Vol. 4. No. 3 R-17 May 2000
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Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition: Issues in the Teaching of Writing to U.S.-Educated Learners of ESL
Linda Harklau, Kay M. Losey, and Meryl Siegal, Editors. (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. ix + 245
ISBN 0-8058-2955-5 (paper)
US $24.50 (also available in cloth, $49.95)

This book consists of twelve essays by various researchers on different issues specific to "Generation 1.5," non-native speakers who immigrate at an early age and go through the American public school system before entering American college composition classrooms. It is an important contribution to the limited amount of research currently available on the special problems and distinguishing traits of this population.

The text consists of twelve chapters fairly evenly divided into three sections: "The Students," "The Classrooms," and "The Programs." The first chapter, by the editors, is entitled "Linguistically Diverse Students and College Writing: What is Equitable and Appropriate?" It summarizes the research contained in the rest of the chapters in a very clear and helpful fashion. It also serves as a good introduction to this whole sub-field of L2 writing research, which concerns itself with students who have not previously been studied extensively.

The second chapter, "'Pretty Much I Screwed Up': Ill-Served Needs of a Permanent Resident," is by Ilona Leki, one of the leading authorities in second-language composition studies. One could appropriately re-title this chapter "L2 Writing Research Meets Postmodernism." The form in which the research is presented is narrative, or "ethnographic" and Leki's introductory comment that such narratives do not aim at the universal and the generalizable, but at the particular, is a bow to postmodernist tenets, as is her almost apologetic disclaimer of the possibility of discovering any general truths in qualitative research. After reading these preliminary remarks, I began to wonder about the utility of wading through the pages of narrative and transcribed dialogues that follow if reading them would not impart any general principles, any truth. But the essay gives a fairly detailed account of the special problems and survival strategies of immigrant learners of English in the college environment. Although this case study is of only one particular Polish student, many aspects of his story are very familiar to most college ESL teachers and mainstream English teachers as well. The chapter does not really address language acquisition directly, but rather the coping strategies of students who are mainstreamed without having achieved English proficiency and literacy at the secondary school level. It is also an indictment of practices that college instructors engage in to the detriment of real educational development for such students.

"Contingent Literacy: The Social Construction of Writing for Nonnative English-Speaking College Freshmen," by Judith Rodby, consists of case studies of two students and is theoretically based on a book by Uri Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development (1979). The intuitively plausible idea that students in composition classes who make the effort to revise drafts several times succeed, while those who don't, fail, is related to the various "interconnecting contexts actively shaping development in freshman composition" (p. 49). Such relationships as those with family, fellow students, clubs, work, and so forth, are "microsystems" in an "exosystem," which is, in turn, enveloped by a "macrosystem," and they determine student motivation for better or for worse. The macrosystem is the sum of the other systems, and the exosystem is made up of the attitudes toward education of institutions such as one's church, clubs, employers, and so forth, what I would refer to as one's environment. A fourth kind of system, the "mesosystem," seems to be the intersection of microsystems, whatever that means. If all the microsystems encourage the pursuit of literacy in English, the student will--almost in a deterministic fashion, it seems--do what it takes to pass freshman composition. This is, in fact, hardly news to experienced composition teachers, but the social-science theory used to conceptualize it is of some interest (although, in the form in which it appears here, it verges on self-parody). [-1-]

The fourth chapter ("Distinguishing Incipient and Functional Bilingual Writers: Assessment and Instructional Insights Gained Through Second-Language Writer Profiles," by Jan Frodesen and Norinne Starna) consists of two more case studies with a focus on assessment and instructional issues. An important point that emerges from this chapter is that for "functional bilinguals," the most effective way to handle their writing needs is to use peer editing and conferencing to develop editing skills, so that the nonnative writer can, if not eliminate ungrammatical or non-idiomatic features at the sentence level, at least learn how to identify and correct them during revision. The explanation in this chapter of the distinction between "incipient bilinguals" and "functional bilinguals" helps conceptualize a recognizable phenomenon: students with advanced proficiency whose writing still contains such "fossilized" features as systematic absence of the morpheme -ed in past participles and lack of subject-verb agreement. The authors recommend mainstreaming of these "functional bilinguals," together with focused attention on teaching these students how to edit for these "errors." Although only two students are studied, this chapter is based on a wealth of information, including interviews as well as written work by the students. The end of the chapter lists implications for placement, ongoing assessment, and writing instruction, consisting of several brief paragraphs describing recommended techniques and practices in these three areas (pp. 76-77).

