Purposes, Audiences and Formats for Adult Writing

Overview and Introduction, with links to the papers

by Joy Kreeft Peyton, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC

Although much writing in adult ESL programs is done for functional purposes (e.g., filling out forms and applications) and focuses on grammatical structure and form, increasingly there is a focus as well on process writing, sharing writing among program participants, and publishing in magazines and newsletters.

Presenters in this session will describe innovative, promising programs using process writing and learner experience as the basis for writing. At the same time, this approach raises some major questions and challenges. In addition to the logistical challenges of maintaining a high-quality, consistent writing program with a transient population with (sometimes) limited English, low literacy, and non-academic aspirations, other questions present themselves. Does it make sense to have adult learners spend time reflecting on, writing about, sharing, and publishing their personal experiences when their goals are to be able to answer discrete-point questions on the citizenship exam, get a job so they can be self-sufficient, or perform well on state-mandated assessments? Does such a writing program have a place at all in the context of the increasing (and often much narrower) demands of national and state standards and assessments? Are there real audiences beyond the classroom for learner writing? If not, is the writing worth doing? How can we best help learners develop as excellent writers, with a sense of power and personal voice? Whose writing should be published? How widely should learner writing be disseminated, and in what formats? In this session, we consider both the innovations and the challenges in learner-generated writing programs, hearing from leaders in the field of writing with adults and discussing among ourselves.

LR/RI note: Joy suggests refering to Tom Bello's 1997 NCLE Digest, Improving ESL Learners' Writing Skills, available online from the Center for Applied Lingusitics/National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education site. Both CAL and NCLE provide a range of useful resources for language and literacy workers and learners.


Learners' Lives as Curriculum Gail Weinstein

Gail will describe a model for curriculum development that integrates the use of learner-generated texts with language development, content information, and community building. This project, funded by the Lila Wallace Readers' Digest Fund, involves six community-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area to elicit a variety of genres of learner narratives, as the basis for developing language and literacy materials that speak to participants' deepest concerns and interests. A breast cancer oral history project, a multi-cultural family website project, an action research project for Latina home health care trainees and Asian childcare providers, and a Chinese festival project for seniors are among the efforts that were nurtured. This presentation will conclude with directions for the future in applying "Learners' Lives as Curriculum" to the federal Equipped for the Future initiative, with an invitation to continue the dialogue concerning the possiblities for making the most pressing issues in learners' lives central to our language and literacy work.

Developing a Bilingual Writing Workshop Loren McGrail

Loren is working with a group of Latina and Latino community organizers in Durham, North Carolina, to develop a six-session bilingual writing workshop series to explore their work as community organizers. The participants come from three different countries, do not all speak Spanish as a first language, and speak and write at different levels of English. Writing is a tool for clarifying thoughts and ideas and a way to tell the stories of how they came to do this work and why it is important to them. Each session includes journal or reflective writing, pair writing, language experience writing, and speed writes. Participants also learn how to use simple word processing to develop their pieces. Spanish and English texts are used as catalysts for the writings. The group's writings will go into the next edition of Not By Myself, a magazine published by Literacy South. The other writings in this issue come from a series of writing events done with women making the transition off welfare. The issue will include descriptions of the process and examples of the writing prompts used.

Discussant Lee Weinstein


Giving Voice to a Voiceless Population - Hilary Stern

The learners at CASA Latina, a community-based program in Seattle, Washington, are a highly transcient population of limited English speaking migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America, with low literacy skills and very immediate survival needs. One of the ways that program staff work to give voice to this population is by publishing their writing and their oral stories. This is challenging, though, because many of the conditions that are critical to a successful writing workshop are not present here. For example, if text is worked on one day and continued the next, most of the students who were there the first day aren't there the next. Different students are there in their place, and the new students are not impressed by the writings of people they don't even know. Hilary will describe how program staff have adapted the process writing/writing workshop approach so that it fits a group of transient students, as well as some of the successes and failures they have experienced.

Placing Learner Writing Within a Larger Social and Political Context - Heide Spruck Wrigley

We face a number of challenges as we seek to place the writing that grows out of people's everyday lives within the new mandates of outcome-based reporting and state-wide initiatives such as Work-First. But these new initiatives aren't solely to blame for the proliferation of various forms of "document literacy" that make up the bulk of the writing curriculum at the lower levels of ESL. A lack of emphasis on prose writing is evident in other types of ESL classes as well, particularly in districts where "competency-based" or a "life skills" curricula are the officially sanctioned approaches. The writing done in these programs tends to start and stop with filling out forms and applications and producing the occasional phone message, modes of writing in which factors such as voice, organization, coherence, and focus don't come into play.

Since language experience and whole language approaches have been introduced to adult ESL, we now see many more learner-generated stories, poems, and autobiographies, which offer a refreshing contrast to the "copy from the board" or "fill in the blanks" type of writing that is still so prevalent. What is quite often missing in these efforts is a chance for students to learn about and strive towards a standard for personal narratives. We cheat students when we do not let them see that some stories are more powerful than others, and that finding just the right word and thinking about what they want to say and how they want to say it can be exhilarating.

A second approach to helping students discover standards for writing is project-based learning, where a final product is developed by a team of students for an audience that is external to the classroom. Here "what counts" (standards) flows out of the need to present information as clearly as possible, in a way that holds the attention of the readers. This approach encourages students to spend significant amounts of time not only writing up the results of a project, but also discussing the content, message, forms, and formats that would speak to a particular audience. In doing so, they move beyond "life (or employment) skills" narrowly defined, into writing as a way to make connections with others around issues that matter.

Response - What are the purposes of writing in the real world anyway? - Discussant Janet Isserlis

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