Teaching Writers to Respond to the World Around Them

Taking a rhetorical approach to helping English Language Learners become better writers.
Dr. Soha Youssef, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric. Photo credit ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

English language learners (ELLs), a broad term that refers to students with limited English proficiency, are a diverse group from many different cultural and native language backgrounds.

ELLs represent a growing part of the U.S. student body. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education, there are now an estimated 4.9 million children in U.S. public schools learning the English language. Enrollment of these students is surging in states across the South and Midwest that had almost no English-learners at the turn of the century.

The educational experiences of ELLs vary greatly across the country, as states and schools differ in how to identify and teach ELL students. Soha Youssef, PhD, assistant professor, writing and rhetoric in Jefferson’s College of Humanities and Sciences, is focused on how to integrate effective communication tools and strategies in teaching English to multilingual students. She also aims to celebrate the ability to speak multiple languages and empower these students to bring the richness of their native languages to their English writing. Find out more about Dr. Youssef’s research and the questions she’s trying to answer.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I joined Jefferson in 2018. What attracted me to Jefferson’s writing program is its constant endeavor to keep abreast of the pedagogical theories and movements in teaching writing. I particularly appreciate the program’s approach to introducing student writers to the scholarship and conversations taking place in the field. That particular approach helps students understand our choices as writing faculty, and by extension, strengthens their belief in the validity and success rate of our research-driven teaching methods. The more transparent faculty are with students about what we ask them to do in the classroom, the more motivated they are to learn.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research.

A: I come from two fields, and my research interest centers around bridging the gaps between the two. I earned a master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Linguistics, followed by another degree in writing and rhetoric. The term rhetoric means any communication that gets things done. Examples are all around us, from a billboard sign to a letter to the editor. As I explored the fields of TESOL and rhetoric, I came to realize where the two overlap and where there are gaps in knowledge. The overarching question that I seek to explore is: how can rhetoric or effective communication help in TESOL?

Not many people know that 80% of English is actually borrowed from other languages – so why can’t our (multilingual) students have the agency to additionally enrich the English language? – Dr. Soha Youssef.

Q: What’s a project you’re currently working on?

The research question that I am currently exploring revolves around ELLs in the beginner-level writing classrooms.

To address the needs of that student population, I tried out a new approach during the Fall 2019 semester. It combined two existing approaches, namely rhetorical grammar and metacognition. Rhetorical grammar is basically teaching how to use specific grammatical rules like syntax and punctuation to communicate ideas effectively. A specific rule is intentionally chosen to achieve a specific goal, meaning that the writer should be mindful of the audience or reader when they are composing and communicating their messages. For example, saying, “My roommate ate the last slice of pizza” leaves the reader with a slightly different message than saying, “It was my roommate who ate the last slice of pizza.” The emphasis is clearly different.

Those grammatical nuances do not come naturally to ELLs or native English speakers, for that matter. So I thought about making them clearer to ELLs in my writing instruction—rather than teaching them grammatical structures in isolation of their context or purpose, which is how grammar is traditionally taught. I wanted to make sure that students retain that grammatical knowledge and actually employ it in the writing that they produce in my classroom and beyond.

To strengthen their retention, I paired rhetorical grammar with metacognition, which is essentially reflecting on one’s own thinking. The goal was to test the role metacognition plays in the internalization of rhetorical grammar. I wanted to test whether the extra step of thinking about their process make the rule stick any better? And, if not, what dispositions, such as motivation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, could have played a role?  I narrowed down my study to three case studies where I analyzed the semester-long writing that was produced by my Saudi Arabian students. I am currently making sense of the data and writing up the study, so watch this space!

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I am passionate about anything that has to do with multilingual education and how the multilingual brain works.

During my doctoral degree, I focused on evaluating the effectiveness of one of the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) preparation programs in a mid-western university. Those ITA programs are designed to prepare international graduate students, who speak multiple languages, to teach in classrooms or labs in an American, English language, setting.

I conducted a study where I interviewed and surveyed the three groups involved: ITAs, undergraduate students and program administrators. Given that rhetoric is any communication that gets things done, it only makes sense that every participant in that communication has a role. If a professor, or in this case an ITA, uses a word or refers to a concept that the students are not familiar with, it is the students’ role to raise their hands and ask questions. The ITA can, in turn, use the board to spell out a difficult word or illustrate a concept. In short, communication is never a one-way street. What I discovered is that the mentor-mentee or teacher-student negotiation does not always take place naturally and organically. For example, there was a pattern of students who indicated that it is the role of the ITA to deliver the knowledge clearly and effectively, while the students’ own role is to sit back and receive that knowledge. But passive learning does not work. Students need to be active participants in the knowledge-making. And that is where rhetoric, that meaning negotiation, that collaborative knowledge-making plays in; and where the connection between rhetoric and TESOL becomes more evident.

Q: What’s a little known or unique fact about your work?

A: Multilingual students come to the American classroom with a fascinating asset that is often overlooked: they know at least two languages. It only makes sense to utilize that asset to advance their learning of English. One way that faculty can do that is by creating spaces where students can celebrate the richness of their home languages. Not many people know that 80% of English is actually borrowed from other languages – so why can’t our students have the agency to additionally enrich the English language? And, when it comes to a missing “the” or “a” in their papers and before deducting points or commenting on those “mistakes,” we need to ask ourselves first, “Was the student able to communicate the intended message?” If the answer is “yes,” then move on.

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Follow your passion.

Q: What’s something you’re passionate about outside of your research?

I am passionate about manual espresso making, experimenting with sourdough bread and playing soccer with the East Falls pick-up soccer team.

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