Chapter 5 ("Language Identity and Language Ownership: Linguistic Conflicts of First-Year University Writing Students," by Yuet-Sim D. Chiang and Mary Schmida) introduces an acronym I have never seen before: NELB, U.S.-born Americans who have a non-English language background. The authors align themselves with a body of research "that views language and literacy acquisition from a broad-based sociocultural perspective . . . that seeks to explain success or failure of learning from within a social and political context in which the language learning occurs"(p. 81). There are some interesting insights in this chapter, among which is the high proportion of Chinese-Americans surveyed who described themselves as "bilingual" although, when interviewed, they confessed that they were not fluent in Chinese. Their concomitant lack of identification with English and with American culture, except insofar as it is a tool for social advancement, leaves them in a kind of limbo.

The first chapter in Part II ("Preparation for College Writing: Teachers Talk About Writing Instruction for Southeast Asian American Students in Secondary School," by Beth Hartman and Elaine Tarone) deals with secondary-level preparation for college writing. Its authors remark at the outset that "few studies have examined the nature of LEP [limited English proficient] student writing instruction in high schools, or looked at literacy instruction across classroom contexts"(p. 99). In the authors' own words, "this chapter focuses on the reported writing instructional practices of teachers of Southeast Asian American LEP students at a high school in the upper Midwest" (p. 100). The chapter is clearly aimed at those who teach such students at the college level and contains very useful information for those of us college writing teachers who are less familiar than we should be with what goes on at the high school level. Like previous chapters, this chapter falls into two parts: (a) a very concise but thorough discussion of the issues to be addressed, with ample references to the relevant research literature, and (b) a much longer case study section, followed by comments on the implications of the study for teaching. If the transcriptions of the interviews with instructors were omitted, the summary of what was learned from the case study, which is given at the end of the chapter, would still convey the results of the research quite fully. But, again, in this volume case-study format rules, and particular detail is given equal weight with general observations and conclusions. [-2-]

The next chapter, "Classroom Instruction and Language Minority Students: On Teaching to 'Smarter" Readers and Writers," by Linda Lonon Blanton is provocative, taking the bull by the horns at the outset. "To begin with," she declares, "I take an unsympathetic look at academic writing and claim that much of it is not a good target toward which to aim writing instruction for any students" (p. 119). Blanton offers "critical literacy," not writing skills, as "the goal of college preparatory writing instruction for all learners, including language minority students" (p. 119). She describes a strategy for preparing language-minority students for the tasks of the mainstream college classroom, where they will confront "poorly written textbooks and turgid, discipline-specific texts" (p. 123). One of Blanton's main concerns is that these students not form the misconception that something is wrong with them when they have trouble understanding academic writing, and she advises ESL and basic/remedial writing instructors to make it clear that some academic texts are incomprehensible because they are--purposefully or not--badly written. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to write in what she calls "their own unique voices," rather than emulating academic obscurity and impersonality (p. 122). This is a long chapter with more than one focus, and even includes a fictional conversation among such diverse characters as the novelist Amy Tan and the late Mina Shaughnessy, a leading authority on basic writing. Perhaps the most powerful section of the chapter is the one on failed instructional practices (pp. 127-129), which made me want to cheer as I read it. Here Blanton makes seven points about what is commonly wrong with college writing instruction and suggests clear alternatives aiming at "critical literacy," which, in turn, is related to the idea of "writing across the curriculum," a familiar concept often advocated but rarely implemented. Writing teachers will find a lot to ponder in this very useful chapter.

