Articles for Instructors

Adapting to the Situation: A Rhetorical Approach to Teaching ESL Writing

Ann Fillmore

This article is written for ESL teachers who, like me, had traditional, grammar-based training in second language acquisition and pedagogy.

Like many others trained in TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language), my graduate studies focused on the four skills of language acquisition: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Grammar was highly prioritized in the program, and I learned how to plan lessons based around particular linguistic elements, like plurals, phrasal verbs, and non-count nouns. I completed over one hundred hours of student teaching in various classrooms using this approach, and when I finally earned my degree, I felt confident and prepared to teach ESL.

After a few years teaching as an adjunct professor, I landed a tenure-track position in the English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies department at a college in Salt Lake City. I was only one of a handful of faculty with an ESL background, as the majority were English majors. It was there that I learned a very important lesson: English majors are taught how to teach writing in a totally different manner than TESOL majors. They rely on rhetoric, rather than grammar, to guide students, rather than dictate, how to use language in order to get things done in the world. The difference in disciplinary pedagogy led me to entirely rethink my philosophy of teaching.

It wasn’t only me; many of my students have had similar experiences with this methodological shift when transitioning from ESL to college-level “Freshman Comp” courses. We are all familiar with the stereotype of an English teacher marking mistakes on an essay with a red pen. Unfortunately, this is how many students have been taught in the past. In fact, every semester, I have students inquire about grammar when they enroll in my writing classes. And, I’ve noticed this is especially true for ELLs (English Language Learners.) It’s not hard to imagine why this happens because proper grammar is emphasized in academic work. Don’t get me wrong; understanding a language’s grammar rules is important. However, too much focus can become problematic for ESL students as they advance in their studies.

 

STANDARD AMERICAN ENGLISH: WHOSE STANDARD IS IT ANYWAY?

We rarely stop to consider who standardized our language. As stated by Curzan and Adams in their book, How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction:

Throughout our schooling, we have been sent to dictionaries, grammar books, and style guides in order to learn “the rules” for the written language, but who are the people empowered to write these books? Why do they assume authority over English, and why do we cede authority to them? (34)

As a professor and scholar, I have an understanding of how power and politics play a role in the standardization of any language. However, as a new teacher, I taught Standard English as the only acceptable form of writing without giving it much thought. My rationale was something like “This is how I learned, so it must be an effective way for everyone to learn.” After all, I loved grammar. I earned an A in almost every English class I took from elementary through graduate school. For me, grammar was English.

But, grammar isn’t everything. I remember the time a frustrated student confessed to me, “Only you can understand my English. No one else understands me. A child in my building asked me why I speak and write like his grandfather.” I recognized my student’s frustration and confessed that I had also experienced the same thing as an international student in Mexico. The proper Spanish I learned in class only got me so far in “regular life” situations, and I often felt embarrassed because of it.

It was after this and other similar conversations that I realized my old school-teaching approach led students to believe that grammar was the most important aspect of their learning, which unfortunately led to the misconception that there was only one “correct” way to use English, and everything else was “wrong.” I was tired of focusing on the “problems” or “errors” in student writing which also tended to produce negative feelings, diminished self-confidence, and hypercorrection in their work (too much focus on being “correct” to the point that it interferes with understanding). I finally accepted that by using a grammar-based approach, I was ignoring how the language worked in the real world.

 

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO TEACH WRITING RHETORICALLY?

Working in the English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies department taught me to focus on rhetorical awareness in my classes. More than anything else, I learned it is important to teach students how to think like writers in order for them to be successful writers. This methodology has helped my students to understand that writing isn’t a standardized activity and that effective writing depends on the situation. As Justin Jory explains in another article in this Open English text,

The term “rhetorical situation” refers to the circumstances that bring texts into existence. The concept emphasizes that writing is … produced by people in particular situations for particular goals. It helps individuals understand that, because writing is highly situated and responds to specific human needs in a particular time and place, texts should be produced and interpreted with these needs and contexts in mind.

Writing doesn’t happen by accident. It is a process of deliberation that involves identifying and enacting strategic choices, strategies, and moves. Developing from a beginning to an advanced-level writer requires students to pay attention to how writers use language in the real world. This is complex work, and it should be the focus of our ESL writing courses. The following section provides suggestions on how to help students strengthen their rhetorical awareness and think like writers in order to accomplish this.

 

UNDERSTANDING THE PURPOSE

Every piece of writing has a purpose, and when students investigate the influences that motivate an author to write, it gives them a greater understanding of how English works in particular situations. I find that starting out with reading is the most effective way to have students learn to think rhetorically. When they are comfortable identifying and analyzing these elements in others’ writing, it is a smoother transition to incorporate this reasoning into their own work. The question prompts below will help students research possible factors that led to the creation of a text as well as what action(s) the author desires from the audience.

