Hae Sung Yang is a Ph.D. student in Applied Linguistics at Georgia State University. His research interests include second language writing, intercultural rhetoric, and genre analysis. He has co-authored and edited many English textbooks for EFL learners including Reading Expert, Listening Expert, and Selected Readings for Advanced Learners. He has published a co-authored article in Reading in a Foreign Language, and is a frequent presenter at conferences including AAAL, Symposium on Second Language Writing and TESOL related conferences. E-mail: hyang20@ gsu.edu | February Interviewer: Terry Doyle
- Could you tell us about your educational and professional background? How did you feel as a young learner of English in Korea? What led you to want to study for an MA in TESOL the first time you came to the United States? What teaching and other work related to TESOL have you done? What led you to want to study for a Ph. D. at Georgia State University? Why did you choose L2 writing as your specialty and main area of research?
As a learner of English I had both challenges and fascination with learning English. Growing up in the 70s/80s on a small farm in a remote rural village in South Korea, I did not have as many resources as students in big cities back then had or as Korean children of today have; many of have many socio-economic resources to learn English. What drew me into studying English was my fascination with my growing knowledge of English as I invested my time and efforts in learning. Another driving force was the potential I saw in being fluent in foreign languages, which I believed could get me out of my rural village to a bigger world. All the English classes I took and English textbooks I studied on my own drew on the basic tenets of the Grammar Translation Method (GTM) and emphasized intensive reading. Even though it took a lot of perseverance, time commitment and, sometimes, frustration to understand the structure of English and expand my lexicon, the receptive skills I built through the GTM became great resources for my future English studies. I spent a lot of time on my own figuring out the grammatical rules and orthography of English, memorizing vocabulary, and parsing sentences in reading passages. As time-consuming as this process was, I often felt rewarded about the progress I gradually made. Looking back on the way I learned English, I believe that it built a good foundation for understanding English, which is important in EFL contexts, even though this might not have been the most effective way to develop communicative competence needed in target language settings. Due to this experience, in my later years of English learning, I was able to enjoy the rewards stemming from the advantages of understanding foreign languages; for example, understanding Japanese cartoons, being able to appreciate the beauty of Chinese classical poems, keeping up-to-date on what is happening around the world through English medium newspapers and TV channels and communicating with people who do not share my first language and culture (I had a couple of pen pals and key pals in college in the U.S.). More importantly, English was not just an important subject in school, but I also believed that it would play a critical role in deciding where I would attend college and what type of career I would pursue. I started working as an editorial staff member in a media-publishing company in Seoul after college. Working on the development of ELT materials for Korean learners nurtured my interests in the field of TESOL. Writing, which I thought is one of the critical skills in language learning and academic studies, needs more attention in the Korean English teaching context. I love to express myself in my native language, and I feel more comfortable when communicating in writing rather than in speaking. A pedagogical gap I identified and personal beliefs in L2 writing led me to doing research on L2 writing. In 2007 after many years of working in Korea, I left Korea to pursue an MA TESOL degree at San Francisco State University. In Korea I haven’t had teaching experience. But while studying for my MA TESOL degree, I taught immigrants as a volunteer in San Francisco. Also, I have been teaching writing and reading courses in the IEP and First Year Composition courses at Georgia State University.
- In your answer to the question “How can social theories of literacies inform second language writing pedagogy?” you review social and critically-oriented theories of literacy including academic literacies, multiliteracies, and critical literacy and explore how they may be incorporated into the field of L2 writing. One of your conclusions is the following: “L2 writers are often positioned only as learners who lack language skills and strategies. Their existing and potential resources are not often tapped into in many writing classes even though they have rich personal, community experience and most of them are capable of speaking at least two languages fluently. Their multicultural experience should also be utilized so that they can heighten their sense of identity and ownership of their work and ideas.” Could you comment on these points especially in relation to how non-native English teachers who are teaching or will be teaching L2 writing are perhaps particularly qualified to help their students tap into their multicultural experiences and potentials as writers?
