Ruth Spack


My name is Ruth Spack and I’m at Bentley College.

In my early career, I was taught uh when I was learning to be an ESL instructor myself, I was taught—there was always a focus on difference. Everything was different and for the second language learner, things were harder, slower, um they where unsteady, anxious, and I discovered through my own experience of actually teaching writing that that was not always true. So most—it’s extremely difficult for me to generalize about the differences between writing in a first language and writing in a second language anymore. I used to be able to do it. I have students uh who within the ESL community are so diverse, uh that some of the students are highly literate in there first language and so writing in the second language is simply a matter of transferring for them uh all of there knowledge about composing, about language, about language use and their greatest difficulty uh is that they know in their first language they could express themselves so much more effectively then they can in English. They feel that their sounding less sophisticated so if for some of them, that becomes a problem. But within that group and even with a group without that high level of literacy in first language, some of them are more fluent writers in English then in their first language, or they are more comfortable in English, or they are more willing to take risks in English. And for some of them its because um that has been the language of their education uh either in bilingual schools in other countries, in living in the United States for several years, uh going to international schools. So the—the academic language that they know is actually the second language. Their first language may not really be academic so it can be easier for them to write in English. And there’s another group of students who speak a first language at home, a heritage language, but who are not literate in that language. And so talking about L1 and L2 writing with that group is irrelevant, because they don’t write in any other language but English. Uh yet, their writing in English does not look like what we uh identify as native-like English, its recognizably different and that’s a frustration for them. Uh some of those students do not feel frustrated writing in English, and then they’re surprised that other people can not understand them, or that its full of error because it looks right to them and it sounds right to them. It’s their language; it’s their English.

Well, I think it’s—it’s so important to know who the students are, to know who’s sitting in front of you in a classroom. And I think that public school teachers are in a more enviable position then those of us who teach at the university. We teach classes that meet twice, maybe three times a week. We see students for probably—you know, sometimes a total of 2 ½ hours a week in a classroom and some of the classes are big and it can be a challenge to get to know the students. Um, but that is what I always encourage teachers to do. It’s not that difficult to find out about students’ language backgrounds and it’s very important to understand what it means if there is a student sitting in front of you who is identified as Chinese. Um, is that student uh bilingual already? The student may not be uh participating in class uh but that doesn’t mean that the student isn’t a competent speaker of English already. Uh, what language is spoken at home? Are the parents literate? Are there books in the home? Uh, what is the background? The more we know about the students, I think the easier it is to build on what they already know. And I think that’s the goal. To find out where every student is, I—I would say that’s the goal across the board. Um, it’s certainly my goal in teaching college students and graduate students as well.

In my own classroom, and again this is where most of my knowledge comes from—I mean, I read in the field. I do research in the field. I publish in the field. Um, but first I was a teacher and I came to that scholarly world out of my experience as a teacher. And I really learned a tremendous amount from the students. I knew very little about second language writing when I began teaching. I was an English major in college and my master’s degree was in literature when I started becoming an ESL teacher. I became certified to teach ESL um many years ago. I think it was um 30 years ago, actually and the field was relatively new. I had almost no instruction on teaching writing. And a few years—and I did very little teaching of writing. I first taught in high school and then I taught adult ed for many years and I did relatively little with writing uh until I was asked to be a writing teacher at the college level. And then suddenly uh there were almost no textbooks. There was very little uh to read in the field of English as a second language on writing. There was some information to tell us that writing should be at the bottom and something that should be the last thing after students acquire language. But I began to experiment simply because there was nothing else to do and that was who I was, I guess. I was—I was comfortable with that. I’m comfortable with uh taking risks and with ambiguity. I have a high tolerance for—which is, I think, a great quality for an ESL teacher. Um, and I began to ask students to write to see what they could do. Uh, not to test them um but just to see what was there. And I discovered that even at very low levels um—even at the same time, actually, I was still teaching adult ed when I was a college teacher, so I began as I discovered what students in college could do with writing, I began to ask the adult students to write. And I began to find out that they knew a lot more English then I thought they did or they knew English in different ways. And I began to see that writing itself promoted language acquisition, which is the exact opposite of what I had been taught in graduate courses