The language acquisition narrative is the first assignment in the Language, Identity, and World Englishes class that I teach, and it’s a spinoff of the literacy narrative genre. This task is used to get students explicitly thinking about language and how they have acquired it either growing up or through school-based interventions.
Designing the Assignment
As I was developing the Language, Identity, and World Englishes course, I knew that I wanted to get students thinking about language straightaway. I also wanted them to think about how they acquired a language and the different people and tools that have facilitated—or even hindered—that journey. More importantly, I wanted them also to consider what lies ahead on that journey as they begin to acquire a disciplinary language that they will use in their future coursework and careers.
To do this, I decided to change the literacy narrative, a common genre in first-year writing classes. The narrative allows students to focus on one or two salient episodes in their language acquisition and how that has influenced their overall learning and use of the language. It also enabled them to think about the people and institutions that have helped, or hindered, them along the way. Also, since it’s a narrative, it allowed for a certain degree of creativity, a freedom some students took a little further than expected.
Teaching the Assignment
When I teach this assignment, I usually do so in two parts. During the first part, I introduce Deborah Brandt’s notion of literacy sponsors and give an example from my childhood. Then, I make time in class for students to reflect on language acquisition sponsors in their lives, and from there we share with the class. In the second part, I present them with a lesson on descriptive writing, stressing the importance of showing over telling, and the narrative arc. We then do some activities related to descriptive writing, and I give them time in class to begin planning out their stories.
Assessing the Assignment
When I’m evaluating this assignment, I’m looking for a few things. The first thing I’m looking for is whether are they making use of descriptive writing to show a story unfolding for the reader. Or, are they just giving us pages of exposition and explaining? Since it’s a narrative, I expect them to use descriptive language to make the story come to life for the reader. This is often challenging because students leave out details because they’re not thinking of their reader and what they do (not) know. They’re assuming the reader knows them and their story as well as they know it themselves. The second thing that I’m looking for is the creation of interesting characters through the language acquisition sponsor framework. There is usually little problem with this, as the sponsor creates a natural pathway to creating a story populated by characters other than themselves. Third, I’m looking to see that they have taken a creative approach to the assignment and have not just turned in an expository essay. Finally, since this assignment occurred during the block introducing them to general linguistics, I’m looking for whether they have successfully deployed key lexical terms from the field of linguistics in reflecting on their story.