How well do college departments work together to handle ESL students?

ESL expert Dana Ferris said at a recent St. Marys University conference in Minneapolis that it's almost dysfunctional the way many colleges and universities handle students who speak English as a second language.

Tension often exists between faculty in the various disciplines and the campus writing center, which is where many ESL students go for language improvement.

She told me:

"It's pretty widespread. It's a real problem. Writing center pedagogy is a whole separate entity. And there are some pretty strongly held values, and they need to be challenged."

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Often faculty send students dismissively to the writing center -- and yet many writing center personnel won't handle "sentence-level" language issues, which are your basic grammar, spelling and sentence-structure errors. Those personnel, Ferris said, often say they don't get involved in such detail, and that they handle higher-level writing issues involving the flow of logic and arrangement of ideas.

"I think it's more of a practical concern covered up by a philosophical statement. They might say it's not their job, but often what they're really saying is, 'I don't feel I can deal with those issues,' or 'I don't want to -- it's tedious, or 'I'm not qualified.'

But they shouldn't be in a writing center if they can't teach grammar. If I were queen I'd decree that (writing center personnel) couldn't teach writing unless they'd had classes in grammar and linguistics"

The solution?

Ferris suggested:

"There needs to be more thoughtfulness and collaboration (between faculty and the writing center). Faculty should tell the student, 'You can benefit from one-on-one time with a tutor on these three things.' There can even be communication between a faculty member and writing center tutor."