at the time. Um, and so I—that is where I begin. I ask students to write. I say to them uh, “Take out a piece of paper and pen” or—or I have it with me in case no—no students have it. And I say, “I’m going to ask you to write something” and I prepare them because that usually puts people in a panic. It’s true with adult teachers too, when I do workshops. Sometimes people leave the room when I say that. They come to a writing workshop but they’re afraid of writing. Um and I say, “This will not be uh graded. It won’t even be corrected. I’m not even going to collect it. I may ask you to share what you wrote, but you’re not going to be obligated to do that. So what you’re doing now is just writing for yourself and I would like you to write about x.” uh, sometimes I say, “Write about whatever is in your head as a really early start,” um which is often a very good thing in a first day of a freshman college course when students are uh thinking about a lot of things and their minds are um overwhelmed—they’re overwhelmed by all the input. Um, and they discover through that that writing can help them focus, um see what’s on their mind, discover ideas, it generates ideas. But I also give them a topic uh and then I ask students to share. And I usually—uh my courses themselves are thematics so that we’re studying something together. Uh, and they write about a topic and I ask them to share—again, I’m not collecting it so it’s a piece of writing in front of them. I know at that point that everyone has something to say because they—I can see it visually. There’s something there. And then we go around and I start with volunteers. I usually write with students um and I use to begin with my own to sh—you know, to share and I’ve actually pulled back from that because that can intimidate students listening to my writing, I’ve discovered. I’ve also discovered they’re not all that interested in me. They’re more interested in each other. Uh, and so very early on a community of writers and readers develop in the sense that they’re reading their own work, their writing has become reading, and uh we begin to build a body of knowledge in the class around that topic. And they can see that they know a lot already, that they can share this knowledge, and then we can build on that.

It’s different for different students. The—the writing as a way to promote language acquisition is different for different students, I’ve discovered. And I guess this is a theme of all my work now. For me in the years—the many years ago that I was trained and taught that second language students were different uh it always meant that they were different from first language students. And now for me it means they’re different from one another, that it’s an extraordinarily diverse group of students and impossible to generalize about. And so I’m interested in each individual student. I find that if I don’t use writing in the classroom, it reduces the production of spoken language, if I do not use writing. When I use writing, it fosters speaking because when students produce something in writing, in class or at home as homework, uh they have something to say. And if I call on anyone or if I ask for volunteers, they have already had time. Writing has given them time to capture a thought and put it down and explore it. And I try to make my classroom a very safe place so that I welcome confusion. That’s one of my expressions. So that if there’s an idea that they’re confused about, it they have read something, for example, that I’ve asked them to write about and they don’t understand it, that usually has been one of my questions. Uh, you may write about what you don’t understand. Write about any questions you have regarding this. And then I invite students to bring that confusion and those questions into the classroom so that I can even call on the student who doesn’t understand the reading. And that student’s contribution is something we can build on in the class. Someone can say, “I don’t understand this” and we—I can say, “Show me where you don’t understand. Read it aloud. Let’s all look at the page.” And then as a class we can try to unravel that confusion uh so that um the writing itself generates language and enables a student to contribute to class even if there is lack of understanding. Uh, most of the students after awhile, though, get so comfortable with this they’ll—they’ll take risks to understand. They’ll say, “I think this is what this means. I ask questions like, “What strikes you about this reading? What stands out for you? Pick a quotation that you like or uh that you think is important, and again, or that you find confusing and copy it and then write about it. Talk about why it strikes you, why you like it, why you think it’s important.” And then we’ll go around the room with students reading the quotations so that as—as you will see in almost anything I say about writing, it’s interrelated with—with reading. Um, they will see multiple interpretations. They will see that different struck different readers in the class. That the writer of this piece of reading is speaking to a variety of people. There are a lot of messages, a lot of meaning in there. And again, this—there—there’s a tremendous amount of confidence um that grows over time with trust of me and one another. And if you come into my classroom all of the students are contributing all of the time. Uh, I—I wish I had more time because even if that happens it means each person only gets a few minutes, which is not a lot of production. Uh, it is one reason why breaking students up into groups to allow for more students to have more time to speak. Um, so I find that there is a relationship between writing and speaking and that is one way that—that writing promotes language acquisition. It activates uh another body of knowledge and uh, uh intellectual, mental, um body of knowledge and—and a spoken and another way to express this knowledge so that they’re interrelated.

