April 20, 2021
This semester in the Writing Centre, I focused very heavily on learning how to best help non-native English speakers improve their writing; to do so, I used what tools I had available as a linguistics student to teach a solid foundation of good English grammar as it applies to structuring sentences, paragraphs, and whole essays. Last semester, I took a class called Discourse Analysis, which focused on how to structure narratives based on topic and comment—i.e., ‘new’ and ‘old’ information. After finishing the class, I realized that many of my ESL clients in the Writing Centre had issues with topic-comment structure in their essays, as they were mapping their native languages’ information structure onto their English writing, thereby causing their essays to sound unnatural and often unclear. After a quick search through Google Scholar, I also discovered that this was by no means a new issue; there were many publications on topical structure analysis (TSA) as a means of improving ESL student writing (Conner & Farmer 1990; Schneider & Connor 1990; Chan 2010). Using these resources as a starting point and drawing in resources from my experience at CanIL, I narrowed my focus to two main goals: a) figure out how to pass on topic-comment structure to my students in way that was accessible and not too ‘linguisticky’, and b) pass on this knowledge to the other tutors so that they, too, could teach their students the same lessons. For the first, I tested different strategies of explanation across different sessions, often with the same student (whereby I checked for comprehension session-to-session); for the second, I gave semi-weekly presentations to the writing tutors on issues related to topic-comment (word order, sentential elements, etc.).
In the end, I found the work very rewarding. Not only did I get positive feedback from the other tutors regarding the presentations I gave semi-weekly on different issues related to topic-comment, but I found it easier to relate this information to the students I saw in the Writing Centre. I did often have to get creative in how I presented the information to them. Often, as I suspected, the most linguistic term was not the most appropriate one; simple, mundane terms like subject, verb, and object were readily understandable, but more complex concepts like agent, patient, and predicate were trickier. In the end, I found paraphrastic explanations of these terms to be far more helpful: instead of ‘agent’, I said ‘doer of the action’; instead of ‘patient’, I said ‘person/thing receiving the action’; and instead of ‘predicate’, I said ‘the rest of the sentence’ (after I had already explained what the subject was). Getting creative in explaining each of these and many other terms not only helped my students, but also helped me as well. As the adage goes: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (Einstein, supposedly). Therefore, once I learned how to explain topic-comment simply, I was sure that I understood it properly and could continue teaching it.
Chan, A. Y. W. (2004). Noun Phrases in Chinese and English: A Study of English Structural Problems Encountered by Chinese ESL Students in Hong Kong. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 17(1), 33-47. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908310408666680
Connor, U., & Farmer, M. (1990). The teaching of topical structure analysis as a revision strategy for ESL writers. In B. Kroll (Ed.), Second Language Writing (Cambridge Applied Linguistics): Research Insights for the Classroom (Cambridge Applied Linguistics, pp. 126-139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139524551.013
Schneider, M., & Connor, U. (1990). Analyzing topical structure in ESL essays: Not all topics are equal. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 12(4), 411-427. http://hdl.handle.net/1805/2649