Recognizing Deaf Writers as Second Language Learners: Transforming the Approach to Working with ASL Speakers in the Writing Center

As a writing consultant at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Center for Academic Student Achievement (CASA) Writing Center, I have worked with writers whose first languages are not English. I have consulted with Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish speaking students among many others as the center provides access for a range of students from different cultural backgrounds. Because CASA welcomes all students, the center trains consultants in specific strategies for working with second language learners (L2) on their writing. In addition to providing professional development training that implements L2 scholarship, the center also prepares consultants to help students with disabilities. This training consists of bi-weekly meetings during the fall and spring semesters to ensure the consultants are thoroughly prepared to work with students in the center. Through the training and meetings, consultants read assigned articles over writing center and composition theory and pedagogy and participate in projects and discussions. The assigned articles consultants read for training may be related to working with specific kinds of students such as Veterans and athletes, examining the importance of collaboration with other consultants and strategies for spotting error patterns.

As a consultant who often worked with L2 students and grew up in multilingual environments, I found the articles on second language pedagogy particularly interesting and beneficial in helping me understand how to best assist students working with English as a second language. For instance, in the training designated specifically to prepare consultants for L2 learners in the writing center, we read Bartholomae’s (1980) “The Study of Error,” in which we learned to analyze and close read errors in student writing:

If we learn to treat the language of basic writing as language and assume, as we do when writers violate our expectations in more conventional ways, that the unconventional features in the writer are evidence of intention and that they are, therefore, meaningful, then we can chart systematic choices, individual strategies, and characteristic processes of thought. (p. 255)

This article taught me, as a consultant, not to scan through papers for errors, but to examine thoughtfully the writer’s choices, which in turn helped me identify how to best assist the writer. Along with Bartholomae (1980), consultants also read Rafoth’s (2015) Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers as well as other scholars, all of which presented us with ways of examining L2 writing and helping students in their writing process by making sure to go through the process slowly to ensure the students understand the concepts before moving on. In addition, we also read articles on students with disabilities. Daniels, Babcock, and Daniels (2015) discuss inclusivity in the writing center and the importance of not assuming students have a disability, but allowing students to disclose their disability on their own. For instance, Daniels et al. (2015) suggest that consultants ask students a “generic type of question at the beginning of all consultations” such as is there anything you would like me to know about your writing before we get started? (p.22). This inquiry then allows students in the center the opportunity to talk about their disability if they so choose. Thus, the training on students with disabilities offers ways for consultants to navigate sessions by making sure the students feel comfortable, similar to the prior L2 training.

While the disability training at the writing center works well to familiarize consultants with ways to assist students with disabilities, Deaf student writers do not receive sufficient attention since these trainings do not focus on them as second language learners. Throughout this article, I refer to people who are Deaf (capital D) specifically because these are the people whose first form of communication is sign language and they identify within the Deaf Culture (Babcock, 2011). Although attention should be paid to deaf writers and students whose first language is not sign language, I focus specifically on Deaf writers because my personal involvement working with a Deaf writer who communicated via American Sign Language (ASL) showed me how her writing experience was similar to that of L2 writers. Once I started consulting Deaf writer, Alex, I began to seek out more research on Deaf writers and L2 scholarship. I also began connecting the similarities in the approaches to working with L2 writers and students with disabilities. For instance, some L2 scholarship focuses on the importance of assisting with grammar, lexical issues, and sentence structure when working with L2 writers because these components enhance the clarity of the text, thereby effectively communicating their intended purpose (Eckstein, 2016; Myers, 2003; Nakamaru, 2010; Rafoth, 2015). Likewise, scholarship focused on writers with disabilities, such as Deaf writers, urges for more attention to grammar since it often overlaps with content (Babcock & Thonus, 2012). Ultimately, what I found indicated that disabilities scholarship and L2 scholarship focuses on both being directive with these students and understanding that content and grammar may be equally important depending on the situation. Nonetheless, I eventually noticed that, while these strategies do help, they were not enough for Alex. In talking with Alex’s interpreter, I realized that I had failed to make explicit connections between the writer’s first language, ASL, and her second language, English. Once I recognized the student’s struggle to adhere to the conventions of Standard English, I also saw a gap in writing center scholarship, particularly between how second language learners are placed in one category and Deaf writers in another. Based on my experiences, I see the need to address the similarities between the two groups.

While the scholarship of recent decades has provided helpful strategies for and studies based on both second language learners and Deaf students, these two categories have not been explicitly connected (Babcock, 2012; Eckstein, 2016; Liu, 2016; Myers, 2003; Nakamaru, 2010; Rafoth, 2015; Tuzi, 2004; Williams & Severino, 2004). From the perspective of a writing consultant who worked with L2 writers, I noticed the ways in which the current L2 scholarship relates to how students work through the writing process (Eckstein, 2016; Liu, 2016; Nakamaru, 2010; Rafoth, 2015). However, because I also worked consistently with a Deaf student whose first form of communication is ASL, I noticed the similarities in the way this student approached writing in English to other L2 writers. For instance, Alex often brought the structures and rules of her first language, ASL, into her writing, just as other L2 students bring rules and structures from their first languages. Although some current strategies for Deaf writers and L2 students when seen in separate categories may work well for assisting students in the center, we need to start including ASL communicators within the category of second language learners. By including ASL communicators within the L2 category, we can directly acknowledge the ways in which Deaf writers bring ASL into their Standard English writing as well as better prepare writing centers to assist students whose primary form of communication is ASL.

To explain the importance of bridging the gap between L2 students and Deaf students, I first outline my experience working as a writing consultant with Deaf writer, Alex, pointing out the specific areas I failed to successfully address due to not making the connection between this student’s first and second languages. Next, I make connections between the writing sessions I worked through with Alex and current scholarship on second language learners to clearly explain how the conversations in the field of second language pedagogy relates to this Deaf student’s experience as well. Finally, I explore the ways in which Deaf writers fit in the category of L2 and the possible solutions to be made in connecting the categories and acknowledging ASL writers of English as second language learners.

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About the author

Victoria Ramirez Gentry is a graduate student at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). She is currently writing her master’s thesis which focuses on multiracial identities and racial categories in the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to these interests, Victoria recently presented on ASL and L2 writers at the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Kansas City. While pursuing her degree, Victoria works part-time as a writing consultant and teaches first-year composition at TAMU-CC.