Review of “In-Service Teachers’ Perspectives on Adolescent ELL Writing Instruction” by Kibler, A. K., Heny, N. A. and Andrei, E. (2016)

Abstract: “Drawing on ecological language learning theories and situated teacher learning theory …., the authors present findings from participants in a focus group (N = 10) and follow-up interviews (N = 6) conducted with a set of secondary English language arts and English as a second language (ESL) teachers. Within overlapping institutional/professional and pedagogical contexts, teachers identified teacher expertise, high-stakes testing, classroom assessment and grading, placement and tracking, and disciplinary disconnects as the ecological factors most influential in their instructional choices related to ELL writers.”

Having read that, I said to myself, “So, in other words, EVERYTHING. Everything affects everything regarding ELL writing instruction?” Seriously, “teacher expertise,…testing, classroom assessment and grading, placement and tracking, and disciplinary disconnects” to me sound like “everything”. But I continued reading.

Re: Introduction: I can attest to the reality of some ELLs “infiltrating” the English language arts classroom without the benefit of robust and effective English language grammatical and rhetorical ability. I taught a DRE (Developmental Reading and English for English as a first language students) course where I had 3 ELL students. One passed — her written language skills were quite sufficient, but the other two honestly should have been in the EFL program. And ideally that’s what should have happened, but there is not enough policing of course enrollment in that way.

Re: Teacher Ecologies: The authors derived the teacher ecologies I just ridiculed by way of the student ecologies identified by Ortmeier-Hooper and Enright (2011) and the ecological framework championed by Lee (2013). I looked up the word “ecology” and it is defined as the study of the relationship between organisms and other organisms or physical surroundings. Without the benefit of having read Lee, I am sympathetic to the idea of closely investigating how students’ relationships with each other, teachers and the institutions of higher learning that are demanding production impact their ability to perform. I just fear that this ecology is too broad for this paper to sufficiently cover even the most fundamental points of conflict. I suppose that is why the authors have chosen to center topics around three questions, one of which being “What tensions or dilemmas do teachers identify in the “ecologies” in which they teach adolescent ELL writers?” The key qualification being “teachers identify” — that way the authors are not roped into trying to do it all. If the teachers don’t identify the dilemma, the authors don’t have to analyze! Take notes, Prinny.

Re: Professional Issues: The one and only professional development (PD) session I ever conducted was on assessment, and in terms of becoming aware of and correcting ELL composition issues, I wholeheartedly agree with Lee’s (2011) finding that formative assessment is where it’s at. Institutional issues include an obsession with summative assessment, which is testing that happens at the end of the course/unit, but how can we make sure the student will be (more) successful at the end if we don’t monitor progress throughout? I also had to remind myself exactly what the definition of “cognitive strategy” in reading is, and upon reviewing Olsen and Land (2007), it is loosely defined as “making visible…the thinking tools experienced readers and writers access in the process of meaning construction”. Cognitive strategy is something I would very much like to study and implement in the classroom, but I bet, knowing me, that I am already. Will look into it.

Re: Pedagogical Issues: I am currently teaching an ESL Comp III course in a computer lab and we’re just now getting to our first essay, so this section is all quite salient. I just finished up a week of teaching outlining basics, and then had them outline their paper and begin typing up the first draft. I implemented — clumsily — peer editing. I say clumsily because once writing began Tuesday, everyone was going at their own pace, which I like. But it also results (for a number of reasons) in uneven adherence to the process, which is bad. So today, I had everyone on the same page, doing the same thing, and I provided a more detailed and coherent  guideline for the peer editing, something scaffolded enough to be useful for the majority of levels in the class. As an ESL instructor, I am surprised to learn that other ESL instructors do not require multiple drafts (Lee, 2009). I always emphasize that, as much as I love you, no paper is perfect, and I want to see how you got from Point A to Point B. I emphasize the process. How can I teach process writing if I skip over assessing the student’s understanding and implementation of the process? It is also a surefire way of checking that students are even doing the work. Even if students don’t realize they’re going through a process, we do, and we should have a measurable record of their journey.

Ooh! My favorite word: differentiation. I kid. For me, the biggest barrier to true differentiated instruction is teacher-student ratios, but I digress. Here, the authors discuss how differentiated instruction combined with interesting and relevant input (reading) has potential to improve writing. I have no doubt about that, which is why I will very likely repeat some of the activities I did three years ago in the same course, involving A LOT of model texts and a LOT of group coaching and collaboration.

