Dialogue on Writing: Rethinking ESL, Basic Writing, and First-Year Composition

By Geraldine Deluca; Len Fox et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 19
The Myths of Assessment
Pat Belanoff

Pat Belanoff is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and former director of its writing program. She is a coauthor of two textbooks: The Right Handbook and A Community of Writers and coeditor of Portfolios: Process and Product. In addition, she has written a number of articles on portfolio evaluation and served for three years as chair of the CCCC Assessment Committee. Pat also produces, on occasion, articles in her second academic field, Old English literature. The following article is from the Journal of Basic Writing, 10, 1, 1991.

Back when I started to teach writing, my first students were mostly middle and upper middle class White kids. What I was learning at the time about the teaching of writing, the theories behind various approaches, and the supporting philosophies, I was applying to a fairly privileged group of students and was gratified by the results. When I moved from teaching that group and began to teach at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and became familiar with the work of Mina Shaughnessy, Marie Ponsot, Rosemary Dean, and others, I discovered that what I had learned about teaching writing continued to apply in classrooms of so-called basic writers and somewhat advanced ESL students. I didn't realize that immediately. I thought I needed to teach basic writers and ESL students lots of grammar and how to write sentences so someday they could write paragraphs, and then compositions, some day even discourses. I discovered how wrong I was. I often believe that the students of BMCC taught me more than I taught them.

When I moved to Stony Brook and began to teach less advanced ESL students and lower middle class and working class students, I discovered again that their needs were not so different from the needs of my previous students. Learning to write is learning to write—what works for advanced students also works for ESL students. Even in beginning language courses, students use language to think within restricted contexts and need to think in order to learn. To quote Janet K. Swaffar in Profession 89, “The notion that thinking and intentionality were integral to language use at any level made viable a claim heretofore rejected out of hand: that language learning need

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