The next chapter in Part II, "One Size Does Not Fit All: Response and Revision Issues for Immigrant Student Writers," by Dana R. Ferris, addresses the distinction between teacher response to immigrant students' writing and response to that of non-immigrant ESL students, an area little studied. The last chapter in this section is "Opening Our Doors: Applying Socioliterate Approaches (SA) to Language Minority Classrooms," by Ana M. Johns, which is based on the proposition that many composition instructors "turn their classes inward, toward the students themselves and away from the literacy lives that have constructed, or will construct, them" (p. 159). What this means is that "expressivist and personal identity approaches to teaching, perhaps the most inward-looking, still predominate in many classrooms" (p. 159). The author advocates five goals of a "socioliterate classroom" (pp. 163-165). These goals focus on helping students to discover different genres of writing and to learn how to discuss and write about texts rather than about their own experiences and feelings. These recommendations are based on the reality of the college classroom and the actual writing skills demanded of college students, in contrast to the expressivist search for "a personal voice" which dates back to the 1960s, and which Johns claims is making a comeback. In a footnote she notes that "at a recent College Composition and Communication Conference, the number of papers devoted to writer identity, expressivism, and composition as therapy far outnumbered papers in which an epistemic voice was discussed" (p. 159, n. 1). This chapter should be required reading for anyone who teaches college composition, whether mainstream or ESL. [-3-]

The last section of the book contains three chapters under the rubric "The Programs." The first of these ("Connections: High School to College," by Nancy Duke S. Lay, Gladys Carro, Shiang Tien, T. C. Niemann, and Sophia Leong) is evenly divided between brief case studies of Chinese-American college students, high school teachers, and college writing teachers. All of the research was conducted in New York City public high schools and at City College of New York. An interesting point which emerges from the interviews of the college students is that for them "high school literacy preparation was inadequate for college in at least two ways": the literacy skills taught tended to revolve around grammar and vocabulary "at the expense of more open-ended, extensive reading, writing, and discussion," and "literacy experiences" in classrooms were neither "constant" nor "copious" (p. 179).

The next chapter ("University Support for Second-Language Writers Across the Curriculum," by Kate Wolfe-Quintero and Gabriela Segade) takes us several thousand miles from New York to the University of Hawaii at Manoa to report on the implementation there of "writing intensive courses across the curriculum" (p. 196). Again, there is the usual case-study narrative, but the main point of the study is clearly stated in a quoted draft of a statement of goals being drawn up by UHM faculty: "Writing in the academy is developmental; it begins in the first semester and continues until graduation and beyond." Moreover, "writing in the academy cannot be taught in one or two courses; it develops out of the whole experience of broad exposure to writing in different disciplines, as well as being apprenticed to a particular discipline as a major" (p. 206).

The last chapter ("Immigrant Student Performance in an American Academic Intensive English Program," by Dennis Muchinsky and Nancy Tangren) takes us back to the mainland, to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and reports on immigrant student performance in an academic intensive English program. An interesting feature of this case study is that it involves a campus located in an area with little Asian immigration until the late 1980s, when there was an influx of immigrants from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. This extremely detailed case study is really a report on how the university dealt with this change in its mission as a result of the sudden, large-scale immigration. The authors quote research suggesting that "the 1.5 generation" faces "two salient issues: (1) adolescence and the task of managing the transition from childhood to adulthood, and 2) acculturation and the task of managing the transition from one culture to another" (p. 215).

The studies in this volume range from informative to very stimulating, and are generally well written. There is sometimes an uneasy fit between the summary conclusions of the essays and the attached ethnographic narratives, which are currently much in vogue in literacy studies and ESL research. However, the authors are clearly conversant with the population of students in question, and their conclusions seem to be on the mark.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1970). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

George L. Greaney
Hofstra University

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