Nonnative Speakers and Writing

Expectations and Tips for Support
Leigh Anne Sippel, ESOL faculty
Skyline College Faculty Flex Days, March 11, 2011
No magic bullets
No blessings/permission slips
The goal of this presentation
◦ There is no “single fix” for error in NNS writing
◦ It can take 7-10 years for proficiency in English. Most
ESL programs are only 2 years long.
◦ How you grade NNS writing errors is up to you
◦ Use today’s info to develop your own dealbreakers
◦ The advice that follows herein is merely that of the
presenter and is not necessarily shared by all ESL faculty
◦ To better understand factors in NNSs’ struggles with
English in our classes
◦ To have an idea of realistic expectations for NNSs’
◦ To learn a few tips to support NNSs in our classes
Teacher frustration over verbs often leads to
some inaccurate statements to students
◦ Myth: We never change verb tense in one sentence.
 By the time Jarrod gets to this class, he will have been teaching
for six hours, but he will continue to teach for another four (3
verb tenses).
 Better advice: Don’t change verb tense unless there is a very
good reason to do so.
◦ Myth: “s” always means plural/“ed” always means past.
 John (singular) works at the Learning Center.
 I’m interested in science. (present verb + participial adjective)
 Better advice: Study the rules of “s” and “ed”
Why can’t they get verb tense???
◦ Most languages have 2 or 3 tenses. English has 3 tenses, 4
aspects, and two voices (passive and active) = 24 different
verb forms to learn
◦ Many tenses learned early on involve morphology that is
also used in higher language functions – the forms become
forever confused as language learning progresses.
 Semester 1: We are talking about language. (present
progressive verb consisting of be+verb+ing)
 Semester 2: Talking about grades makes me nervous. (gerund
 Semester 3: We moved to the next talking point. (adjective)
 Semester 1: Sam fixed the car. (simple past)
 Semester 2: Sam had already fixed the car by the time I got
home. (past participle used in past perfect)
 Semester 3: Is the meeting time fixed? (participial adjective)
Verbs aren’t just one word.
He worked
He works
He will work
Progressive He was working
He is working
He will be working
He has worked
He will have worked
He has been
He will have been
He had worked
He had been
Progressive working
Verbs can have changes in meaning/same meaning
◦ I have given him gifts. I have been giving him gifts.
◦ I have lived here for years. I have been living here for years.
Morphology requires a lot of memory resources
◦ Context, function, spelling, pronunciation, word order
◦ What are your dealbreakers?
 All verbs must be perfect?
Occasional mistake OK, so long as the meaning isn’t obscured?
Occasional mistake OK in multiple-word verbs only?
Mistakes OK, so long as there are no more than ___ per page?
◦ It’s reasonable to expect proficiency in verbs where the
meaning is obscured. It’s also reasonable to exercise
flexibility in verbs where the meaning is not obscured
overmuch, or if occasional multiple-word verb is
 Consider allowing time for the student to revise.
 Suggest the student take (more) ESOL classes.
 Suggest the student read more and spend more time in
conversation in English.
 Suggest the student work in the ESOL lab with a tutor and selfpaced software.
Articles (a, an, the, or Ø)
◦ Inordinately rule-bound; riddled with exceptions
 Would you like a coffee/the coffee/coffee?
 An apple, an egg, an ice cream, an onion, an union?
◦ Are not a self-contained unit, but are entirely reliant on the
knowledge of count/noncount nouns
 She has interests/an interest in sports. Is there interest in this subject?
 I have advice for you. Do you have a suggestion for me?
◦ First taught, last learned. Perfection may never be achieved.
◦ Learners with long scholastic experience do best
◦ Learners from languages w/o articles (Russian, Chinese) or
abundance of articles (Spanish, Arabic) struggle
◦ Decide what your dealbreakers are. Is meaning obscured? It’s not
reasonable to expect perfection in articles, but some consistency
can be expected. Consider flexibility on article errors. Encourage
Ss to come to the ESOL lab to work on our software each week.
