Evaluating Writing: What About the Accent?

I recently re-watched a video about students for whom English is not the first language and the struggles they face as writers. Also addressed were the struggles educators face in helping these students develop their skills as writers using English. Of particular concern is the evaluation of these students’ writing. Several professors and students interviewed in the video made insightful observations about working with ESOL students, but the point that stuck out to me the most was the following: We accept that people from other places speak with an accent, so we should accept that they will also write with one.

The idea of “writing with an accent” is something I thought of often when teaching composition classes to college freshman, a small percentage of whom in each class had learned to speak and write in English as their second (or third, fourth, or even eighth) language. Working with international students in the writing center as well, I sometimes struggled to find the balance between explaining and collaboratively correcting students’ errors, and letting errors slide that did not hinder the writer’s meaning. I have also wondered about teachers who take off what I see as excessive points for mistakes like the mixing-up or omission of articles “a,” “an” and “the.” This is where evaluation gets tricky: when students make mistakes in their writing that are noticeable, but that do not distract from their meaning, how much correction is helpful to teaching students to develop and learn from their mistakes? And at what point does it become excessive and even counterproductive?

When considering the assessment of students’ writing, my first instinct was to say that teachers should consider the purpose of the assignment as they grade, and that ESOL students should not be punished with low grades for writing that has high-quality content despite being technically flawed with errors characteristic of ESOL writers. After all, their written communication is bound to have an accent just as their speech does, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Upon examination, however, this philosophy is easily criticized; if teachers are overly lenient and grade writing highly in spite of many errors, ESOL-characteristic or not, then those teachers are doing a disservice to students whose writing would be heavily criticized in the “real world” and/or rejected by future teachers or employers who demand perfection. A misconception held by some educators is that students whose writing is not good are also poor thinkers. This assumption, which I’m sure is also made by employers and others outside of education, is especially damaging to ESOL writers, whose writing in English is almost certain to have more errors than the writing of native English-speaking students, regardless of the quality of the content.

Several interviewees in the video noted that ESOL students may have totally different writing processes and styles, and that this is more likely the result of their different cultures than of vastly different levels of intelligence. Yet educators are human; most people like what they are accustomed to and may find a piece of writing that is written differently – whether in terms of structure or of style – from what they are used to, jarring. The resulting low score or poor grade might or might not be justified, depending on whom you ask.

Assessing writing of any kind is a challenge, in large part because of the subjectivity of the process, but the evaluation of writing by ESOL students is particularly problematic. Students for whom English is not the first language often struggle with writing in different ways than students for whom English is the first or only language, and their challenges may be more difficult overcome regardless of students’ work ethic or intelligence. Even students who are relatively fluent in English, however, are likely to retain something of a foreign “accent.” Educators must therefore decide whether students’ accents should be allowed to come through in their writing without being penalized, and to what extent.


About Christine Ghattas

Christine Ghattas (Christine Bonnie Ghattas) is a teacher and artist from the United States. View all posts by Christine Ghattas

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