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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Tanita Saenkhum and Sara Melton

Tanita Saenkhum and Sara Melton speak about their successful teaching practices.

Tanita Saenkhum 

Tanita Saenkhum is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she directs the ESL Writing Program and teaches courses in L2 writing, TESOL, and SLA. Her first book, Decisions, Agency, and Advising: Key Issues in the Placement of Multilingual Writers into First-Year Composition Courses, (Utah State University Press, 2016), considers the role of students’ own agency in the placement of multilingual writers in U.S. college composition programs. She has published in Journal of Second Language Writing, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and Journal of English for Academic Purposes. Her scholarship has also appeared in several edited collections.

Sara Melton

 Sara Melton is a lecturer in the English Department and Associate Director of the ESL Writing Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  She teaches the freshmen composition sequence for L2 students, as well as English 121 and 122, and assorted undergraduate literature courses.

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


Our interview follows:

As the Director of ESL, you oversee all our English classes intended for L2 students. Could you give a quick background of the English classes offered for L2 students and how we can direct those who are interested in signing up for one of these classes?   

Tanita: The ESL program offers several writing courses designed for second language (L2) students whose first or strongest language is not English. L2 students include international students (on an F-1 or J-1 visa) as well as resident students (including permanent residents and U.S. citizens) who graduate from a U.S. high school. For undergraduate students, we offer three classes:

English 121 (Academic English for Undergraduate Students)

English 131 (Composition for Non-Native Speakers of English I)

English 132 (Composition for Non-Native Speakers of English II)

English 131 and English 132, which are equivalent to English 101 and English 102, are the first-year writing courses required for all L2 undergraduate students. Some students may also be required to take English 121 before they proceed to English 131 and English 132, respectively. The ESL program uses standardized test scores (e.g., TOEFL, IELTS, SAT, ACT) to place students into writing courses. If students are not satisfied with their placement based on test scores, they can choose to take an English Placement Exam (EPE). The EPE, which takes place at the beginning of fall and spring semesters, tests students’ reading comprehension and writing skills. This link provides more information about undergraduate student placement and L2 writing courses offered.

L2 undergraduate students are informed of their English course placement by the ESL program before fall and spring semesters begin. For resident L2 students, including permanent residents and U.S. citizens, who wish to take our first-year writing courses, they are welcome to contact us at

For L2 graduate students, we offer English 122 (Academic English for Graduate Students). This class focuses on a variety of critical and rhetorical approaches to academic writing in the disciplines and includes strategies for improving professional oral communication. Graduate students may either be required to take this class, or may be exempt from it. To determine whether graduate students need this class, we use standardized test scores (TOEFL and IELTS) as a placement method. If students are not satisfied with their placement based on those scores, they may choose to take the English Placement Exam (EPE).

I’d also like to direct students, instructors, and academic advisors to this FAQs page where they can find more information about English classes, placement, and other related issues.


If we have L2 students in our classes who would like some extra help with their assignments, where can we direct them? What resources on campus would you most recommend?

Tanita: Instructors can recommend that students visit the ESL Writing Center where they can work one-to-one with tutors who specialize in working with L2/multilingual writers.

Here is the information for the ESL Writing Center:

Location: Hodges North Commons, Room 220G

Appointment and walk-in hours can be found at


In addition, UT Libraries provide support and resources for L2 students and instructors working with L2 students. Allison L. Sharp, who is a Student Success Librarian for International Education, can be contacted at

Finally, I strongly recommend that students check out the following writing resources:

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

  • The Purdue Online Writing Lab has one section for L2 students, and this link has various resources, including one dealing with global business audiences.

Writing Manuals


For those of us teaching L2 students for the first time (whether it be in a first-year composition course or an upper level course), what are some recommendations you have for planning/teaching lessons? How can teachers help prevent frustrations and make the class environment more welcoming to L2 students? 

