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ERIC Identifier: ED275792
Publication Date: 1986-10-00
Author: Hornick, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.

Teaching Writing to Linguistically Diverse Students. ERIC Digest, Number 32.

The failure of American high schools to teach writing well poses a particular problem for students who speak nonstandard English. Frequently they are penalized simply for using language as they do at home. Moreover, they are often schooled where writing instruction is weakest, and where most of their peers are also from linguistically diverse backgrounds.

At a remarkably young age, most children learn the rules of the oral dialect of their native community. By the time children are school age, they can manipulate these rules with skill. Thus, teachers of nonstandard English speaking students must recognize that their students' linguistic differences rarely indicate true linguistic incompetence, and realize that students' home language practices are fundamental to how they see themselves and the world. Thus, learning to write standard English can mean mastering the patterns of an entirely new language system.

Cultural conflict can play a role in limiting the writing achievement of nonstandard dialect speakers. Labov (1972, 1983) studied a group of Harlem adolescents who, regardless of native verbal ability, turned their backs on school because it conflicted with the street culture in which they were firmly grounded. Other research explains why, for cultural reasons, even nonstandard dialect students who are highly motivated to acquire school knowledge fail to become academically literate.

Because standard written English is taught by representatives of the academic community, teachers' cultural orientations determine school literacy. Teachers place the highest value on objectivity and explicitness, expecially in writing. The individualistic, competitive patterns displayed in academia can conflict directly with the communal cooperative verbal styles frequent in nonstandard English speaking communities.

Most of the research on high school writing instruction points to a single great need: better trained teachers. If student writing is to improve, teachers' colleges will need to offer more classes in writing instruction, school districts will have to provide stronger inservice support, and curriculum policies may have to be adjusted. In the meantime, however, individual teachers can begin to make a differece. Some suggestions from research are outlined below.

1. POSITIVE TEACHER ATTITUDES. The need for supportive teachers is particularly great in writing classrooms; some findings suggest that no instructional method will work if the writing teacher's attitude toward students is not basically positive (Perl, 1986).

2. REGULAR AND SUBSTANTIAL PRACTICE IN WRITING, AIMED AT DEVELOPING FLUENCY. Students lacking practice with written language -- and accustomed to criticism of their vernacular language by outsiders -- must first develop confidence in themselves as writers. Therefore, the first instuctional goal of a writing program must be fluency: the relatively free, comfortable, and copious production of written discourse, without penalty for the form of the language used.

3. THE OPPORTUNITY TO WRITE FOR REAL, PERSONALLY SIGNIFICANT PURPOSES. Frequently, when teachers do assign essays, they regard them as reviews of previous learning rather than as opportunities for students to organize and explore new information. Students require stronger motivation for striving to master writing; specifically, they must be taught to see the usefulness of writing in getting things done in the "real" world. Nonstandard English speaking students should be encouraged to bring their distinctive linguistic traditions into the classroom.

4. STUDENT EXPERIENCE IN WRITING FOR MANY AUDIENCES. Because linguistically diverse students may face readers ignorant of or hostile to their native oral language, they have a particular need for instruction and assignments focused on the issue of audience. Practice in writing for a variety of audiences can help students adjust discourse to the anticipated needs of readers other than their teachers, and it exerts a natural pressure to edit and revise their work.

5. RICH AND CONTINUOUS READING EXPERIENCE. Much research has suggested that reading experience plays an important role in developing writing ability. When writing, children unconsciously experiment with conventions of the genres encountered in reading (Falk, 1979). Thus, teachers should present examples of specific genres that students are to use. Assigned readings should include the work of other students as well as that of professional writers.

6. EXPOSURE TO MODELS OF WRITING IN PROCESS AND WRITERS AT WORK, INCLUDING BOTH TEACHERS AND CLASSMATES. Many nonmainstream students come from homes where writing is not a central part of their parents' occupations or affairs. Thus, they need to be taught about the process used by adult and student writers to create the final writing product.

