Some thoughts on English grammar assessment from a non-native speaker
Contributed by Federica Bocchi, Ph.D Candidate in Philosophy of Science
In her previous blog post, Maya discussed the tension between recognizing the importance of grammatical accuracy in writing assignments and acknowledging the disadvantages this practice could induce, especially in non-native English speakers. As a multilingual learner and instructor, I would like to offer my thoughts to complement Maya’s reflection. I will also share some solutions I adopted in my courses so that no student feels left behind because of their linguistic proficiency.
Like Maya, I would like to clarify my positionality, which may explain my investment in this issue. Before becoming a grad student in philosophy, I worked as an instructor of Italian for refugees and other immigrants in my hometown, in Northern Italy. Then I became fully aware of the psychological burden of communicating in a foreign language. I could appreciate a tension between the urge and necessity to articulate sophisticated thoughts and the rushed pace at which one ought to learn these skills. This experience informed my opinion about how much grammar can and should matter to a learner’s experience and how much we should expect from a non-native speaker in a classroom setting.
My students’ challenges as asylum seekers may be far from the experiences many BU multilingual students might face. However, there are many analogies to be mindful of. I have noticed at least two ways the difficulty of communicating in a foreign language manifests. Sometimes, anxiety acts as a block to learning and integration instead of being an encouragement to engage more with the material. I have also seen self-imposed marginalization by those who felt left behind by the people in their new surroundings. Consequently, these learners tended to keep social perimeters within the community of those who speak the same language. BU instructors should be aware of the potential for these dynamics and try their best to prevent intellectual and social marginalization based on linguistic background.
Last summer, I taught an introductory class on environmental ethics. In philosophy, as in the humanities in general, many assignments are in the form of written essays or blog posts. For both formats, grammatical, syntactic, and semantic elements are crucial to conveying sophisticated ideas. The demographics of my class were representative of BU undergraduates as a whole, with many non-English native speakers who would have to work hard to articulate their views. Some were high school students attending a college class for the first time!
Given the number of non-native speakers, I thought it crucial to address the topic of linguistic proficiency from the start: the syllabus! In it, I included information on the free services BU offers to practice and improve written assignments:
- The CAS Writing Center (https://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/the-writing-center/) offers one-on-one appointments, both in person and online, to help students improve papers due for the writing program and many more BU courses.
- The Writing Assistance (https://www.bu.edu/erc/programs/writing/), within the Educational Resource Center, pairs writing tutors and BU undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and alums to develop and polish their written communication skills. Appointments can be booked online and can happen either in person or on Zoom.
In addition, I secured a teaching grant to cover a month of online grammar check software, which I shared with all my students. They could log into the website and use it to assess and modify any written assignment. Both native English speakers and non-native speakers took advantage of the software (including me!).
Another strategy I adopted was encouraging my students to share their written assignments with one or more peers. I accomplished this goal by designing activities to help develop a trusted community where everyone would feel safe asking for help but also feel accountable for offering peer support.
Normalizing seeking additional assistance in writing, especially grammar checks, has benefitted the entire class, not only multilingual learners. As a non-native English speaker, I, too, felt more at ease with my prompts and written feedback after establishing a climate of understanding and charity toward linguistic proficiency.