Second Language Students in Technical Writing Classrooms

Meg Morgan
UNC Charlotte

Spring 2010

According to the US Census Current Population Report, the numbers of Hispanic students attending US colleges and universities increased from 443,000 in 1980 to 2,131,000 in 2007.  In addition, in 1980, 286,000 international students enrolled in US colleges and universities; in 2008, over 624,000 enrolled.  These numbers indicate an increasing numbers of students whose first language is not English and suggest, if things stay the same, that second language students will continue to be a significant presence in our classrooms.

In UNC Charlotte’s undergraduate introductory technical communication classes, about 20% of our students are ESL, mostly students recently coming from other countries for their degrees.  However, in North Carolina, where the Latino immigrant population has increased dramatically, the university, if not our particular courses, will probably see increasing numbers of students whose first language may or may not be English but whose upbringing includes immersion in two cultures–the Latino culture, primarily through family and friends, and the US culture, primarily through schooling. 

Given what will probably be the increasingly complex makeup of our technical writing classrooms over the next decades, what do we need to know to make learning possible and effective for all of our students?  Below are some ideas that might help all teachers to understand and serve their ESL students better.

The Ambiguity of “ESL”

The term “English as a Second Language” or “ESL” often comes with conceptions that may or may not be true.

First, ESL students are not monolithic.  The Latina student in your class might be from Argentina, or Brazil, or Spain.  However, she might also be from Los Angeles or New York City.  The Russian student might be the son of Russian immigrants or have come here recently as an exchange student. To lump all second language students into the same category without exploring what the category includes is a disservice to the student but also a disservice to teachers.

The term “ESL” is also an institutional marker that suggests “novice”: a writer who needs help and who is expected to struggle.  This might be true in many cases, but in some cases, ESL students are not novice writers, having learned the nuances of academic discourse—and other types of discourse—in various contexts.  They may be beneficiaries of exceptional intellect, exceptional upbringing, and/or exceptional teaching in the lower grades, either in the home country or in the US. We have all seen this:  a student we initially perceive as ESL has none of the markers we associate with ESL writers:  difficulty with organization, mechanics and rhetorical adaptability. Many years ago I worked with a graduate student recently from Russia whose parents were Russian doctors in Moscow. She wrote like a native English speaker, tutored in our writing center, and received a very unusual “high pass” on her MA exam. Two semesters ago, I taught a student from Colombia:  same story, except she was an undergraduate who had been in the US for about 10 years.

Some ESL students have very different notions of the term “ESL.”  Some assume what many of us do:  that it means novice.  Others do not see it that way and perceive themselves as advantaged in the classroom, not as disadvantaged.  In “English May Be My Second Language, But I’m Not ESL,” Christine Ortmeier-Hooper recounts the perceptions of three students in her ethnographic study of student perceptions of their ESL identities. These students have different notions of what it means to be ESL, and because of these perceptions, they use differing strategies to handle their academic identities. 

Many ESL students refuse to identify as ESL for any number of reasons.  In Ortmeier-Hooper’s article, Sergej, a student who came to the United States from Serbia as a teenager, denies that he is an ESL student because he chooses not to enroll in ESL classes (397). On the other hand, he assumes that identity “because he believed that it would give him ‘more privileges’ (Sergej’s phrase) and that, in general, teachers would be more forgiving of certain errors in his writing and his speech” (397).  

Project Ideas for Second Language Students

Given that ESL students aren’t necessarily all alike, this sections provides ideas for assignments in the classroom that can help ESL students learn as well as provide value to all students.  According to Reid and Kroll (in Matsuda, et al.) assignments should be “contextualized and authentic,” have content that is “accessible”, be “engaging,” and have “appropriate evaluation criteria” (263) (underlined in the original text).

In a technical writing class, the teacher might consider:

Client-based projects that take advantage of the expertise of second language writers.  These assignments might include designing web pages for an international organization, writing instructions for non-native speakers of English in this country (such as manuals for hospital emergency rooms), or helping a community group based on a different language to prepare a presentation for a local government meeting.  (This final project might be difficult if the student has limited knowledge of political culture). 

Journals/daybooks that allow the student to experiment with difficult assignments.  Students can use this informal and non-punitive resource to respond to practice scenarios, to create spaces for illustrations, and to play out rhetorical options. These daybooks are not graded and can be used in the classroom in any number of ways. For example, all student might be asked to evaluate a website for its sensitivity to a certain audience in their daybooks.  Students would read their responses in class, other students would respond to the reading (orally and/or in writing) and students would get into groups to discuss their various responses.

Assignments that make students write to and/or speak with different or multiple audiences.  Because second language students often have difficulty with the cultural significance of different audiences, teachers might want to pair first and second language speakers on such projects. For example, your students could prepare a presentation for students in different disciplinary classes (engineering, sociology, art, etc.) about the writing center.

End-of-Course portfolios that require a student to select certain projects to revise and present in a professional manner.  The portfolio should include a reflective statement that discusses the strengths and areas for writing improvement, what the student learned during the semester, and how the student will continue to learn.  The portfolio is excellent for first language speakers, but it gives the second language writer an opportunity and time to progress in the course.