I wanted to point out that teaching writing is not just teaching pre-determined linguistic skills or rhetorical patterns – often based on ideas of writing ‘the academic essay’. More important or at least equally important is how to provide a space in which L2 writers can come up with ideas, pursue their personal and academic goals and interests, and be validated on their strengths. It is easy for writing teachers including me to focus on corrective feedback by assigning the same predetermined tasks for all the students. In this type of “general English writing” class, it is more challenging to find ways to motivate them to become autonomous, responsible and serious writers. Every L2 writer is different, which means that teaching L2 writing is a daunting task. It is important for me to get to know them at the personal level such as through a survey about their personal learning history and by assigning a more personal writing task at the beginning of the semester. To promote autonomy and writer agency, I try to implement a writing needs survey and proposal (about their topic of choice) for major writing assignments. These have been effective for me. I believe learning takes place when students are engaged in what interests them most and are investing time and energy in these types of tasks. They need encouragement too. When I have complimented my students on their writing in individual conferences, some of them have told me that they had never received the type of praise or positive feedback I had given them. I try to address their strengths first in my feedback because everyone has their own strengths; I also tell them that I learn from their writing. I am not neglecting corrective feedback about language use, but I believe this should not dominate our teaching practices. Research shows that professors in subject matter courses do not pay as much attention to learners’ interlanguage or ‘errors’ as writing teachers believe they should, but students learn a lot in writing for these classes nevertheless. With encouragement combined with space for pursuing their own interests, L2 writers are better able to develop their writing competence better. Of course, it takes much time and commitment from instructors.
- In her chapter entitled “Controversy and change in how we view L2 writing in international contexts” in Principles and Practice for Teaching English as an International Language (Alsagoff, et. al., 2012) just as you have discussed in your writing, Christine Casanave questions mainstream perspectives on teaching, learning, and assessing L2 writing including (1) the idea that the “academic” essay as a genre is transferable to other writing, (2) the importance of contrastive rhetoric, (3) the cognitive process writing movement, (4) methods of error correction, and (5) one-shot essay testing for entrance, placement, and exit exams. Also, like you, Casanave writes about a shift or “social turn” not only in social sciences in general but also in SLA and in L2 writing “towards a view that is increasingly local, social, and political.” She explains further: “We are moving toward a view that locates the practice of writing squarely within a socio-political context, full of social needs and social actors, all situated within different discourse communities ” (Casanave, 2012, p. 291). Based on the research you are doing, in your opinion how important are socio-political contexts in which L2 writing students are situated? Also, what is your take on Casanave’s criticism of mainstream perspectives on L2 writing?
I can’t agree with Casanave more. Cognition and lexico-grammatical and rhetorical knowledge have received great attention in writing theory and pedagogy, but less emphasized are the social aspects of writing. There seems to be a belief that if we teach how to write at the grammatical and textual level, students will become effective writers in other subject matter classes or in professional settings. However, writing is a socio-politically charged phenomenon. Contexts (purpose, readers, discourse community) are critical, and expectations of the readership are often not readily available especially to inexperienced writers because the way knowledge is constructed and what is valued as knowledge can often be implicit. It takes a range of things for L2 writers to become effective writers – solid topic knowledge, familiarity with values in a community, knowledge of discourse conventions and meeting readers’ expectations. Again, how to define the ‘academic essay’ varies depending on the discipline, course type and even the professor compared with others teaching the same type of course. Writing teachers might not be able to teach all of these things in the classroom. Instead, I think we need to raise awareness of these things among L2 writers and provide them opportunities to engage in tasks to develop strategies to deal with them. The notion that there is one way to write an academic essay and students can learn how to write for all the complex rhetorical situations does not seem to hold true anymore, as scholars within the Academic Literacies approaches argue. For example, there is usually a particular literacy practice in a particular course. Students who take numerous courses in general education, in interdisciplinary areas and in their field of study will encounter a range of assumptions, expectations and discourse conventions.