◦ Logical only in a cultural context
 Last night I was at the party. (English)
 Last night I was on the party. (Czech)
 Last night I was in the party. (Arabic)
◦ Have the power to radically change meaning
 argue for/argue against/argue with/argue to/argue over
◦ Are idiomatic; learned only with corresp. words
 In the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, __ night
◦ Are collocational; some are paired with specific words
 I am interested ___ physics, but more fascinated ___
◦ Learning them takes ages; perfection may never be
◦ Strong readers do best
Sample errors:
They cannot avoid *from that.
I did it *for to help my friend
The way *how to do it
Please select the type *issue you wish to discuss *about
◦ Does it obscure meaning? If yes, it’s reasonable to
expect some accuracy while recognizing learner
◦ Prepositions take lots of time and comprehensible input.
Consider withholding the grade, highlighting serious
preposition problems, and asking the student to revise
and resubmit for grading. The ESOL lab is a good
Modal Auxiliaries
◦ can, could, will, would, may, might, must, have to, ought
to, should, had better
◦ Modals have many different meanings
can sit here (permission).
can do amazing things that I can’t do (ability).
can’t sit here (prohibition).
can’t be serious (probability).
◦ Even so, modals have few, and consistent, rules:
 Modals do not inflect and do not take tense (He *musts work
/He *musted work)
 Modals are always followed by the base (non-inflected) form of
the verb (not He must *working)
 The negative is not always opposite of the affirmative
 You must stop (obligation).
You mustn’t stop (prohibition).
You don’t have to stop (lack of obligation).
Sample errors:
◦ You mustn’t *to smoke here.
◦ The man should *complaining to his boss about his
◦ I *haven’t to go to work today because it’s my day
◦ While challenging to learn, modals do follow
consistent rules. They have the power to change
meaning quite drastically, so it is reasonable to
expect accuracy in their use.
◦ Don’t attempt to teach them unless you really know
all the rules, meanings, and functions
Collocations are words that co-occur frequently
 His message was _____ clear; he did not want help from anyone.
crystal, perfectly, abundantly, very (not rudely or obstinately)
 He took a (fast/quick) shower so that he wouldn’t miss the (fast/quick) train
to New York.
 “Errors”:
The sad young man undertook suicide.
The stranded woman waved animatedly to get attention.
At the news, he blew up in tears.
Everybody knows that cash talks.
◦ Issuing a terminology list for chapter tests that include collocational
language can be helpful to NNSs
◦ Collocations need to be learned together as blocks of language. The only
way students learn them is by highlighting and practicing them together.
This takes a lot of time.
◦ It is not reasonable to expect nonnative speakers to have this intimate
knowledge of English. Yet, they will never attain it without guidance.
Consider marking the word/phrase, but not counting it as the kind of
error that results in a lowered grade (perhaps with a different pen color).
NNSs struggle to discern key vocabulary from other
words that they do not know
NNS vocabulary often lacks sophistication because of
the mental processes that occur in language use
(resources are too taxed to extend to vocabulary)
◦ It is reasonable to expect that students learn and use the
vocabulary that is key to your field.
◦ Encourage outlining; students who outline their papers first
do better with vocabulary
◦ Issue a list of terminology
◦ In discussion groups, write terms on the board that they
must use.
◦ For papers, ask that students use ___ vocabulary terms
◦ Where the government system, it is critical in the
develop the American character.
◦ Traveling is my favor, and I elation sublime of
◦ Fear of the language, insecurity over own
expressive skills, lack of consistency in study of
English, stronger in reading than in speaking, lack
of identity as a speaker of English, overuse of
electronic dictionaries, little interest in English
(feeling oppressed by it, or not internally invested)
Students who are unable to construct clear
sentences need a lot of focused study in
◦ 5-10 hours per week of tutoring and self-study
Consider an instructor heart-to-heart talk
◦ T must understand S’s predicament (fear, lack of
identity, etc.)
◦ S must understand T’s standards
◦ S must know that fear/disaffection from English is a
hurdle that needs to be overcome (with support
from you and the Learning Center)
◦ The student lab class ESOL 655 (the ESOL lab) is
open enrollment all semester long (24 hours = .5
unit). Contact the Learning Center for a tour or
class visit at x4144 or [email protected]
◦ The English Language Institute offers ESL
counseling and workshops – x7089 or
[email protected]
◦ Leigh Anne Sippel – x4408 or [email protected]

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