Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice

Dana Ferris and John S. Hedgcock (1998)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xviii + 329
ISBN 0-8058-2450-2 (paper)
US $29.95

How do I design a writing course for college-level non-native speakers? How do I make sure that my syllabus includes all of the important elements? What about assessment? How do I structure peer review sessions? How can I design reading journal assignments? These were a few of my questions as I started planning a writing course for the first time. Teaching ESL Composition was an indispensable, practical handbook for designing handouts, structuring revision sequences, and planning for portfolio assessment.

This book was designed to serve a wide audience of educators and researchers. The authors hope that the book will serve as a textbook for graduate students in TESOL programs, as a handbook for in-service ESL teachers, as a resource for mainstream teachers who want to know more about teaching ESL composition, and as a literature review for researchers in second language (L2) and ESL composition issues. Researchers will find the references to the research literature very concise. Although the reviews do not go into any great depth, they are excellent starting points for researchers embarking on their own literature reviews.

Each chapter begins with a review of the major literature. Chapter 1 is primarily devoted to quickly reviewing some key issues in ESL and L2 writing. It focuses on theoretical and practical issues and provides a brief history of the major trends in ESL and L2 composition. Each of the following chapters deals with a core issue in writing instruction: syllabus design, materials selection, teacher feedback and peer response, grammar and editing, assessment, and computer technology. The authors review theoretical issues for each chapter first, then launch into practical issues. Charts and figures offer concrete examples that can be modified to suit specific needs. Reflection questions and application activities at the end of each chapter are directed at teachers and student teachers. For instance, a very detailed activity on pages 19-20 guides students through the process of making an introspective analysis of their writing process: keeping a chronological log and frankly assessing their strengths and weaknesses. The suggested activities can be used in TESOL methods courses as class assignments or as stimuli for generating research questions. I have used many of these activities and suggestions to guide my work as I develop essay assignments for my course.

Chapters 2 to 4 address the issues facing every teacher who is designing a course, all the while giving special attention to meeting the needs of ESL writers. Chapter 2 reviews research on the reading-writing connection and presents suggestions for designing reading journal assignments and sample intensive reading activities. Chapter 3 covers practical issues in syllabus design and lesson planning, including the steps for conducting a needs analysis, planning the sequence of a course, and setting up steps for the drafting process. The application activities invite teachers to assess a syllabus or design a lesson plan. Chapter 4, “Text Selection, Materials, Task Construction,” deals with choosing course texts, and provides a very detailed checklist of evaluation criteria on pages 90-91. Other checklists aid in the selection of authentic materials and the design of a writing prompt. [-1-]

The remaining chapters look at important issues of feedback and assessment, with a final chapter on using computer technology in the writing classroom. Chapter 5, “Issues in Oral and Written Feedback,” covers written comments and teacher-student writing conferences. The appendixes provide examples of written feedback on student essays, then present a procedure for analyzing and coding written comments. The application activities for chapter 6, “Principles of Peer Response,” offer steps for designing peer response forms and developing a peer response activity that is specific to the writing assignment. Some sample peer response forms are also provided. Chapter 7 focuses on grammar and editing, and offers practical suggestions for assessing student needs and teaching editing skills. The error analysis form on page 215 can be adapted to help students identify major patterns in their errors. Chapter 8, “ESL Writing Assessment,” has sample rubric and essay scoring forms. A section on portfolios addresses some common concerns, and a final section addresses the practical issues of managing the workload and assigning course grades. Chapter 9, “Technology in the Writing Class,” deals with the perennial issues of using spell checkers and grammar analysis programs. The effects of computer use on revision are also carefully discussed.

Having covered the contents of the book and its strengths, I will now turn to some of its weaknesses. Teaching ESL Composition was designed for comprehensiveness, combining research insights with concrete examples of course design. As a handbook for developing activities, it has been well developed. However, it does risk sounding bland and vague by attempting to serve such a broad audience of teachers and researchers. In the interest of this comprehensiveness, the authors seem to have deliberately avoided politically sensitive issues of ESL, such as choice of content. No attention is given to critical theory or critical language studies, for instance. What students will write about is neglected in favor of how they will learn to write. Teachers looking for help in determining the content of their courses will have to look elsewhere.

I would recommend this book as a reference for teachers, as a handbook for planning an in-depth literature review, and as a resource for TESOL methods courses. Having this book on the shelf gives me access to practical models for planning and implementing an ESL writing course. It’s like having a reference library of the best work of several experienced teachers at my disposal.

Beth Lewis Samuelson
College Writing Programs University of California, Berkeley
<btlewis@uclink4.berkeley.edu >

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