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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Hannah Soblo and Joe Wilson

Hannah Soblo and Joe Wilson, both teachers of our cross-listed 102/132 courses, speak about their successful teaching practices.

Hannah Soblo

 Hannah Soblo is an M.A. student with a concentration in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics and is her final semester of study. Her research focuses on second language writing, identity, and writing program administration.

Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson is the Alwin Thaler Research Assistant, the Assistant Director of ESL, and a Graduate Teaching Associate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His work is situated at the interface of Composition Studies and Applied Linguistics, with research areas including L2 writing program administration, genre and discourse studies, and L2 writing transfer.

 The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about their experiences teaching L2 students.


Our interview follows:

You two are teaching special sections of English 102 that are cross-listed with English 132. Can you tell us about that experience so far? What is the course like? What do you theme the course around, and why did you choose this particular topic?

Hannah: These sections enroll equal numbers of students previously enrolled in English 101 and English 131. However, each course is still unique; in one of my classes, I have a fairly even split of native U.S. and Chinese students, while the other has students from a greater variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. So far, I have found teaching these courses both challenging and rewarding. As a relatively new teacher and first-time L2 writing teacher, it has been challenging to pace the course correctly for both populations. However, it has been extremely rewarding to see my students interact during group work and to read their response posts as they learn more about other cultures and how to interact in multicultural settings.

I think much of this learning is attributable to the course theme, which for me is Inquiry into Cross-cultural Identities. As I designed this course, I attempted to model my curriculum after several research studies on cross-cultural composition (Matsuda & Silva, 1999; Reichelt & Silva, 1995). These researchers recommended that composition courses enrolling diverse student populations should emphasize linguistic and cultural differences in order to allow students opportunities to interact with one another to learn about these differences, explore topics related to their own and other cultures and languages, and reflect on their growth in terms of cross-cultural communication skills and awareness over the course of the semester. By choosing the theme of cross-cultural identities, I’ve been able to guide students in these activities by assigning readings and writing topics related to culture, language, and how individuals interact in and come to identify with multiple cultures across various contexts. So far, we’ve looked at tourism in the archival unit, and are beginning to research how particular languages and/or dialects have been treated, represented, or thought of in writing instruction during the secondary source unit. Both units have encouraged students to research cultures that they either identify with or would like to identify with in the future. It’s given all my students (not just the L2 writers) a chance to draw from their knowledge of home cultures outside of academia, and that has been critical to creating a classroom environment that welcomes their diversity of linguistic resources and cultural experiences. In our final unit, the qualitative research project, I’ll be giving students an option to conduct either auto-ethnographic studies in small groups to research and write about their own cultures, or qualitative interview studies of particular cultural groups.


Joe: I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching a cross-listed section of English 102/132 this semester. My class is populated by athletes, international students, young parents, veterans, and Knoxville natives, all of whom (myself included) are excited to learn from one another’s perspectives and experiences.  The broad theme of my course is cross-cultural communication, which seeks to enable students from across linguistic and disciplinary backgrounds to both analyze and investigate the ways that discourse and genres are adapted across cultural and academic contexts. As such, my course curriculum serves as a multilingual spin to traditional “writing about writing” curriculums, instead taking a “writing about genre” approach.

In professional literature, genre theory and pedagogies have historically been perceived as an important bridge between L1 and L2 writing pedagogies/research due to their emphasis on explicit instruction and dynamic understandings of writing. In my class, we begin with a secondary source paper that allows students to explore and critique the ways that genres are constructed in different disciplines. Toward the beginning of the semester, I quickly learned that the majority of my students are microbiology majors, most of whom are more interested in considering genres in their majors than those in their home cultures. In consequence, we have juxtaposed common genres in microbiology (journal articles, lab reports, public service announcements, etc.) and other scientific fields with those associated with rhetoric and composition (analysis essays, argumentative papers, etc.). My students have been surprisingly excited to conduct such research, eager to practice applying generic knowledge to writing in their own majors.