- As you know, having worked with me as a student teacher in one of my non-credit ESL classes a few years ago, when I was teaching I worked with many young ESL students who later entered credit lower division undergraduate ESL writing classes. Having kept in touch with some of them after they transferred, I heard about a lot of frustration they had in these classes. One student told me that she did well in her major classes, but that for her and her friends in ESL classes, “ESL classes were the ones which we disliked and feared the most.” I wonder how much this dislike and fear has to do with her ESL teachers’ failure to consider their students’ backgrounds, writing practices they had learned before, and the local and socio-political contexts in which they had studied before. Based on your research and also as a former ESL learner, what is your opinion about the source of these students’ discouragement and their dislike and fear of their ESL classes? Also, at present I am tutoring informally and online a former student from Macau, who graduated from university in Taiwan, but is now taking ESL writing classes in a community college, after having served in the US Navy for four years. She sends me her essays and her teacher’s feedback. Like I did when I taught L2 writers (before I retired), her teachers are teaching her how to write the “academic essay”. After reading Casanave’s chapter, I wonder how appropriate it is to teach the academic essay. I also wonder about appropriate error correction techniques. As a former ESL student yourself and now as a Ph. D. student who is becoming an expert on L2 writing, do you have any advice for me in how I can help this young learner? She is very enthusiastic becoming a college student again after being in the Navy for four years, and I don’t want to see this enthusiasm dissipate, as I have seen happen to other students when they take credit ESL classes.
I believe you, as a seasoned and devoted teacher from whom I learned a lot, have better ideas of how to motivate L2 writers. I would like to share what I have learned through teaching my L2 writing classes. Like I said above, ‘the academic essay’, to me, is vague and can be misleading. This notion underlies the assumption that there is one way to write an academic paper. It often seems to draw on the basic tenets and ideas of the five paragraph essay. The reality is that students encounter diverse writing situations with different professors in different courses. Because I do not know exactly why the students felt frustrated, it is hard to answer the second part of the question. If they have challenges in figuring out the ESL writing instructor’s expectations, I would recommend they talk to the instructor in person. I believe it is the student’s right to ask for clarification about assignments and share challenges with the instructor during office hours. It would be a good idea to communicate the students’ needs and interests in terms of L2 writing too. Based on the expectations of the instructor, I would guide the students to strike a balance between meeting instructor expectations and considering their own writer agency. However, this is easier said than done of course.
- To change the topic to you and your own experiences, as an NNEST working and trying to find a job as an English teacher in Korea, what are some of the challenges you have experienced and what have been some of your successes? Also, as an international student in an MA TESOL and a Ph.D. program in the United States, what have been your challenges and successes?
I wanted to teach writing in Korea after I had finished my M.A. TESOL degree. I was not eligible to apply for most university writing instructor positions because most of the ads said they were looking for native English speakers only. Some positions for which Koreans could apply required a Ph.D. degree whereas only a Master’s degrees was the minimum requirement for native speakers. The only positions I could apply for as a writing teacher were test prep positions in private language schools. Therefore, I gave up on the idea of teaching academic writing in Korea. There seems to be a division of labor between native and local teachers in Korea. Productive skills are taught by native speakers and receptive skills-oriented courses are assigned to Korean teachers of English. I can understand why this is happening, but this practice and conception need further examination.
- There has been a lot of research recently about the development of teacher identity and agency. What particular experiences and factors have been influential in your own teacher identity and agency development both as an English language learner in Korea and as a graduate student, researcher, and teacher in the United States?
