I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. Here’s a simple activity that can support sentence structure development for all readers and writers, one that is particularly helpful for multilingual students.
Select a short passage (3-5 sentences) from a classroom reading, focusing on an excerpt that illustrates clear functions or rhetorical purposes. For example, in my current IRW composition course, we recently looked at this short paragraph from Elizabeth Wardle’s article “You Can Learn to Write in General,” from the open-source text Bad Ideas about Writing:
There is no writing in general, and thus no single class or workshop or experience can teach people to write, once and for all. But people want to believe that it’s possible to write in general because this belief makes writing seem less difficult and allows them to believe that writers can get a one-time writing inoculation that will extend across all settings. If this is the case, then non-English teachers and employers are off the hook; they don’t have to help students learn to write in their classrooms or workplaces, they can just criticize writers for not being able to meet their expectations— and criticize English teachers for not doing their jobs. (31)
As my class discussed this passage in the context of the entire essay, we looked at what the three sentences accomplish rhetorically. Sentence one, for example, presents a strong claim (“There is no writing in general”) and follows with the consequences of that claim (“and thus…”). The second sentence introduces a contrasting belief (“But…”), followed by a reason (“because…”). The final sentence looks at the implications of accepting the alternative (“if…then…”), adding additional ideas via a semicolon and a dash.
This analysis led to a simple discussion of different ways to express frustration, especially frustration in relation to mistaken ideas. Instead of screeching, “That’s wrong,” Wardle’s paragraph illustrates a formal and more “academic” means of confronting a false or mistaken belief.
Next, I asked students to think about statements or expectations suggesting mistaken assumptions that they hear (particularly in college or work situations), and to create a paragraph expressing their frustration, following Wardle’s model:
There is no _________________, and so ____________________. But _______________ because _______________________. If ___________, then _________________; _____________________--__________________.
Students worked on the project in groups, producing paragraphs similar to this one:
There is no way we can get so much homework done so fast, and thus teachers can’t expect us to finish everything completely. But teachers want to believe that major assignments can be done in a day or two because they think we students don’t have lives and jobs outside of school. If this was true, then maybe we should have all assignments done before the next class; teachers could also lecture us about how we don’t listen or how we make excuses--and even make us hate coming to class.
Once student groups generated their paragraphs, we did some large group editing for spelling, agreements, and mechanics. But each group was able to complete a thought-provoking paragraph with effective sentence structure, using the functions and sentence patterns we found in Wardle’s original.
This activity builds confidence for students, and in this particular case, it also allowed me to hear and affirm the struggles they have regarding academic expectations of them: in addition to typical student complaints about the amount of time and work expected from them, students also commented on frustrations with feedback and criticism, the stress of comprehensive and high-stakes testing, difficulties talking with faculty, and the sense that faculty are offended when students aren’t 100% engaged in every class. The large-group editing and review of the paragraphs led to a frank discussion about strategies for dealing with mismatches between faculty and students. We didn’t resolve all the frustrations, but student perspectives were seen, heard, and validated.
What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers build confidence using different sentence structures?