There are many—there are many issues related to students’ uh academic writing ability in first language and second language. And I think that teachers need to understand even class differences among students and educational background. What schools did the students go to? The students that I teach who do not have uh academic literacy in their native language often are children of refuges, refuges themselves, uh immigrants from countries like Vietnam. They are students who came here as children uh often uh from age 5 to 10. They’ve been in schools in the United States um and they stopped reading and writing in their own language—if they ever did it—if they ever did it, uh once they’re in the United States unless they’re in bilingual education classes. And even the students in bilingual education classes uh have not necessarily moved up in academic literacy in equal amounts in—in the two languages. Uh, one of them tends to fall off. I’ve—I have found—I think the most difficult cases for me as a teacher are the students who have been in public school systems in the United States and have had a very poor literacy background in the United States. Ironically, the students who have been educated all of their lives in another country and even may have never stepped foot in the United States nor have really used English on a regular basis in any country are often the best students because if students have—and the best writers. If students um have confidence, uh if they have strong literacy skills in their first language, if they understand language and literacy, if they understand how it’s constructed, understand its use, understand its power in society, how they gain access. Um, they are raring to go when they get into a writing classroom. They just—I can’t help them fast enough. They just want to get it. They know—they know what it means for them and um often those students, by themselves, are readers in first and second language. They read books, they read magazines, they educate themselves. Uh, the hardest students to teach are the students who’ve been in public schools and who’ve kind of languished. And I use to think that that was because there was too much emphasis on error correction and grammar, but again and again I have discovered when I really listen to students—in other words, when I learn about individual cases rather then depend on the scholarly literature. And I say that advisedly because I am a scholar and—and I want people to read my own work. But I even have cuboids in my own work that one shouldn’t trust, you know, totally what I say, that I am representing the field in some way, looking at particular—particular cases. Um, but I have discovered—I have discovered that looking at individual students, that some students in the—in the public schools in my own state uh have had too much error correction and it has uh interfered—it has caused a barrier or a block. They just can’t move. They can’t take risks because they’ve been graded on how many errors they make. Uh, lost points for errors, especially if the grammar lesson was just taught. Uh, it—it flies in the face of everything I know about the way a second language is acquired—a way language is acquired. So that I can understand why those students suffer and have writing blocks and have not advanced as writers because they have spent a—a sort of academic lifetime being safe, trying to construct sentences that correct instead of expressing their ideas and saying what they want to say. But on the other side of that, what I have discovered by listening to students and interviewing students and finding out about their language backgrounds and their educational backgrounds, is that there are other schools where teachers simply have not attended to error at all. That somehow in learning about the process of writing and teaching students to take risks uh and develop their writing and write drafts and revise that—and not to attend to error too early, that they have actually done students a disservice so that students really have not learned editing strategies, learned to monitor their own work, learn to think about the importance of language, how it impacts on a reader. Uh, and also in some of these schools many of these students have had very limited reading—very limited reading. Students who have not mastered English at a relative native-like—to a relative native-like standard are often given remedial type of work. Uh, they—they’re filling out worksheets. They’re reading abridged versions. They’re reading simplified text. It’s the exact opposite of everything I believe about how language literacy are acquired uh and what they should do and to—yet they’re in college when I see them. And so the work—work has to be done at—at—at both levels. Um, and I think that university professors needs to work more closely with public school teachers and learn from public school teachers too about what is going on in the classroom and learn why things happen. How um this came to pass, that the education um did happen this way. And learn from the good uh public school education uh because we do have many successful students who come through public schools. I was talking about a particular—I talk about particular cases that are difficult when students uh have—do not have uh a high level of literacy in either first or a second language. Those are the hardest students to teach.