I will talk about the trajectory of my identity as a teacher briefly. I do not have full-time teaching experience yet. It was in the U.S. that as a graduate student I started teaching in regular classroom settings. Therefore, myself as a language learner, international grad student and student teacher all played an important role in negotiating and forming my identity as a teacher. Another important factor in my teacher identity development is an increasing familiarity with contexts (student population, expectations) as my teaching experience grows. One important change in my teaching over the years is that I am not reluctant to talk about myself (especially about my language background and myself being an L2 writer) any more. I have become more comfortable about opening up myself to my students. Being uninhibited about revealing myself and being able to be vulnerable seem important for me in building trusting relationships with my students. This allows me a space to discuss many things (e.g., various intercultural topics, mysterious academic conventions) in which my students and I have common interests. Therefore, my teacher identity, to a large extent, comes from myself as a language learner. I share many things with my students as someone who went through a similar process as a language learner and who can be classified as being socially marginalized. This was in large part possible because I have very supportive full-time instructors and colleagues in my department, and my students are in general open-minded about having a NNEST. I have been receiving positive, encouraging comments as well as constructive feedback about my teaching. Fortunately, I rarely have received any comments about my accent or non-nativeness by observers or students except for one occasion, which I accepted with a grain of salt. These all have strengthened my commitment to teaching L2 writing. Another lesson I learned about my identity is that it can be flexible and changing, again, depending on the context. It is a challenge to figure out individual students’ needs, motivation and interests and adjust my lesson and interaction with students accordingly. I now feel more comfortable ‘revealing’ myself to my students, which, as a NNEST and as an international student, I used to feel more reluctant to do in fear of losing authority. Building common ground with my students in classroom discussions about various academic and social issues seems like a great advantage of being a NNEST.
- In several of my recent interviews for this blog, I have asked questions about the importance of including courses on NNEST-related and World English issues in the curriculum of MA TESOL programs. From conversations with you, I know that you are very knowledgeable about these issues. When and how did you first become aware of the significance of NNEST-related issues? Do you believe that these topics should be included in the courses and curricula of MA TESOL programs, both in the U.S. and abroad? Do you think MA TESOL programs should offer particular courses about NNEST-related issues for international MA TESOL students? And also for US-born MA TESOL students? Do you think MA TESOL programs should hire at least one professor whose main area of research interest is NNEST-related issues?
In practical terms, I believe that TESOL programs need to broaden their horizon in terms of the consideration of various teaching and learning contexts. According to one research article I read, at least half of the graduates of MA TESOL programs surveyed for the study end up landing a job outside the U.S. They include not only international students returning to their home countries but also numerous Americans. TESOL programs have an obligation to take into account this reality in their curricula. One challenge for the programs would be that international students would enter a TESOL program with the expectation that they would be able to bring Center-oriented theory and pedagogy they learn in their MA TESOL programs back to their home countries. As some research by Casanave and McKay indicate, they later realize challenges of applying these western approaches and pedagogy in non-ESL settings. I think there needs to be more research about the effectiveness of MA TESOL programs in preparing preservice teachers for teaching in a range of non-ESL contexts. They need an expert about this critical issue. Contextual, ecological variance of teaching English can be addressed in many courses such as Sociolinguistics, Teaching Methods, Practicum, and Intercultural Communication courses. NNEST related issues can be discussed in these various courses rather than in a stand-alone course.
- I often like to ask interviewees a question about personal experiences in your childhood which may influence your teaching or research or perhaps your decision to enter our field. Is there any particular memory in your childhood that stands out as very influential to you in reaching your decision to enter the field of English language education and also to come to the United States to study for an MA in TESOL and a Ph. D.?
