First-year Composition Students Uptake Multilingual Writing: How to be a Boundary Crosser if you are a “Monolingual” Writer


What would do you if you had to read a text with lots of unknown words?
Student A: I ́ll die!
Student B: Research?

When I was a first-year PhD student in the English Department at Illinois State University, my classmates and I used to discuss how to help composition students become writing researchers, which is the principal aim of the ENG 101 class students take at ISU. The idea is that if students see themselves as writing researchers, they will be able to deal with new writing situations successfully.

During that year, I frequently found myself reflecting on my own writing practices. I realized that, because I am a second language writer, I am “hyperaware” of different genre and linguistic conventions. I thought about the fact that, because I had been exposed to several varieties of the English language in my life and studied several languages since I was 8 years old, I had experienced epistemological shifts when the use of those languages was at stake. The most recent one was when, three years ago, I landed in Chicago and realized that everything I thought I knew about the English language and that had helped me communicate in diverse situations in other countries was not enough. I soon realized that I had to: first, listen carefully to other people, look at the contextual factors that allowed for a specific type of communicative event, and next, transfer my knowledge to those new communicative situations, whether they were written or spoken.

I was convinced that helping my students develop cross-cultural and cross-linguistic awareness would make a positive impact on their writing skills, since they would have to deal with “unknown” or less familiar linguistic, rhetorical issues and genre conventions. I wanted to investigate if exposure and analyses of multilingual texts could be beneficial for English speakers, especially in their writing practices, so I started designing a study about it. My main research questions were:

  1. Can multilingual writing help composition students improve their writing and research skills?
  2. Is the use of multilingual texts an appropriate tool for composition instructors to develop their students “slow thinking” (stop for a moment and reflect on writing choices)?
  3. Can multilingual writing make genre-knowledge more explicit/visible? What is the range of acceptance of different multilingual genres in a first-year composition class?

With the attempt to explore these questions, I designed a study in order to learn more about how mono and multi lingual students engage with multilingual texts. Throughout the whole semester, my students have been and will be exposed to texts written by second language writers, texts in which instances of several languages are used, texts translated from different languages into English and texts in which specific varieties of the English language are employed (both domestic and international varieties). Moreover, these texts belong to different genres, ranging from social media to academic writing. After they read a text, they usually work in pairs or individually to write down their answers to questions that have to do with both the content and the context of production of the texts.

For example, one of the genres students have been reflecting on is the genre of the recipe. First, they are asked to read and pick a “foreign” recipe from the BBC Goodfood website: Next, students analyzed the genre conventions, such as the type of language used, the audience and other relevant aspects of the recipe they picked. In the assignment, students were asked to re-write the recipe and transform it for someone they know. They had to decide which elements from the original recipe they wanted to change and what they wanted to keep in order to fit their audiences´expectations. For example, students had the option of re-wording some of the “foreign” words, changing measurement units, the ingredients or the method with the purpose of matching the recipe with their audience’s expectations. If a student chose to re-write the Italian recipe “Chocolate, pistachio & nougat semi-freddo” (see the picture below), (s)he may decide to do research, look up the meaning of “freddo” and think whether or not it is appropriate for his/her audience to keep it.


In “Tracing Discursive Resources: How students use prior genre knowledge to negotiate new writing contexts in first-year composition” (2011), Bawarshi and Reiff discuss the differences between  boundary crossers, “students who engaged in high-road transfer as they repurposed and reimagined their prior genre knowledge for use in new contexts”  and boundary guarders, “students who seemed to guard more tightly and engage in low-road transfer of their prior genre knowledge, even in the face of new and disparate tasks” (325).  The relations that connect the types of processes students who through and the techniques or types of thinking they employ are the following ones:

                  Near transfers>fast thinking/uptake >boundary guards

                  Far transfers >slow thinking/uptake > boundary crossers

Although the processes of fast and slow thinking take place while carrying out a particular activity, almost simultaneously, promoting slow uptake is important for unknown composition activities. Teachers of composition should try to cultivate slow uptake awareness. One of the numerous possibilities is to use multilingual writing as a resource.

It has been almost a year since I started working on this project. The multimodal texts that are analyzed in my ENG 101 classes place my students in front of a borderline that they will either cross or not after having analyzed the rhetorical situation. They are the ones who decide how to react, like Student A and B, do the research (slow uptake) and figure out what it means to use different codes in specific genres and, ultimately, decide whether they will apply the skill of being able to cross the boundaries or nor in their own writing practices.

Works cited

Reiff, Mary Jo, and Anis Bawarshi. “Tracing discursive resources: How students use prior genre knowledge to negotiate new writing contexts in first-year composition.” Written Communication 28.3 (2011): 312-337.

About Author(s)

I am a PhD student of English at Illinois State University focusing on second language and multilingual writing.

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