I—for many years I have been struggling with—for many years I’ve been struggling with how to respond to student writing and I, myself, am always experimenting with it. But here are certain underlying principles for me always. And the first is to recognize the students as writers, uh not just as students and I’m—it’s hard to—to explain that distinction. But I think I learned this from my colleagues who teach creative writing and who do writing workshops in which uh their students write fiction and poetry and share it with the class and people give them feedback. And in that sense, students are treated as writers uh and with that certain respect. And I think that it has helped me tremendously in teaching academic writing at the college level to treat the students as writers, uh and if you do that then you treat them like colleagues. And I have taught high school too and—and adult education classes and I’ve even taught in elementary school and done consulting in elementary school and nothing has ever changed for me. It’s—it’s always the same to—to develop a community of readers and writers uh, to develop colleagues. I share my own writing with them. Uh, they respond to my writing as well. And when writers uh respond to writers—to other writers, they don’t say, “Oh, you missed that semi-colon.” Um, but they do sometimes say in terms of correction, “I don’t understand what you mean here. Uh, I really want to get that idea. I think I know what you’re saying. Is this what you’re saying? How else could you say it? Uh, could you try that again?” They listen to one another. I also discovered this when I went back to graduate school after many years of teaching and in graduate school we were asked to get into groups and read each other’s writing. And very often the graduate professor uh would ask us to critique each other’s work. And we found in the group that we ignored what the professor told us because we were very interested in what we had written, not in critiquing it. We were interested in learning from one another and we would ask questions out of curiosity about each other’s research. What we had found. And we weren’t saying, “Gee, your introduction isn’t clear. Uh gee, you didn’t support that idea very well. You need to give another example on page three.” It simply wasn’t that kind of language. And I’ve tried to develop that in my own classroom. In fact in graduate school, uh at that time I was teaching a—a first-year writing course in college and I went back to the class and I told them what happened in the groups. And I said, “You know, I’ve been asking you to critique each other’s writing and I’d like some feedback from you about that experience.” And they said they didn’t like doing it. And so I asked them if uh they would just get together and read each other’s writing and say whatever they wanted to say. Uh, and I tape recorded uh some of these sessions. And I remember specifically one student. We had been—uh, the—the theme of the course that year was on teaching and learning and students had been reading uh—they had done their own writing on their own educational background, uh special experiences, outstanding teachers, and we also read uh fiction, non-fiction editorials, letter to the editors, poetry and so forth on this theme of teaching and learning. And they were comparing their own experience and so forth. And we were reading some—uh readings on testing—educational testing and one of the students had written an essay on being tested uh in Turkey. There was a national exam. If you didn’t pass it you didn’t get into the best high school and if you didn’t get into that high school, forget it. There would be no college. Uh, you would just hope that your parents had a business for you to go in because life was over. And my tape recording of that session, you don’t hear students saying to him, uh “Again, I don’t—again and again, I don’t know what you’re saying here. Your introduction isn’t clear. I can’t see what you thesis is. You don’t have a topic sentence.” It was none of that discussion. The students were sharing stories about being tested in different countries, in the United States, discussing the fact that the United States didn’t have a national exam, discussing whether the SAT was a national exam, stopping to ask me if the SAT was a national exam. Being shocked to discover it was not, uh that it was a corporation that uh had—had this kind of power. Um, and so they were generating their own knowledge. The student you could hear on the tape saying, “Oh, I really—that—that’s true in Turkey also. I should have put that in my essay.” And then he wrote little notes on his paper. And I tried to be the same kind of responder to students. To really listen to what they’re saying, talk about their ideas uh on paper. Um, uh write little questions to them. Uh, act as a real person uh really interested which fortunately because we’re all reading and writing about the same theme in the class, I am actually interested in it because I’ve chosen something that I feel some passion about, that I want them to feel passionate about and think more about. And so I am interested in having this exchange with them. I do deal with