Monday, December 15, 2014

A Better Alternative to the 5-Paragraph Persuasive Essay in the ESL Classroom

(Go back to part 1: The 5-paragraph persuasive essay in College ESL Courses )

2. Narratives and ultimate attainment

Writing tasks that support oral skills should be a priority for ESL teachers since speaking is the most anxiety provoking form of communication. Anxiety has been shown to have a negative impact on willingness to communicate, which has a concomitant impact on frequency of communication, reducing contact with the target culture and ultimate attainment. Preparing learners for the demands of social situations should have the opposite effect, reducing task anxiety, increasing perceived competence and causing a direct positive effect on frequency of communication and commitment to integrate with the target language culture  (MacIntyre and Charos, 1996). One way to help learners with the demands of informal oral communication is to support the development of informal spoken registers through the use of narratives in ESL.

Over-emphasizing formal registers reduces integrativeness

College ESL courses tend to over-emphasize formal registers because of a concern that college-courses should be college-level and academic. This aspiration while noble in intent has unintended negative consequences for learners. One study (Segalowitz, 1976) found that non-fluent second language learners believe themselves to appear less intelligent, less self-confident, and less friendly during casual speech situations than formal speech situations. These same learners also evaluated their native speaker interlocutors less favorably in situations demanding casual speech than formal speech. The reason was that the language instruction these learners had been given had emphasized formal registers to the exclusion of informal registers, leaving them unprepared for situations involving informal social interaction. What these findings suggest is that an overemphasis on academic English will reduce learners’ motivation to integrate with the target language community. Since integrative motivation is needed to achieve moderate levels of second language proficiency (Dornyei, 1990), emphasizing casual registers in language learning classes should have a positive influence on ultimate attainment.

Narratives encourage contact with the target culture

Since narratives capture the closest approximation to the vernacular of unmonitored speech (Labov, 2010) and since speaking is the most anxiety provoking form of communication (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991; McCrosky & Richmond, 1982), it follows that switching from academic reading and writing tasks in the college classroom to narrative tasks should support the development of oral communication skills.

It is very important that language teachers make efforts to reduce anxiety associated with speaking the second language because of the impact of anxiety on ultimate attainment. To explain,we know from research into anxiety and language learning that the anxiety speaking produces reduces willingness to communicate (Baker & MacIntyre, 2000). We also know that reduced willingness to communicate has been shown reduce frequency of communication (Hines & Barraclough, 1995). Where contact is minimal or non-existent, there is less commitment to integrate with the target culture (Dornyei, 1990) and integrative motivation is needed to achieve moderate levels of second language proficiency (Dornyei, 1990). Supporting oral skills in non-fluent bilinguals through narratives should have an overall positive effect on ultimate attainment and help mitigate the negative effects of the current overemphasis on formal registers in second language instruction at the college level.

Narratives support the development of register-appropriate oral communication

Narrative writing instruction is more likely to prepare learners for informal social interaction for a number of linguistic reasons, also. Most importantly, it should be noted that academic and conversational registers involve a complementary frequency distribution of vocabulary and grammatical forms (Biber et al., 1999). However, because fictional narratives contain quoted speech, narratives contain many of the features of conversation English, making them particularly helpful in the development of the grammar and vocabulary needed in conversational registers. Some of the stark differences between academic English and conversational English are revealed in the corpus research given in Biber et al. (1999). Here are some examples with page numbers:

Conversation has a lower density of information and therefore fewer nouns (Biber et al, 1999, p. 66). 60% of lexical words in academic prose are nouns (p. 65). Plural nouns are used 3-4 times more in academic prose than conversation (p. 291). Nominalization is much more common in academic prose than other registers, especially –tion and -ity (p. 322).

Adjectives are least common in conversation and most common in academic prose. The comparative form is used three times more often in academic prose than in conversation. Conversely, superlatives are more common in conversation than in academic prose (p. 65).

Conversation is marked by a high frequency of pronouns and a low frequency of nouns (p. 1042). Words like everybody, everyone, everything, somebody, anybody, anyone, anything, and nobody are common in conversation but rare in academic writing. Conversation uses pronouns in anaphoric expressions (to refer to an already established idea), whereas academic writing uses definite noun phrases in anaphoric expressions (p. 266). Preposition+which relativizers are only common in academic prose (p. 625).

The determiner that is 11 times more common in conversation than in academic writing, where it is relatively rare. This, used as a determiner, is more common in academic writing than in conversation, occurring 2500 versus 1500 times. The big exception is with the phrase this one which occurs 3000 times in the conversational corpus and not at all in the academic written corpus.

