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October 28, 2001 - TESOL Teacher - 2002-01-30

AA: I've Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- come with us to the American Midwest to meet a young man who teaches English to speakers of other languages ... lots of other languages.

RS: His name is Josh Atherton. He taught English in South Korea for three years, and now he's teaching a class while he works on a graduate degree in education at the University of Northern Iowa.

AA: It's a writing class for students from other countries. He has twenty students -- from seventeen different countries!


"It's a challenge to say the least. I am charged with teaching them standard American academic English. All the students come from different cultures and the academic languages they have learned are sometimes very different from the academic language of America."

RS: Argentina, Bosnia, China, Ghana -- in fact, two brothers from Ghana -- he's got them all.

AA: Yet, as Josh Atherton has learned, his students are already familiar with some areas of American English -- maybe a little too familiar.


"I think the most interesting thing for me is [that] the students have a very hard time understanding the role of swear words and curse words. These students, they know the words, the swear words, from movies and whatever they've read on the Internet, but they don't know necessarily the connotations that surround this type of language."

RS: "Right, they don't have the experience with it, they don't have the context, they don't have the emotion charged..."

ATHERTON: "Exactly, so they feel it's appropriate to talk like this in class and to talk like this in their writing."

AA: And that's not the only thing the students have a hard time adjusting to.


"You know, I tell my students, OK in this paper, in the academic papers you're going to write for American institutions, I want to see your thesis -- which I explained is the answer to the problem that they're addressing in the paper -- I want to see your thesis in the first paragraph. And they think, well, doesn't that spoil the mystery or the suspense of reading the paper if you know the answer before your hear all of the relevant details behind it?"

RS: Maybe so, but what they're learning is the traditional formula for American academic writing:


"OK, this is what the introduction should include: Introduce a topic, create a problem, answer that problem with a thesis. OK, paragraph one addresses this point, paragraph two addresses that point, and the conclusion now restates your thesis, sums up all your information and maybe provides a little direction for the future. And the students say, well, that's so boring."

RS: Right now Josh Atherton is teaching the students how to do research. He talks about the need to give proper credit.

AA: That way, the students don't appear to be copying the words of an expert and claiming them as their own.


"Plagiarism in an American academic institution is seriously, seriously discouraged and I tell my students if you're caught plagiarizing, you at the very least fail the paper, probably fail the course. And the students, you know, their initial reaction is, why so serious? What's the problem?"

RS: The students tell him that in some of their cultures, they're taught not to give their own opinion in a paper.


ATHERTON: "So the idea is don't try to change, don't try to paraphrase, don't try to summarize, just cut and paste and that's the idea. Whereas in America I teach my students that this is not enough to go out and tell me what these people have said, you have to do some critical thinking and you have to synthesize."

AA: "Meaning ..."

RS: "You can quote them."

ATHERTON: "You can quote them, right, but then I have students who have an entire paper of quotes and maybe one or two lines -- truly in a five or ten page paper, one or two lines is something that they've written themselves. And I say this is not appropriate, you need to have fewer quotes and more critical thinking.

AA: "They're not just writing, they're also writing in a language, in a peculiar language in itself, of academic writing."

ATHERTON: "I work my students through multiple drafts. So I tell my students when you do the first draft of any of the papers that I assign, I ask them to do a lot of free writing, I tell them to put down their dictionaries, I tell them to keep their pencils moving, just write as much as you can without paying attention to grammar and syntax and vocabulary. If they have something they want to say, put it in their native languages if they can't think of how to say it in English originally, just to get the thoughts onto the paper."

RS: Josh Atherton, a graduate assistant instructor at the University of Northern Iowa.

AA: If you're in the mood to write, our e-mail address here is, or write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.