Using a Narrative Approach to Cater to Multilingual Student Writers

by Hadassa Sossou
Photo of Hadassa Sossou

Hadassa is a Biochemistry major from Brockton, MA. She is multilingual but does not consider herself a “multilingual student” since her primary language is English. She speaks four languages and is now learning Japanese. This semester, Hadassa met and befriended many international and ESL students at the university. She states that “after I met them, I realized that they had a lot of struggles with writing in the classroom that I never considered. So, during my research for this essay, I wanted to learn more about what could cause difficulty and how that could be resolved.” Hadassa also has learned that “understanding composition pedagogy clarifies the goal of academic writing and helps me to prioritize which ideas need to be written and in which order to achieve that goal.” She believes that writing this essay was a chance for her to promote equity in her community: “I think there is so much to be learned from people who don’t live like me. I find so much joy in traveling and meeting people, learning their language, and experiencing a piece of their culture.” Hadassa is also an event coordinator for the Black Student Center.

The goal of any English composition course is to cultivate professional writers from student writers. Therefore, the English curriculum often focuses on developing aspects of writing that students can use to be successful in the composition discourse community. While certain features of writing are helpful to writers who are native English speakers, those same features can be difficult for students who are multilingual or English language learners to employ. Therefore, with a rising number of international students and English language learners finding themselves in composition classrooms, many pedagogical practices exclude multilingual learners from being successful. However, after an examination of practices familiar to multilingual writers, I determined that a curriculum which uses techniques that foster a strong use of voice can grant multilingual students the skills to become stronger writers in the English Composition discourse community.

I draw from the experience of English professor Jane Danielewicz who details her success in cultivating competent writers in her text “Personal Genres, Public Voices.” She demonstrates that when students write in genres where there is an emphasis on first person experience, they develop strong identities as authoritative writers (Danielewicz 421). While “authority” has been accepted as a quality of writing integral to creating texts accepted by the English Composition discourse community, “voice” is less definitive. However, it is through a strong sense of identity and authority that student writers master the effective use of personal voice (in my experience); a skill teachers often overlook in the classroom. This is likely because voice is used as a metaphor and carries “ideological baggage” which can make it difficult to teach as a definitive quality of writing (422). However, voice is the quality of writing that links the author to their text. It allows them to not only convey their thoughts but also emotion and enthusiasm. It is “that quality of a text that lends it social power… allow[ing] meaning to be heard, understood, and possibly acted upon” (424). As such, voice is integral in creating a text that engages with readers.

While a strong use of voice, in the context of American English composition, is considered good writing, Vai Ramanathan and Robort Kaplan in their article “Audience and Voice in Current Ll Composition Texts: Some Implications for ESL Student Writers” point out that “the notion of presenting a strong self or voice in writing is a Western notion and one that is not necessarily relevant in other cultures” (26). This difference in culture presents a problem for composition teachers. How do they foster an understanding of a topic so central to writing, yet as “ideological” and indefinite as voice to writers unfamiliar with its relevance?

The answer may lie with the use of narrative. While presenting a strong voice may not be a common writing strategy for multilingual writers, they may be more familiar with using narrative writing. While observing an ESL (English as a second language) student through her writing process, Anne Pomerantz and Erin Kearney considered the narrative approach a tool multilingual writers can use in their writing. In their article “Beyond ‘Write-Talk-Revise-(repeat)’: Using Narrative to Understand One Multilingual Student’s Interactions Around Writing,” Pomerantz and Kearney explain that narrative works as a vehicle that enables the creation of “order and coherence” (226). Encouraging multilingual students to use narrative thus can help them to organize their ideas and take a position that not only explains their claims and conveys their thinking, but is compelling to an audience. This is the essence of the use of voice: effective communication of personal values and experiences that “allows meaning to be heard, understood, and possibly acted upon” (Danielewicz 424). Through this narrative approach, multilingual students are able to make use of their voice.

The narrative approach also creates a method for multilingual students to differentiate between their experiences and the experiences of others. Danielewicz emphasizes that “this cultivation of self and voice in a relational context is crucial… Students may be able to construct voices that not only represent the “person” or “individual” but that also invoke or stand for the pluralistic, the group, the communal.” (440). Understanding how your voice and your experiences relate to others’ gives you the ability to create claims that are more engaging and relate experiences that resonate with a larger audience. Multilingual writers are no exception. Pomerantz & Kearney note that through “individual life stories and more collective narratives, we craft positions for ourselves and others” (Pomerantz & Kearney 224). It is through these narratives that multilingual students can understand their ideas, and become more apt to effectively communicate how their ideas differ from the collective. This effective communication cultivates a sense of identity among the larger world of writers. Thus, multilingual students can use narrative to validate their claims and experiences: “assigning value to it, and perhaps most notably, allowing for the teller to exercise his/her authorial agency” (224). Therefore, a multilingual writer now has the tools to determine what story they will tell and how that story relates to their audience. However, there is yet another hurdle multilingual writers must overcome.