Conversation has shorter clauses, and so verbs and adverbs are much more frequent in conversation and fiction (because it contains quoted speech) and much less frequent in academic prose (p. 65). Certain verbs are particularly common in conversation and particularly rare in academic prose: try, buy, put, pay, bring, meet, play, run, eat, watch, pick, wear. Negation is most common in conversation and least common in academic prose (p. 159). Only in conversation is the progressive used to emphasize the reported message itself as in, “She was saying…” (p. 1120). Across all registers, 85% of verbs are tensed, while 15% of verbs are modal constructions (p. 456). Modals are most common in conversation and are about half as common in academic prose (p. 456). The progressive aspect is more common in conversation than in academic prose. The present perfect is about 30% more common in conversation than in academic prose (p. 461). Have/has got is the most common present perfect verb in any register, occurring over 1000 times per million words in conversation, but less than 20 times per million words in academic prose (p. 465).

“But” is more frequent in conversation and fiction, and less frequent in academic prose. “And” is more frequent in academic and fiction than conversation and news. In conversation, “and” is used as a clause level connector. In academic prose, and is used as a phrase level connector (p. 81) .

Verbs and "not" are contracted most frequently in conversation and fiction. Verbs are contracted less than 2.5% of the time in academic prose, and "not" is contracted 5% or less. (p. 1132).

The word since is used to introduce a reason in academic prose 95% of the time, but it is used to indicated a point in time in all other registers. The word while is used for concession in 80% of occurrences in academic prose, but it is used for time references 100% of occurrences in conversation. The word though is used primarily as a linking adverbial in conversation but as a subordinator in written registers.

Expressions like see if, wonder if, know if and ask if are common in conversation and rare in academic prose. Know whether is 8 times more common in conversation than in academic writing. Determine whether, the most common post predicate wh-clause in academic prose, occurs 20 times in academic writing and not at all in conversation.

Technical Writing

Some college teachers ask their ESL students to read and write technical reports, believing that the more challenging the text to read or write, the more students will learn about English. For these teachers, there is an unspoken assumption that conversational English can be acquired by implication. In fact, technical writing has certain features which cannot be generalized to everyday English. Trimble (1985) in his book on technical writing for second language teachers reports three key areas of difficulty for non-native students: descriptions, instructions, and literature reviews. He attributes much of the difficulty to grammatical elements found within them.  Descriptions make unusually frequent use of passive and stative verbs. In instructions, the definite article is often left out (e.g., remove puncturing object from tire) or used on first mention in generalizing statements (e.g., The gas turbine fires continuously). In literature reviews, modals and modal passives are very common, and in certain instances the modal "should" is used with the same force as "must" (Trimble, 1985, pp. 115-120). In all these cases, non-native learners who do not have full command of English will have difficulty learning these specialized uses of English and must learn not to generalize these specialized rules to everyday English.


With fewer verbs, fewer negatives, fewer modals, fewer contractions, fewer progressive forms, academic English is less suitable for supporting oral interactions than narrative writing. Furthermore, technical writing offers such an eccentric model of English grammar that learners will have difficulty generalizing its grammatical forms to any other communicative context. Finally, because of its effect on integrative motivation and ultimate attainment, ESL teachers should be very careful not to overemphasize formal registers in the instruction of non-fluent bilinguals.

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Abbott, H. P. (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

Baker, S. C., & MacIntyre, P. D. (2000). The role of gender and immersion in communication and
           second language orientations. Language Learning, (50), 311–341.

Berggren, A. (2008). Do thesis statements short-circuit originality in students’ writing? In C. 
           Eisner & M. Vicinus, Originality, imitation, and plagiarism: Teaching writing in the digital
           age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad and E. Finegan (1999), Longman grammar of
spoken and written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Dornyei, Z. (1990). Conceptualizing Motivation in Foreign-Language Learning. Language Learning,
           40(1), 45–78.

Duxbury, A.R. (2008). The tyranny of the thesis statement. English Journal, 97(4), 16-18.

Hines, S. C., & Barraclough, R. A. (1995). Communicating in a foreign language: Its effects on 
           perceived motivation, knowledge, and communication ability. Comrnunication Research 
           Reports, (12), 241–247.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Charos, C. (1996). Personality, attitudes, and affect as predictors of second 
            language communication. 15, 3-26. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, (15), 3–26. 

McCrosky, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1982). Communication apprehension and shyness: Conceptual 
          and operational distinctions. Central States Speech Journal, (33), 458–468.

Moss, G. (2002). The five-paragraph theme. The Quarterly24(3), 23-38. Retrieved from 

Labov, W. 2008. Oral narratives of personal experience. (13
           December 2008.)

Rorschach, E. (2004). The five-paragraph theme redux.The Quarterly26(1), 16-25. Retrieved from 

Segalowitz, N. (1976). Communicative incompetence and the non-fluent bilingual. Canadian
            Journal of Behavioural Science, 8(2), 121-131.

Statistics Canada, (2008). Youth in transition survey. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website: 

Trimble, L. (1985). English for science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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