error. Uh, in fact, uh I have in my own scholarship uh for—for many, many years cautioned people about overemphasis on error to the extent that I know that there are people who say to me, “Well, I really admire your work but you never deal with error.” And I shock them by saying uh, “I actually address error more then most people. And that’s because I’m fascinated by language. This is why I became an English teacher. I want my students to be fascinated by language. I ask them questions—I locate error for them, uh not correct it for the most part uh, and we discuss it. I do it selectively. I look at things that I think uh will cause the greatest problem, what interferes with comprehension. Usually it’s a—a lexical item, it’s a vocabulary word uh that is not used appropriately or that is misleading or that maybe isn’t just as precise as I think the student meant to be and I will just put my finger on the word and say, “What did you mean here?” Very often the student will say in English exactly what they mean uh which is amazing to me and something I—I wish we had more research about. I don’t understand it. Why didn’t it appear the first time if it’s there? If the—the competence is there but it wasn’t in their performance. Uh, and I just say to the student, “Just write that,” you know. And uh also with other errors, uh subject/verb agreement, uh all the standard second language errors, I can just point to them and say uh, “This is an error. Talk to me about how this came into being. Uh, how did you produce this?” And usually in the process of telling me uh they give the correction. Uh, many of the students know grammar. They know grammar better then the uh US-born native speakers of English that I’ve taught also. I don’t—I haven’t only taught second language students of English and they can correct the error themselves. Uh, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the error is going to disappear forever. I use to think so. I use to think, “Oh, now they’ve seen the logic of the error” and I can say to them, “This is a very intelligent error. I understand how you made it. It makes a lot of sense.” And I felt very proud with myself because um I was looking at error in a very positive way, making them feel good about it, and then I said, “Now they’ll never do this again.” Well, that just simply isn’t true. It takes a long, long time. Uh, students internalize these language rules at different times. I can never predict who’s going to internalize which rule at any given time. Uh, for some students it’s just—there’s an ah-hah moment and for other students uh it will take a whole semester. And for some students even at the end of the semester even though I’ve targeted some errors and have been selective about things that are repeated patterns uh and I’ve just learned patience.

I’ve been exploring the connection between reading and writing uh for many years and I keep learning more and more about it. It is so profound to me and so striking to me that I’m going to have difficulty articulating my thoughts about it. I really am. I—in fact, at the moment I am teaching a first-year writing course and the theme of the course is “Language and Literacy.” We’re actually studying this. The undergraduates are studying it. And they are uh reading uh all sorts of pieces, um personal essays, uh essays. They’ve read research studies. Uh, they’ve read research studies by ESL professionals published in uh ESL publications uh that are geared toward uh, uh scholars in the field. Uh, usually I choose things in which students themselves have been interviewed, second language students have been interviewed, so the students can read um between the jargon of the field. They can read uh their own thoughts, in a sense. And uh I’ve also had them writing about their own experiences. And usually—my process is that I usually have students begin by writing. So, for example, before we began the—the unit in the whole course on language and second language acquisition, I had the students write about their own second language acquisition. Interestingly I should add, and this is ways in which students surprised me, some of them did not write about learning English. They wrote about learning a third language. For example, studying Spanish in school uh or taking Japanese in college um as their second language. But students then wrote that in class and out of class and then they’d share those stories in class about what it meant. And then I would get them into groups to discuss the stories and try to come up with their own theories about how a second language is acquired, under what circumstances. Uh, who was successful and who wasn’t, uh why are they successful and when. And they came up with theories this year such as you need to feel really relaxed. You can’t feel pressured. You need a wonderful, patient, understanding teacher. You need to feel motivated. You need to feel that you will gain something from learning the second language theories like that. It was then so easy to introduce them to these other readings, even the professional reading in which scholars were saying the exact same things. But the students had discovered that based on their own experience and