October 2017
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CHALLENGES FACED BY SAUDI STUDENTS WRITING AT A U.S. UNIVERSITY
Melinda Reichelt, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, USA & Li Shucang, Qilu University of Technology, Jinan, China

 
Melinda Reichelt


Li Shucang

A few published sources explore the experiences of international students with English language writing instruction in English as a second language (ESL) environments, including Zawacki, Hajjabbasi, Habib, Antram, and Das (2007) and Yang (2006). However, these studies neither address the transition students must make when moving from their home contexts to an ESL environment nor focus explicitly on Saudi students. Since 2005, the number of Saudi students in the United States has grown 17-fold. In academic year 2014–15, almost 60,000 Saudi students were enrolled in U.S. universities, most of them supported by generous Saudi government scholarships. Saudi students make up the fourth-largest group of international students in the United States, after students from China, India, and South Korea (Redden, 2016). Given this influx, we decided to pursue the following questions:

  1. What experiences with writing in English did Saudi students have in their home country?

  2. What difficulties did students report having with English, and how did they approach these difficulties?

  3. What were these students’ perceptions of writing in English?

Context of Research and Participants

The research took place from January to June 2014 at a public university in the United States that enrolls approximately 23,000 students, including roughly 2,050 international students. Saudi students make up the largest group of international students at this university. A total of 29 students participated in the study, including 9 females and 20 males. Sixteen had matriculated and were enrolled in ESL writing classes in the English Department, while 13 were attending the university’s intensive English program. Students participated in either group interviews, individual interviews, or both. Fourteen students were interviewed individually.

Findings

Writing Experiences in Saudi Arabia

None of the 14 students interviewed individually had written pieces in English beyond a paragraph while in Saudi Arabia. Seven of these students indicated that for the written portion of their high school exams, they would memorize a paragraph that the teacher had given them in advance or they had prepared with help from the teacher. Then, they recapitulated the paragraph on the exam. One student indicated:

One week before the exam, we would get five topics and we’d write a paragraph about each one. Before the final, the teacher would pick two or three and tell us that one of those two or three would be on the final exam—because otherwise, if the teacher didn’t do this, no one would be able to write.

In individual interviews, four students indicated that sometimes when they wrote paragraphs, their teachers provided grammar and vocabulary feedback and required them to revise their work. Only one student had engaged in peer review in a high school English class. Of the five students who had attended some college or university at home, only one indicated that he had written pieces longer than a paragraph. This student said that he had written works of about two pages in length about topics such as hobbies, controversial issues, stories, holidays, and daily activities. Some students wrote about issues in their majors.

Difficulties Faced

Students reported facing various difficulties when writing in their new English-dominant university context, including the following:

  • Writing longer pieces

  • Not knowing how to gain readers’ attention

  • Spelling

  • Vocabulary, especially academic vocabulary

  • Academic writing in general, including organizing academic writing, using MLA style, and avoiding plagiarism, which was a new concept for some

  • Argumentative writing, summary writing, and writing about topics for which they lacked background knowledge

Attitudes Toward English Language Writing and Writing Instruction

Of the 14 students interviewed, 8 reported that they sometimes enjoyed writing, depending on the topic, type of writing, their teacher, or whether they had too much other homework. They noted the satisfaction it brought and its importance to their future. Seven of the students indicated that they viewed writing in English as important preparation for future university-level and/or workplace writing. Two students said that they did not like writing in English at all. One commented, “I don’t enjoy writing in Arabic, so how can I enjoy writing in English?”

Emphasis on Technology

To grapple with writing challenges, students drew on teachers, classmates, friends, family, the writing center, and reference books. Additionally, one of the most salient trends we identified in the interview data related to technology. Three students mentioned using online dictionaries instead of paper dictionaries because they found them easier to use. Students used the internet to look for synonyms, receive help with spelling, check definitions, or find suitable words and phrases, either in online dictionaries, in thesauruses, or on translation websites.

