Bad English, No Problem!

Karla raised her hand during the first class in an upper division research and writing course I taught last semester: “I have written eleven pages of my thesis already!” She was very proud about being a “good writer” (in her own words).

Tamal, another bright student in that class, had done so much research on the topic he’d chosen that he surprised me when he came for the first one-on-one conference to my office. He seemed to know everything about the ongoing Eurozone financial crisis.

But in the same class, there was another fairly talented student, Yin, who was so scared of a “writing” class that she went to my colleague who was teaching a co-requisite course to share her anxiety. When Yin came to my office (after my colleague had written me an email in which she made a special request for help with “language issues” on Yin’s behalf), she was almost in tears. She said, “I am from China. My English is not good. I think I will fail this course.”

“Students don’t fail this course just because they don’t have an excellent English.”

“But my English writing is also bad.”

“Students with weaker writing skills don’t necessarily fail this course either — if they work hard.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes. In fact, you don’t even have to write a bad paper in English. You can write a good one in Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese very well, but I read and understand written texts in your native language  well. I can let you do that, so don’t worry about the language and writing.”

Yin looked at me, seeming slightly confused.

“But tell me this. How many academic articles have you read so far for your thesis? How much research have you done?”

“Just a few, but I don’t know if they are useful for my thesis. I haven’t developed the main idea for my topic. I chose a topic from the list but I haven’t found the time to read and develop the idea.”

The College of Business’s upper division honors class where Yin belonged was required to do some research, post a topic description, and start developing their topic for the senior business thesis during summer. This way, students would be able to hit the ground running when fall begins, toward writing their 25-30 page long thesis in one semester.

“Can you read and understand academic sources fairly well?”

“Yes. I read more slowly than my local friends but I don’t think my reading ability is a problem.”

“So, it looks like your problem is that you haven’t read much and you don’t have a good idea as to what you want to write about, right?”

“Uhm, yeah.”

“You mean you haven’t spent enough time to research the topic and write research notes, and you don’t have a good sense of scope and focus for your thesis, right?”

“Uhm, I guess, yes.”

“You know what? I can’t read Chinese either. In fact, I can’t read a single Chinese word. I was lying.”

“Oh, really?” She looked at me, more confused.

I told Yin that students with weaker writing skills, including students with lower proficiency in English, regularly did very well in my class. They didn’t start well, but they ended far better all the time. If they did the other 90 or so percent of things that students must do–conduct substantive research, take copious notes and develop original ideas, draft and organize the thesis well, revise to refine the idea and develop a strong focus, invest enough time to edit and get help at the writing center as well as from me for polishing the final product, and cite researched sources in rhetorically effective as well as intellectually honest ways–I said that most anxious writers actually went away from my class with good grades. In fact, if they took the time to read and think through their ideas, their weak writing soon began to become considerably better due to just these reasons. Also, as I went on to tell Yin, with students who studied really hard, incorrect English sentences and awkward word choices started being replaced with grammatically correct sentences and precise wording “mysteriously” quickly.

As I gave my little lecture that was essentially meant to throw most of ESL theories and practices out the window, Yin started looking more cheerful. Building on that mood, I asked her, smiling, “Do you still want to write in Chinese? I might have to find a translator to read your paper if you do so.”

“No, I will write in English,” she said, smiling back.

Then we had a good discussion about how to best tackle the research and writing process for the thesis project, and Yin promised to work as hard as she can.

“By the way,” I said as she was about to leave my office, “your English is very good.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, “I know what you mean,” smiling again.

Her spoken English was in fact very impressive. Her anxiety about language was discouraging her from focusing on the work and investing enough time — if she had more motivation and confidence, she probably would spend more time reading and developing her ideas, increasing her motivation and confidence in turn. She needed to replace the cycle of anxiety and procrastination with a cycle of commitment and confidence.

During the semester, the other student, Tamal gave me a hard time as he tried to (in his own words) “teach” me all the things that he had learned about the Eurozone financial crisis from his extensive research. I had to scare him with a poor grade on an early draft before he started deleting background after background information that he had before his writing even got to the issue promised in the title of the thesis. His brilliance on the subject matter could have been a good thing, but his temptation to include all the interesting “information” that he’d gathered and learned somehow led him to overlook critical instructions in the assignment. His confidence as a good researcher was counterproductive. His writing had too much detail, too little thought.

Karla’s confidence as a writer didn’t help her very much as a researcher either. Her early draft ballooned from eleven pages to more than forty, but it was terribly difficult to help her find a focus, and even to build on relevant scholarship instead of droning on and on with summaries and her thoughts and opinions about the subject. Her writing had too much subjective ideas, too little integration of external sources.

The final version of Yin’s thesis was overall very impressive. Of course, there were a few lingering issues of grammar and syntax (mixed tenses here and there, a few incorrect uses of pronouns, some odd sentence structures and idiomatic expressions). But her writing was more focused, her sources more relevant, her arguments more developed, and her paragraphs more connected. She had visited the writing center about a dozen times (while her two classmates never did), and she had also met with me more frequently than any other member of her class. Overall, Yin’s thesis was more impressive and worth a few more grade points than the other two students’. I deducted some points for the language issues, but she made that up by earning bonus points elsewhere.

Situations like the above happen regularly, with all kinds of variations. Students who show both high and low levels of confidence remind me of this interesting phenomenon in the writing class. Students who start off with a lot of confidence about their ability to write often have a hard time overall: “writing” is NOT just a general ability to produce more “polished” sentences, nor being “creative” in one’s expression, nor a general knack for using language effectively (if I don’t see sufficient research and reading, development and organization of ideas, polished sentences and creative expressions kind of backfire in my understanding!). In fact, I’ve seen a lot of the more language-savvy, creative writers doing less research, reading, and logically fleshing out their ideas.

In contrast, students like Yin who come into a challenging writing class being “scared to death” because they think they are “bad” writers tend to make up for their lack with more research, more planning, and more thinking through as they develop their ideas. If they are challenged/inspired when they confuse their lack of hard work with lack of proficiency in language or writing, if they are given some support with getting started and with focusing on their work, they do much better than they seem capable of at first.

There are certainly those in the middle, with both confidence and seriousness (or with neither of these traits). And, of course, these “categories” are very porous and I don’t mean to put students in boxes, which I was debunking in my previous post. But anxiety tends to produce seriousness in a lot of students, making the boxes of their self-perception work in an opposite way compared to the phenomenon that I was describing in that post.

When teachers challenge students into doing the hard work instead of lowering the standards for them, when we don’t buy students’ conflation of their supposed deficiency and insufficient time and energy, students who come into class with performance-undermining anxiety start doing a lot better.

Very often, students who believe that they are “bad” at writing and/or English perform better than their more confident and more talented counterparts.

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One Comment

  1. The way Yan has shifted her bad writing to better with your help is appreciable. I must say that it was a miracle. Why I call this ‘miracle’ is because she did better in comparison to the two who have already had their confidence in their writing. During Yan’s learning process, what worked better were more focus, more research and more visits to writing center and your office. The most impressive thing what I found is—the motivation tips that you have tactfully used; for example ‘ Bad writers are welcome in this class’ and even you have told lies in the beginning that you read and understand Chinese (which has created humour while going through the blog post). I really enjoyed reading the writing. I will never miss to use such tips while dealing with bad writers to help them to become better writers.

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