Re: Institutional Issues: I don’t see a problem with focusing on form and organization; they have true merits and are great stepping stones to more liberated writing rhetoric. But I suppose the hangup is when those are ALL a teacher focuses on — too much of a good thing. Also, I think the problem is the focus’s summative nature. The final learning outcome (LO) needs to be something like “good writing” or whatever, and form and organization (“writing”) is the container into which the students pour their ideas (“good”). It is interesting that in this section, they describe what I saw in the DRE classroom. The only saving grace, which ultimately did not save, was that the publisher’s online portal did have a section specifically for improving ELLs’ grammar. Also, my DRE course did not have “out-of-context vocabulary drills” and I’m not sure what “basic skills” means.

I would be interested in learning about the purpose of the remedial tracks investigated by Kanno and Kangas (2014).  Were the ELLs funneled into these remedial tracks because they had been unduly promoted through their ESL studies in the first place? Sure, as teachers, we wish to do everything reasonable in our power to give students the chance to succeed, but how often have we educators witnessed the system and/or fellow educators pass along students ill-prepared for what lies ahead? How much slack are, for example, content teachers supposed to take up when ESL teachers don’t?

Re: Study Design and Methodology: As described by the authors…
“Using a purposeful sampling method…, all secondary ELA (N = 114) and ESL (N = 16) teachers from public and private schools in a medium-sized city and surrounding counties in a southeastern U.S. state were invited to participate in the study, using publicly available email addresses posted on school websites. Participants were asked to join a conversation about their perspectives on how to approach ELLs’ writing; 10 teachers agreed to participate in the focus group, and 6 of those 10 agreed to participate in follow-up interviews.
“The study’s lead researcher facilitated an audio-recorded, 2-hour focus group discussion while the other two researchers observed and took field notes. Prior to the focus group, teachers were sent writing samples collected from three Spanish-speaking 10th graders of upper beginning to intermediate English proficiency who were classified as ELLs and had participated in a separate study. Teachers were asked to consider each text’s strengths and weaknesses and next steps if they were to work with those writers.
“We made a multimedia presentation to illustrate tentative findings and sent it to all focus group teachers. We invited teachers to participate in 30-minute individual interviews; six participants agreed and were interviewed.
“Using an interpretative-qualitative method… for data analysis, we read the focus group transcription individually and then jointly discussed emergent themes and derived initial codes, which focused on both the ways in which teachers responded to the writing samples and the ways they described their own teaching ecologies…we developed findings based on resulting emergent themes and codes, removing themes that were not concerns shared by multiple participants. We then identified supporting relevant data excerpts for each theme.”

Re: Views on ELL Writing: Teachers’ assessments of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary were low, but higher for organization and syntax; not surprising at all! As usual, the devil is in the details. “Both ELA and ESL teachers suggested the use of models and mini-lessons for grammar and punctuation. However, ESL teachers also suggested focused vocabulary strategies, resource use, and differentiation of instructional tasks, whereas ELA teachers recommended additional grammatically focused activities alongside general writing process approaches…” I am intrigued by this because, at first blush, I think that I lean towards the ELA instructional models in my current position. I certainly use models and do tutorials (mini-lessons) in grammar and punctuation, and I provide them with a plethora of self-exclamatory language resources, but I, despite being an ESL instructor on paper, do a fair amount of complex writing process guidance. Students learn about the writing process in my class. I take the course’s LOs very literally so I don’t do much in the way of vocabulary. I see vocabulary and spelling as incidental variables in student composition. (I have been mulling over ways to include spelling training, and a student explicitly asked for some help in that area.) Using the ample resources literally at their fingertips, they can improve word choice, discover new words, manipulate words…. I guess what I am missing is vocabulary “strategies” which I am not even sure I understand. Maybe I’m already employing them; hopefully the authors will elaborate. I could make vocabulary a part of the course but I am not terribly hot on the idea because the topics we write about are not specialized — they don’t have any jargon or complexities that couldn’t be thoroughly covered with their existing intermediate/high-int vocabulary. Keep in mind, this study is on adolescent ELLs.

