Recently while reading freshman essays I had an epiphany about a certain cluster of problems I'm seeing often in student papers: mangled idioms, incorrect verb forms, sudden shifts in point of view or tense in the middle of paragraphs, sentences that wander off into bizarrely ungrammatical forms, and so on. I see these problems all the time in papers written by my Chinese students, but this semester I'm seeing the same kinds of issues in papers written by lower-performing American students. Suddenly I understand the problem: these students may be native speakers of English, but they lack fluency in their native tongue.
I sat down recently to work through a draft with a student, and when I carefully pointed out the subject/verb agreement problems and predication errors, he was able to make corrections, just as a student studying English as a Second Language is able to learn and apply abstract rules of grammar without necessarily internalizing those rules. I have several of these students this semester: their grasp of written English is limited and inconsistent, and their struggles to produce the simplest written statements result in prose that appears to have been written by a non-native speaker.
How does a young person grow up surrounded by English without ever developing fluency in his or her own language? It's possible that learning disabilities are involved, although none of these particular students have identified themselves as learning disabled or asked for accommodations. My knee-jerk reaction is to suspect that these students rely heavily on electronic communication and just don't expose themselves to enough competent writing to absorb its conventions. I wouldn't want to speculate any further than that, but I wonder how to deal with the challenge of teaching these students. How do I teach English as a second language to students for whom it is their first?