Sara: The answer to this question probably depends on the number of L2 students in a particular class, and their particular ability level. There is, unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all strategy, so it might be good for the instructor to meet with the student(s) early in the semester to assess what the student might need, or want. Some students are sufficiently high-functioning that they don’t need any particular accommodations. If there are students who have more trouble understanding spoken English, the teacher might consider giving written versions of all in-class assignments (as opposed to just announcing them). It’s important to remember that many L2 students can read in English better than they can interact verbally.

In composition classes, I think things are much easier. A lot of the work is done outside the class (so—few timed quizzes and exams), and the reading assignments are generally shorter, and teachers can (and should) always recommend that the student take English 103-104, and/or use the ESL Writing Center for extra help. Help is built into the composition sequence. The main problem teachers might have is getting the students, especially Chinese students (who are generally not accustomed to active class participation, and are, furthermore, anxious about not being understood) to take part in class discussions. Sometimes, too, a bit more emphasis must be put on issues of plagiarism. But in general, with composition classes, there are a number of safety nets in place for L2 students.

Literature classes and upper-level writing classes can be a bit more challenging.  Students may have a lot of trouble completing the readings, especially in the case of novels; they may be a bit overwhelmed. I just tell my international students to read novels in translation, if they want to, with the understanding that they should have access to an English text to refer to during class discussion. In cases of things like a reading quiz, I will usually give six questions, and tell the L2 students to answer five of them (L1 students answer them all). In cases where the students are really struggling, the teacher might consider giving them outlines of the material covered in class on lecture days. They may require individual help on research papers. I would definitely recommend sending them to the ESL Writing Center for help on any major essay. Particularly in 50-minute classes, an essay exam (or any exam with a lot of writing required) will also be very hard for some L2 students. You might consider providing them a bit more time, if at all possible.

It might be helpful, in terms of making the class welcoming, to think about how to highlight their strengths. If you can find a way to get them to talk in class (and to do that, you might have to give a specific assignment that requires it), they can provide some different insights and a wealth of cultural information that might provide new insights into the material. I recently had what I thought was a very successful class where I was just talking generally about metaphor and symbol in a literature class which is about half-full of Chinese students, and half American students.  I showed pictures of the items and asked them to write down associations, and I purposefully threw in some items that I knew would have different associations in different cultures: dragons, snakes, cats, the color red, etc. I found that the Chinese students were quite happy and willing to participate in this discussion. If you can make their culture relevant to the discussion, you can remove a lot of roadblocks.

It is probably good to know that most international students will just struggle along and not ask for extra assistance. You may only recognize that there is a significant problem late in the semester—at midterm time, for instance.  It’s therefore a good idea to check in with the student periodically before that time to assess what kind of arrangement might give them the best chance for success.


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?

Sara: The skill deficits that instructors will notice are, unsurprisingly, the grammar errors, and sometimes a lot of them. And the grammar errors that L2 students make tend to be ones that we think of as pretty critical, like subject-verb agreement. In many cases, the students have great ideas, but have trouble expressing them because they are struggling so hard with language issues.

In terms of activities in a composition class, a teacher might use, for instance, a sentence-combining exercise for help with certain specific kinds of errors. I used these in composition before I ever started teaching L2 students, and use them even more now. Workshops on incorporating quotations and using correct documentation are absolutely necessary, and repetition is good. But in general, if you have only one or two L2 students in a class, it will be hard to find many in-class activities that specifically target L2 challenges and will still be useful for the L1 students.

Instead, if grammar errors are the main problem, work with the student outside of class, and also send them to the ESL writing center for help. When helping them yourself, if there are significant errors, do not get bogged down in fixing every little error. This will be discouraging to both of you. Don’t panic. Find the spots where meaning is compromised, focus on helping them find the main subjects and verbs, etc. Identify the error for them, and let them fix it. They will usually have enough experience to fix the error if you show them where it is. If not, then teach them through it.

It takes a little adjustment on the part of the instructor—you have to think out of the box sometimes in meeting this challenge. Allow yourself to experiment, and to have fun.

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