ELL INSPIRATION Consultations with Non-native Speakers Provides Insight into Teaching English Grammar

A photo of the front desk at the ut writing center

Image taken by author, Hilary Langberg

By roughly halfway though my first semester as a graduate and undergraduate consultant at UT Austin's University Writing Center (UWC), a major portion of my work involved collaborating with English Language Learners to help improve their grammar and sentence-level clarity. The major challenge for me was finding ways to be non-directive: to teach lasting skills rather than make quick, proofreading-type fixes. With the support and guidance of Sara Saylor, the UWC Peer Grad Coordinator, I've learned how to avoid inadvertently taking on the role of editor. After working with more than forty ELL students (both undergraduate and graduate) over the course of this academic year, I've also gained valuable insights into the major hurdles of learning English, as well as its grammatical ambiguities. The following is a summation of the knowledge I've gained on both fronts, particularly with regard to article use.

In a workshop headed by Sara Saylor and Tom Lindsay this semester, peer graduate consultants learned how to fine-tune their ELL graduate consults to emphasize the instruction process. For ELL graduate students new to the UWC, Sara suggested that we begin by introducing students to two books (see reference details at the bottom left side of this page). The first text is The ESL Writer's Handbook, which provides advice for writing academic research papers as well as grammatical exercises (with the answers to these exercises in the back of the book). I often point students to the section on articles when I show them this book for the first time. The second text is They Say, I Say: the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, a volume helpful for all academic writers, but specifically for ELL writers in the variety of templates for writing arguments and introducing quotes included at the back of the book. I also point students to the UWC Library section on ELL, making it clear to them that these books are accessible for browsing on a drop-in basis. Since I've begun implementing these practices, students have been nothing but receptive to these text suggestions.

Another tip from Sara is to commend these writers on their dedication and hard work, making clear that--unlike them--I myself have not developed the capacity to write academically in any of the languages I have begun to study in graduate school! In terms of critiquing work, it's important to reiterate the immense challenges the ELL writer is both taking on and succeeding in. In a consult today, for example, I shared with a graduate student from Portugal the relentless nature of the revision process, even for native-English writers. In short, providing encouragement is many times just as important a pointing out repeated grammar errors. 

Insights into Grammar

Like anyone who writes in their primary tongue, there are many issues of English grammar that I've never had to consciously analyze. The correct preposition choice, for example, just sounds right. In discussing learning methods with ELL students, I've found that this is precisely the process they themselves attempt to engage in. By listening and reading, they begin to grasp common English-language usage, including preposition use. The ELL graduate student writers I work with are typically highly accomplished writers, and here I will address two of perhaps the toughest hurdles in English grammar that they face: preposition and article use.

First, preposition use is often idiomatic, meaning that non-native writers are often left playing a guessing game in deciding between using "on," "for," or "of." Phrasal verbs--a verb combined with a preposition that actually changes the verb's meaning--are particularly difficult. One tool for the writing consultant is the Quick Reference Guide on p.256 of The ESL Writer's Handbook. This guide lists common idiomatic combinations of verbs and prepositions, adjectives and prepositions, as well as common preposition-noun combinations.

Second, the source of greatest difficulty for many ELL writers is article use. The most common pattern I myself have identified, and now teach to students, is the rule of the countable noun. If a noun is in plural form, it typically will not require an article (and vice-versa). Yet, as The ESL Writer's Handbook points out, "many nouns" may be countable or non-countable "depending on the context. In these cases, the meaning of the noun may be different according to whether it is count or non-count" (p. 166). The UWC article handout can be particular helpful in clearing up confusion in this respect. Furthermore, for nouns used in a general sense--such as research or basketball--we neither use a plural form or an article.

The issue of whether or not a noun is countable, however,  becomes irrelevant in sentences containing a particular concept discussed previously in the paper. In this case, the word takes an article because it is a noun with a definite reference (i.e. the reader has already been made aware of what precisely the noun is referring to). Nouns with a definite reference take the article "the," and nouns with a general reference take the article "a or an." An example of this is "the black smoke of a fire." Often, when we use a phrase beginning with "of" or a clause beginning with "that" to further describe what kind of smoke we see, the phrase becomes "the" black smoke, even when mentioned for the first time (ESL Writer's Handbook, p.167). Then, once we use the phrase "a fire" the for first time in a paper, we subsequently refer to it as "the fire," or "that fire/this fire." It goes without saying that article use is a tricky business, but paying particular attention to how the article changes can really make a difference in clarifying grammatical formations for ELL writers.

I've discussed here in detail ways in which we can explain article usage more lucidly to students, a major obstacle of ELL writers, as well as touched upon the often idiomatic use of English prepositions. I've also reviewed some important texts to introduce first-time ELL consultees to, as well as the important resource of the UWC library. In sum, as a current and future college instructor, writing consultations with ELL students have provided me with invaluable strategies for future teaching.

Helping English Language Learners Grow as Writers

Helpful Texts (many thanks to Sara Saylor and Tom Lindsay for their suggestions):

•  The ESL Learner's Handbook, By Janine Carlock, Maeve Eberhardt, Jaime Horst, and Lionel Menasche. (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

•  They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (4th ed). By Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst (New York: Norton, 2015).

•  The Scott Foresman Handbook For Writers (9th ed.) By John J. Ruszkiewicz (Boston: Longman, 2011).

By Hilary Langberg
Graduate and Undergraduate Writing Consultant, UWC
Ph.D Candidate, Asian Studies
University of Texas at Austin