To think rhetorically about purpose is to ask particular questions about the motivations and goals that lead writers to produce texts:

  • What motivates the writer to write? What issues, events, or problems led the writer to take action?
  • What is the writer’s response to the larger issue(s)? How does the text support this response?
  • What is the goal of this text? What does the writer want his audience to do, feel, or believe?
(Blankenship and Jory)

 

UNDERSTANDING THE AUDIENCE

Writing is a social activity. It is important that we, as teachers, emphasize that writing is a conversation between the author and the reader, which can be a shift in thinking for students. In my classes, I highlight the fact that writers make specific rhetorical decisions in order to engage particular individuals (the intended audience) in the larger conversation. The question prompts below provide an opportunity for students to consider the effects a particular audience may have on an author’s rhetorical decisions.

To think rhetorically about audience is to ask particular questions about the knowledge, beliefs, and values of the people whom texts are written for:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What does the audience know or need to learn about the issue? What are their relevant experiences? What stance(s) might they hold?
  • What’s the best way for the author to reach this audience? Which rhetorical strategies would be the most effective?
(Blankenship and Jory)

 

UNDERSTANDING THE CONTEXT

There are many factors that motivate individuals to write, and it is important to get students to “dig deep” into the circumstances that influence authors to put pen to paper. To do this, I find it valuable to develop prompts that lead students to investigate multiple viewpoints of complex cultural, social, political, historical, and ideological issues. The question prompts below provide a good opportunity to get started, and to help students make explicit connections about how, when, and why people write about controversial issues.

To think rhetorically about context is to ask particular questions about the factors that “set the stage” for writing to take place:

  • What do I need to know about the history of this issue to get up to speed? Has any action been taken on this issue recently? How has writing influenced action?
  • What laws or social norms may influence the perception of the text?
  • What limitations might the context place upon the writer’s arguments, evidence, or genre of composition? How does the author address these issues?
(Blankenship and Jory)

 

UNDERSTANDING GENRE

Though the rhetorical situation consists of purpose, audience, and context, I find it beneficial to incorporate the study of genre in my writing classes as well. In basic terms, “genre” is the form of a text that an author produces to meet the needs of the writing task at hand. It is important for students to understand that the form, as well as the messaging, is contextual. As Clint Johnson says in the Open English @ SLCC chapter “On Genre,”

Each genre is different in form but also in how, when, and why it is used. This is because each genre exists for specific reasons, to do particular things in the world. By studying genre, we improve our ability to learn and then use forms of communication effectively in various situations.

My ELL students love practicing with genre. One activity I find very effective is to have students discuss situations about when/why a writer might send a text message instead of making a phone call; when/why a writer might create a website versus a flyer; or when/why a writer might create a video rather than an academic essay, etc. By having students analyze various writing scenarios, they begin to understand how certain genres could be more effective than others, and that each genre requires different rhetorical choices, depending on the situation at hand. The question prompts below are designed to help students analyze genre characteristics, understand how the form of a text can affect the messaging, and examine a writer’s rhetorical moves within the genre.

To think rhetorically about genre is to ask particular questions about how the form of a text will affect meaning:

  • In which form/genre does the author share their ideas? Is there a particular form that would communicate their message to the audience more effectively?
  • In which situation(s) is this genre used? What are the characteristics of the genre?
  • Which rhetorical choices did the author make? How does the author use language in this particular genre?

 

CONCLUSION

Incorporating rhetorical awareness as the framework for my writing courses has not only strengthened my teaching practice but has helped my ELL students to gain a more practical awareness of how English works in the world around them. I see how the critical thinking skills that students develop help them to better adapt to new genres and new writing situations, whether in academics, work, or personal life because anywhere there is language, “there’s potential for rhetorical thinking” (Blankenship and Jory). In conclusion, we need to teach our students how to think like writers because …

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.”
― Susan Sontag

 

Works Cited

Blankenship, Chris and Justin Jory. “Language Matters: A Rhetorical Look at Writing.” Open English at SLCC: Texts on Writing, Language, and Literacy. Pressbook. openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/language-matters-a-rhetorical-look-at-writing/. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Curzan, Anne and Michael Adams. How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. 1st ed., New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.

Johnson, Clint. “On Genre.” Open English at SLCC: Texts on Writing, Language, and Literacy. Pressbook. https://openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/on-genre/. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Jory, Justin. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Open English at SLCC: Texts on Writing, Language, and Literacy. Pressbook. https://openenglishatslcc.pressbooks.com/chapter/the-rhetorical-situation/. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Sontag, Susan. Acceptance speech. 2003 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. 12 Oct 2003. Frankfurt, Germany. Acceptance Speech.

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Open English @ SLCC by Ann Fillmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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