Re: Pedagogical Expertise: “Though there was consensus that (ELA) teachers sought ELL-specific strategies, there was also some questioning of their uniqueness.” This is probably the single most fascinating and telling portion of the data analysis. These ELA teachers felt that when they did discover something strategic about teaching ELL writing, it did not strike them as unique to ELL instruction; such strategies were actually good “whole-student” strategies. The authors question these teachers’ questioning, calling it an “uncertain knowledge base”, likely because such revelations would essentially put ESL out of business, so to speak. What if good teaching was just good teaching? Giving the authors the benefit of the doubt, I will read on…

Re: Assessment: The most problematic issue. A teacher said, “One way is [to] cut them a pass … on all the grammar stuff, and just … go for content, … the quality of their thought, … especially when, for example, if I’m assessing Macbeth, … their grammar might not matter. The other way is to try to hold them to the same standard as the other kids, which is what happens on the standardized testing; but then, that’s not really fair or serving them.” I “solve” this by using a rubric where the LOs of the course are my guide. It’s easy for me because my course a course for English language learners on a specific language skill. Compositions have certain guidelines and we all know them and they are assessed accordingly. Differentiation (helping this person/group with A while helping that person/group with B) has to happen before the paper is turned in, because by then, it’s too late. I cannot differentiate grades. Context matters so much here. I feel like the lesson is to not have blended classes. ELLs have their language arts, and English L1s have theirs. I guess the ironic thing is that differentiation should exist in both classes! Again, good teaching! But…

“ESL teachers expressed frustration with their inability to assess the progress of individual students in standards-based curricula and instruction. Sarah explained, “Grades should measure growth, not the ability to reach standards” (Interview, 11/1/12). She continued, explaining that if teachers assess only students’ meeting of standards, they cannot accurately see students’ writing development.” This is also very true. However, the authors are mistaken in pinning the extrication of the role of assessment on teachers, saying that they need more training. Unless it’s some kind of co-op where teachers create the standards, this sounds like a job for administration and school boards. In other words, someone needs to make the decision loooong before students step foot in the classroom. Students and teachers ought to know what is being assessed and how, and it needs to be sustainable. Perhaps a combined portfolio (ungraded, illustrating students’ progression) and score (curved, compared with peers) would work. But someone — anyone — needs to make a decision!

Re: Conclusions: The authors “call for a continued emphasis on writing instruction and preparing both language specialists (ESL teachers) and ELA teachers for those [Common Core] demands. Although our teachers were deeply concerned about ELL writers’ success, their limited solutions for ELL writers but lengthy discussions of ecological tensions suggest there is much work to be done both at the preservice and in-service levels.” I look forward to reviewing the “models of grammar instruction that are deeply integrated into…writing and literary instruction” by Palincsar & Schleppegrell (2014) and Wong Fillmore (2014). I also agree that assessment need not be punitive, but that summative assessment also need not be abandoned. Another great take-away is “a consideration of ELL students (as well as their language and content assessment scores) as everyone’s responsibility might help both sets of teachers attend to ELLs’ needs for language development and academic content learning”. Also, “related to placement and tracking, what does it mean for ELLs to be enrolled in college preparatory courses if these environments do not facilitate their success, and who holds responsibility for shaping writing instruction in those environments?”

Going back to my approach to the composition course I teach, it would be difficult for me to take on their grammar development any more than I do now, or intend to. I’ve identified certain class-wide grammar issues, and indeed, some individual, and many of them will be addressed, but (1) not to the point of elimination and (2) there has to be balance because I still have to teach to my LOs. Am I, by focusing on writing form and conventions, passing the buck? We’ll see. Perhaps Palincsar & Schleppegrell and Wong Fillmore can be of help.

Kanno, Y., & Kangas, S. E. N. (2014). “I’m not going to be, like, for the AP”: English language learners’ limited access to advanced college-preparatory courses in high school. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 848–878. doi:10.3102/0002831214544716

Lee, I. (2009). Ten mismatches between teachers’ beliefs and written feedback practice. English Language Teachers Journal, 63, 13–22. doi:10.1093/elt/ccn010

Lee, I. (2011). Formative assessment in EFL writing: An exploratory case study. Changing English, 18(1), 99–111. doi:10.1080/1358684X.2011.543516

Lee, I. (2013). Second language writing: Perspectives of a teacher educator-researcher. Journal of Second Language Writing, 22, 435–437. doi:10.1016/j.jslw.2013.08.005

Palincsar, A. S., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2014). Focusing on language and meaning while learning with text. TESOL Quarterly, 48, 616–623. doi:10.1002/tesq.178

Olson, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41, 269–303.

Ortmeier-Hooper, C., & Enright, K. A. (2011). Mapping new territory: Toward an understanding of adolescent L2 writers and writing in U.S. contexts. Journal of Second Language Writing, 20(3), 167–181. doi:10.1016/j.jslw.2011.05.002

Wong Fillmore, L. (2014). English language learners at the crossroads of educational reform. TESOL Quarterly, 48, 624–632. doi:10.1002/tesq.174

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