We are now beginning the qualitative unit, where students will move from analyzing and critiquing genres to actually investigating them. To do so, my students enrolled in English 102 have requested letters of recommendation from teachers/professors in their disciplines. I allowed my 132 students to obtain letters from high school teachers in communities in which they have lived, in English or another language. In this unit, students will code for specific language features (hedges, appeals to pathos, boosters, self-referrals) that appear in these letters. In addition to textual analysis, they will have the opportunity to ask recommenders why they made those specific linguistic choices, opening the question as to how authors from different disciplinary, geographical, and linguistic contexts promote their students through this genre. With the partnership of the wonderful International Studies Librarian, Allison Sharp, we will then, as a class, assemble both these letters and historical examples of letters of recommendation to create our own genre map, affording students the opportunity to create an archive in addition to analyzing archival texts.


Having taught both L1 and L2 students now, do you have any advice for new teachers in planning and teaching classes with a variety of students in their classroom? What are some ways teachers can avoid miscommunications and make their classroom environment more welcoming for all their students?

Hannah: The most important thing is topic selection. Ensuring that the chosen topic is not something that would be unfamiliar to populations outside the U.S. (such as topics related to politics) is extremely important for allowing non-native students to participate on equal footing with native U.S. students. Relatedly, I think reading selection is very important. In a cross-cultural classroom, it is especially important that the readings you choose highlight the experiences of diverse populations, because this can show students that their own cultures and identities are being acknowledged and validated by the university. In our secondary source unit, for instance, I began by having students read the introduction to SRTOL (Students’ rights to their own language), and followed this with Geneva Smitherman’s (1995) “SRTOL: A retrospective” and Janet Bean et al.’s (2003) “Should we invite students to write in home languages?” These readings have allowed us to talk openly about linguistic and dialectic difference in university writing settings, something that they have all experienced, and given them an opportunity to participate in conversations that are relevant to their own writing education. Highlighting their diverse linguistic resources and cultural heritages has made the class more welcoming not only for my non-native students, but also for the native U.S. students who grew up speaking primarily non-standard dialects.


Joe: At the foundational level, I would encourage teachers of multilingual writers to view their students’ diverse linguistic repertoires as assets to their writing in FYC contexts (and beyond). In my class, I have several international L2 writers, who have studied English in their home countries and are here with a visa. Many of these students’ struggles participating in classroom discussions belie their considerable skills in writing as well as their comprehensive understanding of grammar. I also have several multilingual writers who would be categorized by the professional literature as “generation 1.5” learners, whose families chose to immigrate to the United States many years ago and who took ESL courses in their middle and/or high schools. These students have little formal training in writing in their L1, and therefore often feel more comfortable writing in their L2. They also bring extensive knowledge of American cultural expectations into the classroom as well as the benefits of strong proficiency in multiple languages. Moreover, several of my L1 students have diverse writing experiences; one veteran student, for example, studied Arabic writing while deployed for several years in the Middle East. Another student is working to re-learn her native language, which she lost after moving to the United States as a child. To make the classroom environment more welcoming to these students, I look for the individual strengths—writing, linguistic, or otherwise—that each student brings to my classroom. I work to ensure that my course curriculum and class lessons provide opportunities to allow my students to share those strengths with their classmates through collaborative activities, differentiated instruction, and peer-review sessions.