7. INSTRUCTION IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING. School programs featuring teachers writing along with students have reported success. Using an approach developed by Graves (1983), the classroom can become a workshop where everyone -- including the teacher -- is engaged in writing. Teachers demonstrate their own composing processes by using an overhead projector or flipchart pad, and verbalizing their thinking as they choose a topic, plan an approach, generate a draft, and make revisions.

The teacher's job is to dispel the inexperienced writer's need to get everything right the first time (Elbow, 1973), and to institutionalize the stages of writing (prewritng, writing, and revising).

8. COLLABORATIVE ACTIVITIES THAT PROVIDE IDEAS FOR WRITING AND GUIDANCE FOR REVISING WORKS IN PROGRESS. Students whose innate verbal styles are communal and cooperative may benefit particularly well from classroom activities which emphasize teamwork. In writing workshops and peer editing or response groups, students assist each other in various stages of the writing process.

9. ONE-TO-ONE WRITING CONFERENCES WITH THE TEACHER. Student-teacher conferences have long been viewed as a very effective means of providing writing instruction. Conferences can provide "scaffolding," a mechanism by which a more experienced learner or thinker provides temporary intellectual support that assists a learner in developing new ways of thinking (Bruner, 1982).

10. DIRECT INSTRUCTION IN SPECIFIC STRATEGIES AND TECHNIQUES FOR WRITING. Research indicates that there is also a place for active instruction. In schools that enroll a high proportion of nonstandard English speaking students, direct instruction can focus on the special issues that nonmainstream writers face. The key to successful instruction is to avoid stripping away student writers' sense of autonomy and responsibility.

11. REDUCED FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN GRAMMAR AND MECHANICS. Many researchers maintain that grammar instruction does not improve writing. Some have even shown that grammar instruction may be harmful because it takes time away from writing practice. (Petrosky, 1977; Hillocks, 1986). Nonstandard English speaking students need only to learn which features of their own dialects are stigmatized and how to replace them in their writing with the comparable standard form. This can be accomplished in the context of actual writing, as part of the natural revising process.

12. MODERATE MARKING OF SURFACE STRUCTURE ERRORS IN STUDENT PAPERS. Nothing is less likely to inspire a beginning writer than receiving back a graded essay obliterated by red ink. A more effective approach for linguistically diverse students is to identify one or two sets of related errors -- dialect related or not -- and help them focus their attention on a manageable set of problems as they draft their next piece of writing.

13. FLEXIBLE AND CUMULATIVE EVALUATION OF STUDENT WRITING. Dialectically different students are often punished by the myth that good writing is error-free. Teachers tend to have a higher standard of perfection in the mechanics of writing than in any other subject. Premature or overly hard evaluation can limit a student's willingness to do another draft. Early reader response is helpful to writers, but only as long as it is constructive and praise predominates over criticism.

14. WRITING IS PRACTICED AND USED AS A TOOL OF LEARNING IN ALL SUBJECTS. For nonstandard English speaking students, there may be no greater academic opportunity than an integrated and consistent program of writing experience throughout their secondary education. More and more educators are beginning to believe that writing well is crucial to learning in all parts of the curriculum.

Integrating writing into all aspects of the curriculum only works with the full commitment of administrators throughout the school. Administrators should note that writing across the curriculum programs foster intraschool cooperation. Teachers in all disciplines must learn to see the value of writing as an enrichment of their own teaching.


Bruner, J. ON KNOWING: ESSAYS FOR THE LEFT HAND. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, l982.

Elbow, P. WRITING WITHOUT TEACHERS. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, l973.

Falk, J. "Language Acquisition in the Teaching and Learning of Writing." COLLEGE ENGLISH 41(l979):436-437.

Graves, D. WRITING: TEACHERS AND CHILDREN AT WORK. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, l983.

Hillocks, G. RESEARCH IN WRITTEN COMPOSITION. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English/ERIC, l986.

Labov, W. "Recognizing Black English in the Classroom." In BLACK ENGLISH: EDUCATIONAL EQUITY AND THE LAW, ed. J. Chambers. Ann Arbor, MI: Karama, l983.

Perl, S. THROUGH TEACHERS' EYES. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, l986.

Petrosky, A. "Research Roundup: Grammer Instruction: What We Know." ENGLISH JOURNAL 66(l977):86-88.


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