Classroom Pedagogy/Practices

Anyone who has taught at the college or university level knows that students have certain perceptions of what “should” happen in the classroom.  Some students think that the instructor should behave like a parent.  Some students think that hard work alone will get them a good grade, even if the product is not good.  Some students think that they must work alone, never consulting with other students or their instructor or asking for help.  Some think—thank goodness–that college is a place to grow and learn and change.

ESL students have as many different conceptions of the classroom as first language students, especially if they were educated in the US before college.  However, many recent immigrants or international students come from environments where learning is much more hierarchical than in the US and where students are expected to learn differently. Such students may value the straight transmission of information by an expert/authority and thus may have differing responses to a classroom.  In an era in which we as teachers are trying not to “lecture” but instead to use various pedagogies to address the many ways our students learn, students whose education is based on straight transmission may suffer, if only because they may resist the methodology. Instructors may overcome resistance if they articulate to all students the reasons for a given pedagogy—why an assignment might work well for a group, why they are using PowerPoint, or why they are asking students to write individually in class. 

Given the complexity of pedagogical methods and student diversity, Linda Hofmann, who teaches UNCC ESL students, has provided me with several ideas to help develop student-related learning. 

End-of-each-class mini-debriefings in which second language students can compare their understanding with the teacher’s in a non-threatening, low stakes meeting.  Students tell the instructor their understanding of a term, a project, a concept etc., and the instructor corrects that understanding, if necessary.  This is particularly helpful with students new to the country whose aural understanding may not be strong.     

“Error” conferences that focus deliberately on student errors, such as subject/verb agreement, verb tense, and punctuation.  Many of faculty members resist the focus on error.  However, many second language students need help with mechanics. In the “error” conference, both the instructor and the student have copies of the student’s work; the student reads out loud and the instructor notes when the student consciously corrects errors. Then, the instructor reads the work out loud and marks in a different color errors that she finds.  The student (and instructor) look at patterns of known errors and unknown errors and design a strategy to help identify both.  A short excerpt from the writing may work if the whole piece of writing is too long.

Low-stakes collaboration.  All students in a class can benefit from informally working in groups, but this pedagogy in a diverse class gives students opportunities to share different perspectives, clarify ideas, create a sense of community in the classroom, sometimes a space where ESL students feel like outsiders.

Responding to students’ writing, peer response, and reflection should be a part of any classroom pedagogy, but second language students may struggle with these practices. For example:

The instructor’s response to an essay may not be clear to the ESL writer.  Nuances of language may be lost in the response.  For example: If the instructor asks questions like “Would you explain this?” or “Draw a conclusion,” the second language writer may misinterpret the comments.

Peer response may involve cultural misunderstandings.  Second language students may not see other students as experts/authorities; first language writers may not be aware that a student is ESL, may not know how to respond, or may respond inappropriately.


This article only touches on the complexities of teaching ESL students, whether they are residents of this country, recently immigrated, or international exchange students.  Nevertheless, sensitivity to their unique situations can help them succeed in the classroom.  For more helpful information, interested readers can consult the bibliography below.

Basic Bibliography:  Learning about ESL Writers

Ferris, Dana. “Does Error Feedback Help Student Writers? New Evidence on the Short and Long-Term Effects of Written Error Correction.”  In K. Hyland and F. Hyland, eds.  Feedback in Second Language Writing: Contexts and Issues.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006: 81-104.

Ferris, Dana. “Preparing Teachers to Respond to Student Writing.”  Journal of Second Language Writing 16.3 (2007): 165-193.

Ferris, Dana and Barrie Roberts. “Error Feedback in L2 Writing Classes: How Explicit Does it Need to be?”  In Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christine Ortmeier-Hooper.  (Eds.) Second-Language Writing in the   Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s:   2006: 380-402. (From the Journal of Second Language Writing 10.3 (2001): 161-84)

Harklau, Linda, Kay M. Losey, and Meryl Siegal, Eds. Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition: Issues in the Teaching of Writing to U.S.-Educated Learners of ESL.  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999.

Ivanic, Roz and David Camps. “I Am How I Sound:  Voice as Self-representation in L2 Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 10 (2001): 3-33.

Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christine Ortmeier-Hooper. (Eds.). Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.

Ortmeier-Hooper, Christine.  “English May be My Second Language, But I’m not ‘ESL’.” CCC 59.3 (2008): 389-419.

Reid, Joy.  “’Eye’ Learners and ‘Ear’ Learners: Identifying the Language Needs of International Student and U.S. Resident Writers.” In Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christine Ortmeier-Hooper. (Eds.) Second-    Bedford/ St. Martin’s: 2006: 76-88. (Reprinted from Grammar in the Composition Classroom:  Essays in Teaching ESL for College-Bound Students. Patricia Byrd and Joy M. Reid. New York: Heinle, 1998: 3-17).

Reid, Joy and Barbara Kroll. “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students.” In Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christine Ortmeier-Hooper. (Eds.) Second-Language Writing Language Writing 4.1 (1995): 17-41).

US Census Bureau Current Population Reports, PPL-148 (

Valdes, Guadalupe. “Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Profession-wide Responses to a New Challenge.” In Matsuda, Paul Kei, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christine Ortmeier-Hooper. (eds.) Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: : A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2006:  31-70.  (Reprinted from Written Communication 9.1 (1992): 85-136.)

Note:  Thanks to former graduate student Siobhan Johnson and current graduate intern Susan Lawson for their helpful suggestions.