For new instructors, I think assessment often poses the greatest challenge to teaching courses that enroll multilingual writers. While a comprehensive guide to assessing L2 writers is beyond the scope of this response, here are a few of the ways that I approach assessment in my own classroom:

  • I begin each semester with a diagnostic “needs assessment” that allows students to self-identify their goals for the course, perceived writing strengths, and potential areas for growth.
  • I use explicit assessment tools, such as analytic (as opposed to holistic) rubrics and clear assignment sheets, which I distribute to students well in advance of major assignments.
  • I explain that rubrics themselves are genres, and whenever possible, I seek students’ input in designing these rubrics.
  • My curriculum emphasizes self-assessment strategies to help students detect dissonance in their own writing.
  • I use student conferences and weekly online forums to formatively assess my students’ work throughout the drafting process. If I come across a rhetorical move that initially appears out of place in a student’s writing, I ask them why they made that choice. This usually affords me an opportunity to identify the resources the student is attempting to incorporate into her or his writing and helps me provide more productive feedback.
  • I prioritize implicit feedback on grammar, so as to promote metacognition (Ferris and Hedgcock, 2014). This could involve underlining a verb tense issue without explicitly writing what verb should be replaced or why that verb choice was not correct.

In her plenary talk on the assessment of L2 writers at the Symposium on Second Language Writing (SSLW) last July, Dr. Deborah Crusan made the statement, “Assessment should never be a surprise… or a punishment.” This is my guiding principle when assessing the work of all writers, and I think it especially applies to classrooms with diverse student populations.


What writing skills do you feel are ones that L2 learners need the most help with and how can teachers be sensitive to this in class? Do you have an activity or lesson that you feel works well in teaching/reinforcing some of these skills?

 Hannah: A big challenge for me has been getting students to understand the flexibility and diversity of academic writing. They want me to give them a formula for writing 5-6 page academic essays, and many of them are used to such teaching strategies because they have come from a background where writing instruction primarily means instruction on standardized-testing formats. A way to help them move away from standardized-test style writing is to assign fairly frequent low-stakes writing assignments to let them practice new types of writing without worrying about grades. It is also important to encourage multilingual students to use their multiple languages as resources; for instance, I encouraged my students to use non-English academic sources for their archival paper if they were writing about a non-Anglophone culture. I also spent part of our citations lesson explaining how to incorporate and cite translated sources; this was useful for my native English speakers as well, some of whom were writing about Spanish-speaking or Italian-speaking cultures.

Classroom participation has also been a challenge for many of my students, and as group work and active learning is an excellent way to learn to write, this has ramifications for their writing skills. I think this difficulty stems from a lack of confidence more than potential cultural differences; my Chinese students are often intimidated by speaking out in class because they think they will be judged harshly by native English speakers. I’ve worked to overcome these challenges by assigning them small group work early and often so that they get to know each other. In one of my classes, it’s been necessary to assign groups, because they struggle to get out of their cultural bubbles; this goes for U.S. natives as well as other students. Progress is slow, but they are improving. The other class, which has more diversity than the first, hasn’t had this issue.

The final and most important way to help multilingual students overcome writing challenges is to meet with students one-on-one, preferably early in the semester. This is incredibly helpful for students who lack the confidence to speak out in class. I held conferences in the fourth week of classes, and I was able to identify what individual challenges they were having and work with them to develop strategies to overcome these challenges. After the conferences, I saw immediate improvements in several of my struggling students’ engagement in class and level of writing.


Joe: For years, multilingual students were mistakenly grouped with so-called “basic writers,” for American institutions viewed these students’ grammar struggles as indicative of their need for “remedial” courses (Matsuda, 2003, p.68). This is no longer how we view writing or design course placement options; at UT, many multilingual students (especially “generation 1.5” students) are often placed into English 101/102. We can make some generalizations about the curricular needs of specific populations of L2 writers, such as international students, immigrant students, generation 1.5 students, etc. For example, certain course themes, such as those steeped in highly contextual American political or cultural content, will pose special struggles to many international students. Still, to apply hard and fast rules to all populations of L2 students would be reductive.

It would be equally reductive to assume that L2 writers’ needs are equivalent to those of L1 writers, or to avoid all language and grammar instruction entirely. Instead, I often find that multilingual students need more explicit instruction than their L1 peers in understanding the ways that grammatical and language choices function rhetorically and for different academic discourse communities. I would encourage all teachers to educate themselves on both specific pedagogical and assessment practices beneficial to L2 writers as well as on strategies for teaching about language in the classroom. The resources Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom by Matsuda, Cox, Jordan, and Ortmeier-Hooper, Assessment in the Second Language Writing Classroom by Crusan, and Teaching L2 Composition by Ferris and Hedgcock are great places to start.

