Globalizing the Prompt: Redesigning Writing Assignment Prompts for English Language Learners
Updated: Jun 13, 2019
Amy Mecklenburg-Faenger, Park University
Zephra Weber, Oxford Brookes University
In the academic world, a prompt acts as a gateway into an assignment providing students with a roadmap and specific tasks they should accomplish along the way. Yet, from a student perspective, deciphering a prompt can be challenging. The difficulty is compounded for non-native speakers of English for whom the prompt can become a barrier, testing not subject knowledge, but the student’s mastery of English.
While much research has been done on redesigning teaching materials for disability accessibility, we suggest that with the increasing numbers of college students who speak English as a foreign language, we should also redesign our teaching materials to make them more accessible for English language learners (ELLs). Understanding a prompt is, at its heart, an exercise in reading comprehension.
The Reading Process
When revising a prompt with ELLs in mind, it is important to remind ourselves how complex the reading process is. Reading requires us to activate both our working and long term memory. To decode a word, we need lower-level skills which allow us to first recognize it, then to retrieve the meaning and pronunciation from our memory and understand the syntactic structures used (Walter, n.d.). Also essential are higher-level comprehension skills such as the ability to understand sentences in discourse (Alderson, 2002). For native speakers and proficient non-natives, the reading process is highly automatized. However, for some ELLs, a lack of automaticity in decoding means that working memory is taken up with word recognition and sentence parsing, leaving less space for the activation of higher-level comprehension skills (Walter, n.d.).
While there is much advice on what content to include in a good writing assignment, such as explicit statements about the task, the purpose, or the intended audience (Bean, 2011), there is less discussion about how to most effectively convey that information through specific word, syntax, or design choices that can serve to ease the burden of decoding and free up working memory for essential higher-level comprehension skills. While many teachers may see their prompts as an expression of their philosophy, personality, or relationships with students, prompts, when properly understood, are a type of technical communication. In technical communication, we study how to make instructions more useable and accessible for global audiences using principles of clarity, efficiency, and useable design (Lannon & Gurak, 2011). Techniques drawn from English as a second language pedagogy support these principles by helping us make word and sentence structure choices that a wider range of readers can understand. Below we examine three key barriers to comprehension through the shared lenses of technical communication and English language acquisition and offer simple changes that you can make to your prompts to make them more accessible for ELLs.
One significant barrier for non-natives in decoding a prompt is word choice. Idiomatic language, in particular, can be confusing and misleading. An idiom is broadly defined as group of words that has a different meaning when they are used together than when they are used on their own. Idioms range from the very colourful, for example “kick the bucket” or “drive someone crazy,” to fairly formal, such as “look over something,” or “by and large.” Native speakers will instantly recognize that “kick the bucket” has nothing to do with buckets and everything to do with dying, while a non-native speaker who has not encountered this idiomatic phrase, but who knows the words “kick” and “bucket,” will have an entirely different interpretation of the meaning.
To make prompts clearer and more accessible, use straightforward, direct language. Avoid idiomatic language and, when possible, replace multiple word idiomatic phrases with their single word counterparts. Similarly, using technical communication principles, phrase instructions in active voice using single-word action verbs when possible. This sentence in our before assignment prompt uses a multi-word phrasal verb (lay your hands on) and idiomatic language (last minute), while also stating the direction indirectly: “Don’t wait until the last minute to lay your hands on the text” A revision using our principles yielded this clearer and more direct instruction: “Select and have your own copy of the text 2 weeks before the project is due.”
Like idiomatic language, long sentences with complex structures are more difficult for non-native speakers to decode and can block understanding, even when students know all of the vocabulary (Nuttall & Alderson, 2012). This is especially true with complex subjects, referencing, and structures that omit words such as participle clauses or reduced relative clauses. Take the following example from the before assignment in our makeover: “For this assignment, choosing from one of the options below, you will generate your own rhetorical analysis of an advertisement.” “Choosing from one of the options below” is a participle clause. The writer means, “You will choose from one of the options below and (then) you will generate…. In this example, not only are the subject and verb of the clause omitted, but the verb “choose” changes form.
Not every sentence has to be revised down to the most simple syntax, but in the most important parts of the task, simplify sentences.
Consider breaking one very complex sentence into three shorter sentences. Avoid omission and use nouns instead of pronouns, even if this means repeating the noun several times.
Students can easily overlook key parts of the prompt when it is hidden within a paragraph. To make matters more challenging, non-native speakers may focus on the first sentence of the prompt rather than scanning for a directive or request as native speakers do, which may cause them to miss crucial information (Pfinstag & O’Hara, 1998). From a technical writing perspective, documents should be designed to be easily scanned and should emphasize the most important information for readers.
Simple design choices can enhance the usability of a document by breaking text into more digestible and skimmable chunks by using headings, lists, columns, color, or other visual organizers. We can also use design principles to put the most important information in positions of emphasis on the page. In our assignment makeover, we used a simple template in Word to create a left column that simply lists the major requirements and evaluation criteria for the assignment, while the right column gives longer, more detailed information.
The use of bold/color headings also makes the document easier to skim for specific information about purpose, task, and audience. The language and design choices we offer here are fairly easy to implement, and the additional upside is that these same techniques will make assignment prompts easier for all students to use.
If we revise our prompts with a critical eye using principles from technical communication and English language acquisition, we can make decoding prompts easier and increase the chance that all of our students will be able to begin the assignment with a clear understanding of the task.
1. What other teaching artifacts might also be improved using these techniques for increasing accessibility and how could they be improved?
2. How could these techniques be used in conjunction with guidelines for disability accessibility?
3. What other kinds of accessibility could we be building into our teaching documents and processes?
Alderson, J. C. (2000). Assessing reading. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
Lannon, J.M.. & Gurak, L.J. (2017). Technical communication (14th. ed). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Nuttall, C., & Alderson, J. C. (2012). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan.
Pfinstag, N., & O’Hara, I. (1998). The neglected lesson: Teaching L2 writers to decipher writing Prompts. Conference on College Composition and Communication, Chicago, IL.
Walter, C. H. (n.d.) Reading in a second language. Retrieved from http://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/1420