September 2003 — Volume 7, Number 2
ESL Composition Tales: Reflections on Teaching
Linda Lonon Blanton and Barbara Kroll, Eds. (2002)
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Pp. vii + 179
ISBN 0-472-08891-2 (paper)
The field of ESL/EFL is young, and that of ESL writing as a separate discipline is even younger, so many of those who have created and formed the emerging discipline of ESL composition are still teaching. Several of these scholar/teachers, now in mid-to-late career, have reflected on their years in the discipline and have generously shared their stories with readers in ESL Composition Tales. Their stories are remarkably candid, as they acknowledge how little was known about ESL/second language (L2) writing in the early days, how teachers struggled and experimented with various theories and practices, how they made mistakes, and how they are still learning how best to teach L2 writing students.
This short, very readable book includes ten personal essays, written by the pioneers and prominent scholars Alister Cumming, Melinda Erickson, Ann M. Johns, Ilona Leki, Joy Reid, and Tony Silva, as well as by editors Linda Lonon Blanton and Barbara Kroll. In addition, the editors framed and contextualized these essays by inviting the younger scholar Dana Ferris to write an introduction, and the still younger scholar Paul Kei Matsuda to contribute an epilogue.
The contributors recall the days when ESL writing instructors had few materials and little instruction in how to teach writing to international students. Teachers spent too much time putting students through such tedious exercises as rewriting the same model paragraph several times in different tenses, or writing rigidly structured paragraphs about meaningless topics. Instructors struggled to assimilate the ideas they heard about from their L1 writing colleagues, and found that though those insights were useful, they needed to be adapted to the sometimes very different needs of L2 writers. [-1-]
One theme that runs throughout the book is the difficult issue of error treatment. In the early days of ESL writing pedagogy (roughly the 1960s and 1970s), the focus of teaching was on correcting grammatical errors. Then, after some intermediate stages, teachers learned from L1 composition pedagogy to focus on content and de-emphasize grammatical correctness. Finally most teachers found a balance between these approaches. In other aspects as well, the field has been influenced by various pedagogical trends or fashions, and then has swung back to seemingly opposite pedagogies. Several of the contributors detail their own journeys through these swings of the pendulum, and offer readers the following advice: keep up with the latest research and publications but also, first, trust your own judgment gained from your own classroom experience, and second, remember that each teaching situation is different, and adapt all teaching strategies and materials to your own context and your own students.
Dana Ferris’s introduction graciously gives much credit to the “leading lights” in the field of ESL composition, including the other contributors to this volume, and writes of their influence on her own teaching and research. She explains how she has learned from these scholars and how she in turn passes on their insights to her graduate students. In fact, as Ferris indicates, the editors and contributors to this book are among the “founding mothers and fathers” of the field of ESL and L2 writing (though they themselves are too modest to allude to this status).
Barbara Kroll, in her chapter titled “What I Certainly Didn’t Know When I Started,” is generous in admitting how little ESL teachers knew “in the old days,” which for Kroll were the early 70s. I say “generous,” because by sharing her own lack of knowledge, and how she gradually learned, she allows younger teachers to feel it is normal and acceptable to start off knowing little, as long as one is working on learning and on improving one’s pedagogy. It is very helpful for newer teachers to see that eminent scholars such as Kroll and the other contributors also started off “green” and anxious at the beginnings of their careers; such knowledge gives reassurance and hope to new scholar/teachers. Kroll also writes eloquently of the importance of teachers’ sharing their knowledge and experience, and creating communities of teachers who learn from and receive support from each other.
Next, Melinda Erickson echoes Kroll’s belief in the importance of a community of fellow teachers from whom to learn. She, like other contributors, is concerned about the wide pendulum swings in ESL pedagogy, points out the problem of “false dichotomies,” such as the product/process dichotomy, and urges readers not to get trapped in such artificial choices.
Another contributor, Ilona Leki, shares her early mistakes (by today’s standards, though not by the standards of the time) in teaching. Other long-time teachers such as this reviewer will both cringe and chuckle reminiscently when reading such items on Leki’s list as “I tried to get students to write paragraphs consisting of a topic sentence, three examples, and a conclusion, as in the facetious essay prompt: Describe the universe and give three examples.” (p. 51) Leki reminds us that we teachers must always critically question our own beliefs and actions as well as those of our institutions.
The question of the influences of a teacher’s background on his/her teaching is highlighted in Tony Silva’s chapter, “From the Working Class to the Writing Class: A Second-Generation American Teaches Second Language Composition.” Silva describes his indirect and somewhat surprising path to his current profession. It seems that the underdog status of the field of ESL, and of ESL students, appealed to Silva and resonated with some of his own experiences.
Joy Reid’s similarly candid essay describes her own sometimes difficult journey as she made some false starts and mistakes on her way to becoming an ESL writing teacher. Her chapter is titled “Ask!” and she tells us that she is still “asking,” especially asking students, as she believes “that students are our best resources. They have many of our answers.” (p. 101)
Ann Johns also writes of her own personal and teaching history, and tells of her advocacy for ESL students within academe. She writes as well of her discovery of the usefulness of the genre-based approach to teaching writing.
In an intriguingly titled essay, Alister Cumming writes “If I Had Known Twelve Things . . .” and of course the reader is immediately curious about what those twelve things might be. Cumming writes of the complexity of our field, and of the difficulty of sorting out all the strands, influences, theories, and methods. He attempts to impose some structure by listing six “principles” he has come to believe in, and six “practices” he has employed but now has come to have serious doubts about. I predict that readers will find themselves responding to Cumming’s list by agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others, and perhaps making their own lists as well. [-2-]
Linda Lonon Blanton’s essay, “As I Was Saying to Leonard Bloomfield: A Personalized History of ESL/Writing,” reflects on the field of ESL composition, and on the part played in the field by linguistics, by grammar, by textbooks, by cognitive theory, by institutional structures, and by shifting methodologies. She writes about what it is like for ESL composition to finally be a recognized discipline, and gives “four suggestions for keeping the momentum of discipline building going.” (p. 157) Two examples: “Let’s value qualitative research, as we have quantitative research,” and “Let’s connect classrooms to communities, where we all live our lives. Experience is a powerful teacher.” (p. 158)
The volume is satisfyingly concluded with Paul Kei Matsuda’s “Epilogue: Reinventing Giants.” Matsuda writes from the vantage point of a fairly new scholar in the field, albeit one who is already exceptionally well published and influential. He, like Ferris, gives tribute to the “giants” who were founders and innovators in the field, and writes of what he has learned from them. He also points out, however, that “no amount of professional preparation or resources will help new teachers see farther than the giants can see today unless new teachers themselves are willing to struggle with various issues and develop their own personal knowledge base, situated as it is in the context of their own teaching.” (p. 169)
All of the essays are written in a scholarly but somewhat informal style, as if the contributors are speaking directly, almost conversationally, to the reader. The authors speak honestly of their struggles and errors, and are modest about their impressive accomplishments. What is most evident, though, is their belief that the teaching life can be a joyful and fulfilling one, one in which one never stops learning. This inviting and engaging volume brings back memories for veterans of the field, and provides “living history” as well as encouragement to graduate students and new teachers. I highly recommend it to anyone connected with the field.
University of San Francisco
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..