their own writing that ideas that they generated through writing, that they could theorize, they could then uh contrast their experiences with what they were reading. Uh, they also read uh pieces by uh second language learners, such as, uh Abel Hoffman who emigrated from Poland to Canada. Uh, Richard Rodriguez who was born here um but who spoke only Spanish at home and was reluctant to speak English in school. Um, Amy Tan whose mother was an immigrant uh and who spoke what other people called ‘broken English’ but which Amy Tan thought was fluent and comprehensible and full of rhythm and meaning and beauty. They read pieces like this and—and wrote about them, uh responded to them, selected passages from them that they particularly liked, uh compared them with their own experiences, compared them to each other. And from that, again, began to build on the theories, to add to their original theories about language based on their own experience and look for different things. And they also used their own experience to refute what they were reading, to challenge what they were reading. They had a body of writing in the class. And I should add that I also reproduce some of this writing. I take selected student pieces—I use to type it up myself, it’s now gloriously easy to do. They can send their uh—I now have them type everything uh on word processing and they can now send me things uh by attachment. This is the luxury of—of college teaching today. Uh, I never could do this uh in—in public school when I taught there or in adult education. Uh, but then I can cut and paste from the student’s work, hand out sheets um in which they’re looking at their own writing. And then when they write papers uh they can site themselves because they have already written about this. Uh, they can site the published writers and the published scholars and also each other because they have uh their own and they—their own uh class work and they can draw on one another. So uh for me um—so that is one way in—in which it’s very interrelated. I have found years ago uh when—when I learned about writing process, much of what I learned and read had students only writing about their own experience. And whereas that was a wonderful thing, which I did for a very short time, I learned a lot about students and I—I thought that it was um a wonderful experience for both of us. And they learned about me too because I wrote about myself for them. But I felt particularly for uh second language learners—I would say this for all learners. And I should say—I can’t say this enough, that whatever is good for second language learners is good for everyone and so I—in some ways I think that um ESL teachers uh who really understand how language and literacy are acquired should be teaching everybody, um not the other way around uh when—when we understand it. So these—these principles hold for all students but I think particularly for second language students. It’s essential for them to read and write about reading because reading is so essential to the growth of language. It’s essential to the growth of vocabulary probably most of all. Uh, and this is—vocabulary is something that the students need desperately even at the highest levels of literacy um in their L2. And their second language students will say, “I don’t have a sophisticated enough vocabulary to say things in a subtle way.” Um, and they always want their vocabulary to grow. It can only come through reading. I don’t know where else it can come from really. Our spoken language—the spoke language that they hear around them is not at as high a level of academic discourse as they are trying to achieve in college. This I also true with graduate students. And so reading is essential that way. I also like to have student’s copy passages, passages that they really like. This is actually something I did as a child. I’m sure—I always—I always knew I was going to be an English teacher because I always loved language. I knew that in 5th grade. And uh I use to copy passages in a diary and wish I could write like that. And I know that I learned about how language was used by looking at that. And it happens almost by osmosis um that if you pick favorite passages, it’s because the language struck you in some way. You like the wording. And—and I have a lot of instances uh—an article I would love to write someday, where I’ve seen student’s expressions vocabulary from readings that we’ve done earlier in the semester appear um later in work. Uh, not just quoted, uh rearranged a little bit uh the vocabulary, and I’ll bring it to student’s attention and they don’t even realize um that they picked it up from—from the reading. And so I think reading helps students writing uh grow in terms of vocabulary, in terms of word order, which is very difficult for some students uh in finding uh very uh express—ways to express themselves. Uh, one student I remember liked the expression, “An eternity of minutes”—I don’t remember where that came from—and used that later and said, “Do I have to quote it?” Um, and yes in a college writing classroom unfortunately you do. But sometime in the future um that will just be uh an expression uh that the student owns.