The use of online translators such as Google Translate was the source of heated debate in group interviews. Students’ comments made it apparent that some of their instructors had discouraged the use of Google Translate. However, one interviewee defended this practice, asserting, “I use it a lot. How can we learn the language, new words, if [I] don’t check to see if I’m right? If we don’t use it, how can we improve?” Five students indicated in individual interviews that they used online translators, often mentioning Google Translate specifically. One student who used Google Translate cautioned that “you have to use your own knowledge” when employing it. Another student described using Google as a type of corpus tool. She said she employed Google to search for a word she was considering using to see how others had used it in various contexts on various websites. She would then decide whether the word would work well in the context of her own sentence.

Students also reported using the internet to search for sample essays, information about organizing their essays and structuring their sentences properly, and articles for research projects. They used the internet when they lacked information about an assigned topic they were writing about. For example, one student sought information about homosexuality because it is forbidden by the Koran and thus not discussed in Saudi Arabia. Another student liked to read from four or five different websites about a given topic, and then use what he read as inspiration for his own writing.

Two students mentioned the helpfulness of having online conversations with their friends. One said that conversing online with American friends helped him improve his spelling. After an individual interview, a student from the intensive English program emailed one of us about the writing practice that texting provides:

My writing became better because I have American girlfriend and I was texting or MSG her everyday every second every [minute] in English and that increase my writing very fast because when I texting I feel so happy everyday. Sometimes I forgot that English it’s my second language because I use it a lot and I think it’s my first language. Texting American girlfriend has a lot of advantages like it’s help me for my grammar, it’s help my writing become faster, it’s feeling good because I’m texting who I love her or I like her, and she can help me for my grammar too, for example when I text her something and she didn’t understand me, at that time I know my grammar is not correct, and try to correct my grammar and send her again, sometimes she correct me when I have some bad grammar in my MSG.

When asked about how they improved their writing in English, four students mentioned other uses of technology that at first did not seem to pertain directly to writing, but which may contribute to students’ overall English language proficiency and support their writing skills. These included listening to English language audio files in the car and searching for online images to aid one’s memory of words or phrases. Three students mentioned watching English language movies and television with the subtitles on. One said that the U.S. television show 24 contributed to his language development and noted, “In 24, they used academic language, formal language, no slang, when they were communicating between one office and the Oval [presidential] Office. That’s what I needed—more formal language.”

Conclusion

Although we knew that technology played a role in students’ writing, we did not anticipate that the students we interviewed would have so much to say about its use in their work. Students’ defense of online translators should be taken seriously, and we would do well as teachers to remember that we probably cannot keep students from using them. We might instead consider whether and how such tools might be used productively, and what cautionary words we should give our students about them. We can also instruct students in the use of corpora, perhaps explaining how students can use Google to search the web for examples of how other writers have used specific words or phrases in various contexts.

Financial Support Statement

The second author’s work on this project was funded under The International Cooperation Program for Excellent Lecturers and College ESP Writing Study Based on Practical Needs Programby the Shandong Provincial Department of Education, China, Grant No. 2012311.

References

Redden, E. (2016, February 25). Will Saudi boom end? Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/25/will-us-colleges-and-universities-see-decline-saudi-funded-students

Yang, L. (2006). Nine Chinese students writing in Canadian university courses. In A. Cumming (Ed.), Goals for academic writing: ESL students and their instructors (pp. 73–89). Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

Zawacki, T., Hajjabbasi, E., Habib, A., Antram, A., & Das, A. (2007). Valuing written accents: Non-native students talk about identity, academic writing, and meeting teachers’ expectations. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press.


Melinda Reichelt is professor of English at the University of Toledo, Ohio, USA, where she directs the ESL writing program and teaches courses in TESOL and linguistics. She has published her work in the Journal of Second Language Writing, World Englishes, Composition Studies, Issues in Writing, ELT Journal, Modern Language Journal, the International Journal of English Studies, Foreign Language Annals, and The WAC Journal.

Li Shucang is chair of the English Department at Qilu University of Technology, Jinan, China, where he teaches English language writing, integrated English skills, and cross-cultural communication. He has published his work in Language and Translation, The Journal of Guizhou Literature and History, and Shandong Foreign Languages Teaching.

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