First of all, in our classes we have a wide range of abilities and talent for writing with our Kazakhstani students. One student wrote: “Firstly, very difficult it’s this subject in general. For me difficult part its essay, because I can’t write in Russian, here we must write in English. And I couldn’t understand some rules because I miss some lessons, but it’s my problem.” Yes, this fellow missed the first six lessons and must have known the cutoff to show up for my class just in a knick of time otherwise he would have gone the way of “administrative withdrawal.” So we either have lazy students or those who enter our university without any writing strengths at all. The onus should NOT be put on us as teachers to catch them up in only ONE 16 week writing and reading course!!! Our classes meet 150 minutes a week or in other words, two hours a week if they show up late to class, which they usually do.
On the other hand, I have very good students who have been to the States or elsewhere and have been exposed to more writing in English. Somehow they were able to fill out the application for exchange programs and get letters of recommendation from their English teachers. They are the ones who are confident in writing in Russian and consequently their English skills in writing are also very good. For the future, I would recommend a kind of “Honors program” as they use in universities in the United States so that we could really work with the top students and not feel so guilty of leaving the likes of the first student behind. I cannot make up for what he did not get in writing from his Kazakh high school experience or the fact that he was admitted to our university with low scores in the writing test.
Next, we are expected to cover just two essays (discursive and problem/solution) with our dear Kazakh students exhibiting all levels in the same classroom, high, middle and low. The two essays we cover in just ONE semester are very sophisticated forms of writing even for native speakers of English. Discursive essays alone require the students to use critical thinking skills by finding pros and cons of an argument. However, on top of that we are expecting them to find journal articles to buttress their points. Their reading comprehension levels in some cases are very low, in other cases, they have trouble finding relevant journal articles because they lack the vocabulary to use synonyms that would yield better hits with searching on the research databases. Keywords are the key.
Not only the above, we want our students to understand from what they read in the textbook that in-text citations are important but with the APA formatting that is difficult as well. Once I gave my students an example from my masters level students, they were able to produce for me what I wanted with their discursive essay assignment. Otherwise, my students had no clue as to what I expected when I told them to use quotes around what an author writes and insert that into their discursive essay. An example of their confusion came through in the 15 point quiz I gave them, “It takes a lot of time to find the quotes of authors, which will be parallel or be the same with your statements arguments.” What do the students do? They zero in on the actual quotes from the articles they are reading and then use THOSE quotes and that is why their Works Cited page looks so funny. That is how complicated it gets, I have used my nonverbal straightjacket example to try to get my point across about what is happening in this one semester reading and writing course. I would not want to write this kind of essay with all the rules we set down for these novice and inexperienced students, especially since it is in their second or third language.
Finally, after the mid-semester break I will indeed use this same 15 point quiz format to see if my students really understand about in-text citations, etc. That alone is confusing enough when doing it properly with APA formatting style. As if we haven’t had enough to throw at them the first 8-9 weeks of the semester, I will move into Title page, running head and the Works Cited page when I introduce the Problem-Solution essay for the final 6-7 weeks of our semester. Of course, I will keep working on their outlines and thesis statements. Always a stumper, even for your average American students in composition courses, thesis statements!!! I hate to think that we will release these Kazakh students to the real world of academia and they will think that all thesis statements will look like the one we drilled into them concerning discursive essays.
In conclusion, our students NEED examples of the brand of discursive essay we are requiring to look at, a kind of “security blanket.” For our mid-term writing exam we are only expecting them to write or type a discursive essay in 250-500 words in 50 minutes. We are asking a LOT of some of our Kazakhstani students. Our mid-term break or otherwise termed “Reading Week” (i.e. break from our teaching responsibilities) will not come soon enough.