilation (a value she strongly espoused) for another assignment, her work was strong. However, she seemed to view many of her writing tasks, including the autobiographical one, as requiring her to succumb to the very assimilation she disliked, with the quality of these works reflecting her adamant refusal to do so.

Chapter 5, focusing on motivation, examines how affect can be a positive factor as well. The chapter chronicles the twists and turns of one Japanese student's movement through several college English courses, a movement that makes a giant leap forward at a time when the student (Mimi) was ready for such progress. Mimi's earlier works exhibited her uncertainty about sentence boundaries, tense, and the noun system in English, all of which Tucker interprets in terms of sentence level contrastive analysis and sociocultural variables--rhetorical and educational expectations traditionally attributed to the Asian-born student. Mimi's giant leap is also viewed against the backdrop of twenty years of research on motivation (an excellent review), showing how Mimi, by making connections between her writing and her life experiences, was able to make the act of writing cathartic, increasing her motivation and success.

In the next two chapters, Tucker turns to larger issues of contrastive rhetoric. Just as chapters 1 and 2 do, these two build [-2-] on each other, looking at contrastive or "comparative" rhetoric from different perspectives. In chapter 6, Tucker explores a Japanese student's text in depth, looking at the mismatch between his use of coherence devices and those deemed appropriate in U.S. academic writing. She also wraps back to her earlier argument concerning the influence of the writer's cultural orientation on creation and interpretation of text. The importance of politeness, familial relationships, and indirectness in Japanese lead to one intention in the mind of the writer, yet quite another in that of the U.S. academic reader.

Chapter 7 refocuses the discussion. Tucker now examines the situation not in terms of Japanese preferences but in terms of the roots of American preferences and their influence on composition studies in the U.S. over time. In critiquing such preferences, she introduces feminist theory, mainly the "gender-specific bias of the Western academic tradition" (p. 172). She notes that this tradition is built upon "'separate' knowledge" (objective, critical stances) while other traditions, including that of Japan, may be built on more "'connected' knowledge" (subjective experience, reciprocal relationships) (p. 173; see Belenky, et al., 1986). This distinction further explains manifestations in student texts and differing interpretations of meaning. This chapter provides the reader with excellent reviews of the history of composition studies in the U.S., the privileging of persuasive argumentation in composition classes, and thus, quite a bit of food for thought about what we perceive as "good writing."

The final section of the book takes us into the literature classroom and through Tucker's recursive "writing process" of creating course syllabi to better incorporate that missing view from the outside. She summarizes two experimental courses she and her colleagues have designed (not without dissent and contention at times): Introduction to Literature and American Studies. Their objective in designing these courses was "to demystify the process of reading by encouraging native and nonnative students to recognize the part they themselves play in making meaning" (p. 199). We are presented with a discussion of schema theory; specific syllabi, writing assignments, and journal entries used; and student voices and reflections, all of which paint a picture of what Tucker and her students actually did in the classroom and what students took away from the course. The instructor, native students, and nonnative students came to see the ways in which culture and experience color interpretation and the ways in which the sharing of those views enhances interpretation.

And so throughout the text it becomes clear that Tucker's notion of cross cultural literacy involves dialogue, interaction, and involvement by all parties. All too often, instructors such as myself, teaching our 4-4 load, become too distanced from our students, falling into, I am sure, many of the traps Tucker herself admits to. I found the inclusion of student texts and interviews of [-3-] transcripts engaging and enlightening. I was reminded to begin my evaluation of essays by examining the student's choices and intentions, trying to map them onto what the student brings into the classroom, but also to remember how the notions I bring in affect that evaluation.

Unfortunately, what makes this text so good, what makes me say "Yes, yes, yes!" as I am reading it, is the very thing that makes the book and at times, teaching college ESL, so frustrating.

The first frustration: How can I find the time to engage with students on the level required to help them negotiate their first and second cultures' expectations and assumptions, to interview each about each essay, to help build cross cultural literacy? Unlike Tucker, a professor and director of her ESL program, many teachers and tutors have heavy course loads and a great number of students to work with on a weekly basis.

Secondly, these teachers often do not have nearly the amount of academic freedom to change and adapt syllabi that Tucker does. They must teach or tutor under someone else's set of rules, just as our nonnative students must play by someone else's rhetorical rules.

My third area of concern involves how Tucker's goal of incorporating outside voices meshes with the content area course assignments students will be asked to complete. Tucker notes that it was a struggle even within her own English department to allow those outside views to have a place in the syllabus. This leaves me with a set of questions to ponder: The nonnatives may gain the confidence to speak up more in their content courses, as students in the experimental courses mention in their journals, but what expectations do their other teachers hold? How well will our students be able to "read" them, to guess what they might be? And how malleable will those teachers' syllabi be? What will happen outside the relative Eden of ESL courses, Introduction to Literature, and American Studies? How well will our courses prepare them for that?

Tucker wants us to change the academy but we can often only change our courses, and then sometimes only slightly. I agree with Tucker's idea of a pedagogy that is more two-way, where teachers and students, native and nonnative, can teach and learn from each other. But, as we discuss ways in which to empower ESL students, we must also address the problem of empowering their instructors.


Belenky, M. F., et al. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books. [-4-]

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Swan, M. & Smith, B. (Eds.). (1987). Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Margi L. Wald
University of Tennessee

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