It has always been a challenging task for me to speak and write in a foreign language, so I had never thought about being a language teacher or researcher. Therefore, there is no single memorable event or epiphany that led me to pursue my career as a language teacher and researcher. I think that my interests in becoming a teacher and researcher have evolved over the years. One memorable event in my English learning was the letter I wrote to my sister in English when we were required to write an English letter as an assignment for summer break in my 8th grade. I had been learning English for only one and a half years at that point. I probably knew only a couple of hundred English words back then, so the letter I wrote with my limited knowledge of English must have been filled with numerous errors and therefore was probably incomprehensible in many parts. I could not believe I was able to compose a letter in English. My English teacher rewarded my efforts with a prize. A sense of accomplishment and the acknowledgement from my English teacher meant a lot to me. This experience gave me confidence and intrinsic motivation that I would be able to write in English even with my lack of knowledge of and experience with English. I had never thought about becoming a teacher because I thought an introvert like me would not fit into a teaching career and that teaching is more of a calling rather than just one of many career choices. However, I often think about this event now especially when I think of ways to promote autonomy and motivation among my students. I did not think of going to graduate school in the U.S. until after 10 years of working at a media-publishing company in which I worked as a materials developer for Korean learners of English. I felt that I needed to understand what I was doing through a theoretical lens and to base my work on a solid theory and ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ teaching methods. I also wanted to build teaching experience and improve my English competence because I thought these would be a precondition for materials development. One of my areas of interest at that point was, and still is, L2 writing. As an introvert, I feel more comfortable expressing myself and delivering ideas in writing rather than in speaking. L2 writing seemed to benefit my English learning to a large extent especially in an EFL environment. Writing did receive little attention in English teaching and therefore in materials development in Korea. I had this vague idea and belief that writing deserves more attention in English learning, teaching and materials development. This lead me to pursue an MA in the U.S. because I knew that teaching and doing research on L2 writing is very common in North America.
- Many readers of this blog are international NNES university students like yourself considering enrolling in an MA TESOL or a Ph.D. program in the United States. As a former teacher and MA TESOL student and now a Ph.D. student in a well-known university, what advice would you give to young students hoping to enter an MA TESOL or Ph. D. program in the United States?
This is very general advice because I know that international students pursing a graduate degree already have an idea what they want to pursue in their program, and different people pursue different things. For those who want to pursue an MA in TESOL, having extensive teaching experience before entering the program would be very beneficial. For me without much teaching experience in Korea, readings and discussions in class were somewhat abstract. Also, I gather that when choosing a program, it is important to consider the extent of teaching opportunities a program offers to international students. It can be challenging for international students to find teaching positions of their preference in their practicum or volunteer opportunities. It would be a good idea to check this before choosing where to apply. It would also be wise to check whether tutoring and teaching opportunities are open to international students. I volunteered in ESL classes for immigrants, worked as a tutor in the tutoring center on campus, and had an opportunity to observe a freshmen composition class for the whole semester in my Master’s program. Even though it was hard to gain an opportunity to teach in a classroom setting, at least I was exposed to diverse teaching contexts. Another important factor for me was living environment. Since I like the amenities and diversity that big cities offer, San Francisco State University was a great fit for me. I felt like I was at home right away there, and did not experience many challenges adjusting to living there.
- I always like to finish by asking one question about what interviewees do outside of their teaching and research. What are your favorite hobbies and other things you like to do to unwind when you are not studying or teaching? Have your hobbies changed now that you live in the United States?
I like to travel even though living on a student budget does not allow me to travel as much as I wanted. Learning history, trying new cuisines and exploring nature in different places are always fascinating to me. I enjoy walking and hiking in parks and mountains. I have been enjoying hiking in different places in Georgia and South Carolina. Cooking has been one of my passions too. In recent years I have been trying to cook the dishes my mother used to make for me when I was a child. Cooking various traditional Korean foods brings back great memories of the childhood I spent with my parents, which I still cherish.
Casanave, C. P. (2012) “Controversy and change in how we view L2 writing in international contexts” (Alsagoff, et. al. Ed.) Principles and Practice for Teaching English as an International Language. New York: Routledge
Crossley, A. Yang, H.S., and McNamara, D. (2014) What’s so simple about simplified texts? A computational and psycholinguistic investigation of text comprehension and text processing. Reading in a Foreign Language. Vol. 26, No. 1 pp. 92-113