I adapted one of my favorite activities for teaching language in the writing classroom from Hyland (1996; 2000), who delineates rhetorical/generic features common to specific academic disciplines. In class, we used Hyland’s data to look at the reporting verbs, number/kinds of hedges, and number/kinds of citations typical in published articles for 8 disciplines, including philosophy, applied linguistics, microbiology, and electronic engineering, and students hypothesized what these choices revealed about those academic discourse communities. As homework, students analyzed two articles (one from their major and one from the discipline of rhetoric and composition) for their different intertextual choices. When I handed students the rubric for their secondary source essay, I purposefully left the section about “formatting and style” blank. In groups, students drew from these past analyses in order to decide how those features should be assessed in their own writing for the secondary source essay genre task, and they were largely successful in doing so.


Any other things that you would like to share about teaching L2 writers? Any last tips that we can incorporate in our own classrooms?

Hannah: I’ve found that teaching writing to multilingual students is pretty much the same as teaching native English speaking students, but that it allows far greater opportunities for both me and my students to learn about different writing styles, contexts, and communication skills. The strategies I use to help my multilingual students—such as frequent low-stakes writing assignments, group work, early conferences, and emphasizing the resources they already bring to the classroom—have been of equal help to the native speakers. I would recommend that any teacher emphasize language and cultural difference in their writing classroom and provide examples of and opportunities for students to experiment with writing in or analyzing non-standard dialects and non-English languages. What I’ve found by teaching this course is that all my students are multilingual; they all have experience speaking a variety of English dialects and learning languages other than English. Often, though, they don’t recognize these experiences as resources until they are given the opportunity.


Joe: I would just add that multilingual students are often highly motivated to improve their writing; figuring out what motivates them is critical for a successful class. This has often required flexibility on my part as a teacher. For example, although I initially intended to exclusively consider cultural influences on writing this semester, many of my multilingual students expressed discontent with writing about (especially their own) cultures, wanting to instead focus on writing in the academy and the professional sphere. When we started conducting genre analyses of workplace genres such as resumes and cover letters, as well as academic genres such as lab reports and articles in their majors, many students felt more motivated to participate in class and excited to write their secondary source sapers on genre theory. So I’m continually learning about what my students want from me as their instructor, so that I can help them both meet their goals as well as the course’s objectives.


Hannah’s References

Bean, J., Cucchiara, M., Eddy, R., Elbow, P., Grego, R., Haswell, R., Matsuda, P. K.(2003).

Should we invite students to write in home languages? Complicating the yes/no debate. Composition Studies 31 (1). 25-42.

Matsuda, P. K. & Silva, T. (1999). Cross-cultural composition: Mediated integration of U.S. and international students. Composition Studies, 27 (1). 15-30.

Reichelt, M., & Silva, T. (1995). Cross-cultural composition. TESOL Journal 5, (2), 16-19.

Smitherman, G. (1995) “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”: A Retrospective. The English Journal 84, (1). 21-27.


Joe’s References

Crusan, D. (2010). Assessment in the second language writing classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ferris, D. and Hedgcock, J. (2014). Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Hyland, K. (1996). Talking to the academy: Forms of hedging in science research articles. Written Communication 13.2: 251-281.

Hyland, K. (2000). Disciplinary discourses: Social interactions in academic writing. New York: Longman.

Matsuda, P. K. (2003). “Basic Writing and Second Language Writers: Toward an Inclusive Definition.” Journal of Basic Writing 22.2: 67-89.

Matsuda, P. K., Cox, M., Jordan, J., Ortmeier-Hooper, C. (Eds.) Second Language Writing in the composition classroom: A critical sourcebook. Boston: Bedford; Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.

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