Multilingual students are at a disadvantage when considering their lack of exposure to commonly used English texts. In his essay, “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community,” James Porter emphasizes the importance of familiarity with the discourse community. He notes that “[the] immediate goal is to produce “socialized writers,” who [create] competent, useful discourse within that com­munity” (Porter 7). This “socialization” requires that the writer (or apprentice to a specific discourse community) is familiar with the norms, practices, and intertext intrinsic to that community. It is with this familiarity that a writer can develop their voice. Danielewicz explains that “a public voice … results from the writer’s engagement and position in the world” (Danielewicz 423). This engagement with the explicit text and the intertext is vital not only for acceptance in the discourse community, but for attaining the confidence to reference sources and build from established ideas. However, without the knowledge of intertextual elements or the discussion around it, how can multilingual writers cultivate the confidence to participate in the conversation governed by the discourse community? This is where multilingual learners may hit a roadblock.

The nature of intertext requires the reader to draw on shared experiences. This can become an obstacle for many multilingual students. Ramanathan and Kaplan note this obstacle by writing: “depending on the degree of shared cultural knowledge that ESL student writers possess, they may or may not recognize such intertextual maneuverings, let alone successfully integrate them into their own writings” (Ramanathan and Kaplan 26). The nature of intertext requires the reader to draw on shared experiences — whether that be cultural experiences or simply shared texts within the discourse community. Therefore, it cannot be expected that multilingual writers will have a solid understanding of the intertextual elements of a text they never had the opportunity to become familiar with. This difficulty is worsened depending on the topic on which the student is assigned to write. A student originally from Singapore would have a hard time writing about gun control simply because that topic would require him to take an ethical stance with no social awareness around the issue (Ramanathan and Kaplan 26). If one has no experiences with other writings or they are not familiar with them, they cannot exercise the agency to create claims and support them since that agency comes from a good understanding of the intertext. That doesn’t take away from their ability as a writer, but draws from their familiarity with the English composition discourse community. This obstacle can be removed by familiarizing multilingual students with a wider array of readings — especially ones commonly used in their discourse community. Once they are more familiar with the intertext and conversation around certain topics and issues, they can be able to determine which experiences are relevant to include and will cause engagement with their text.

Choosing which experiences to share is also dependent on who the author is sharing the experience with. In most American English composition classes, this would be taught as ‘consideration of the audience’. Consideration of the unintended and intended audiences is a commonly taught skill in composition classrooms since it is seen as the quality of writing that allows “students behave more like professional writers” (Danielewicz 443). In the United States, writing is seen as an interactive activity between writers and readers where the writer presents the map for an adventure and both parties go on a journey and make a discovery, even though the discovery may not be the same for both the writer and the readers. This is not the case for many other cultures. Ramanathan and Kaplan observe that:

The value that mainstream U.S. society places on explicit, decontextualized information that is relatively decodable in other contexts by other people in both speaking and writing, but especially in writing (Gee, 1989; Ramanathan-Abbott, 1993), is not necessarily shared by much of its own African American culture (Gee, 1989, 1990) or Japanese or Korean cultures (Eggington, 1987; Hinds, 1987). Because audience participation in both the text’s construction and interpretation may be greater in these cultures, the need for being explicit (in writing) may not be seen as necessary (28)

While both U.S. writing and the writings of other cultures share the idea that the writer and readers participate in a “conversation,” the emphasis on who carries the conversation differs. American English composition emphasizes writing that clearly states and explains claims and the reasoning behind them. All information is presented (both explicitly and intertextually) and explicated in order to communicate the author’s idea successfully. Whereas overseas, the roles of the writer vary. For example, in “some Asian cultures, while they may recognize complexities in a topic, lay greater emphasis on the participation of the reader/listener for effective communication” (Ramanathan & Kaplan 27). In this case, the audience must put in greater effort to understand the writer or be more informed on their topic, rather than the writer taking the time to explain the context for all his thoughts. To continue the analogy, the writer need not present his reader with a map because it is already expected that the audience is familiar with the location and route to the destination. In either case, the student draws his authority in the strength of his claims and the audience’s ability to understand him. However, the multilingual student should pay extra attention to ensure that his claims are explained thoroughly and effectively.

Composition gives students the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking, join in on conversations, and be heard. Teaching through the use of narrative can give multilingual writers the opportunity to reap the same benefits as monolingual students. If multilingual students can see English composition as an opportunity to voice their opinions and tell their stories, rather than a slew of writing rules that they must memorize, their writing will be more successful, more enjoyable, and more fulfilling. Thus I urge educators to consider the growing population of multilingual students and their needs and create a curriculum that will not only benefit them, but all students.

Works Cited

Danielewicz, Jane. “Personal Genres, Public Voices.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 420–450.

Pomerantz, Anne, and Erin Kearney. “Beyond ‘Write-Talk-Revise-(Repeat)’: Using Narrative to Understand One Multilingual Student’s Interactions Around Writing.” Journal of Second Language Writing 21.3 (2012): 221-38.

Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 5 no. 1, 1986, pp. 34-47.

Ramanathan, Vai, and Robert B. Kaplan. “Audience and Voice in Current L1 Composition Texts: Some Implications for ESL Student Writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 5.1 (1996): 21-34.