Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 19 Number 3
May 1980


H. Guillermo Bartelt

H. Guillermo Bartell, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Department of English at Yavapai College, Prescott, Arizona (86301). He authored an article for the May, 1979 issue of JAIE. His Ph.D. degree is in linguistics with a specialty in second language acquisition and bilingualism

INDIAN students who speak English as a second language often find themselves placed into classes in which the English teacher attempts to address their special needs with ESL methods. Until very recently the bulk of these methods was based on behavioral notions of second language acquisition. However, developments in cognitive psychology and generative grammar have challenged behavioral approaches to second language teaching for a number of years. Cognitive psychology has emphasized the learner's control of his internal mental operations in the process of acquiring knowledge, and generative grammar has demonstrated to language pedagogy the rule governing creativity of language.

These theoretical orientations have contributed to the view in which a second language learner is seen as a hypothesis-tester actively trying to solve the mysteries of the target language. On the other hand, behavioral approaches rely on contrastive analysis of the native and target languages and on the formation of new habits in learning a second language. Errors made in the target language are considered manifestations of interference from the native language. In the cognitive approach, errors are seen as evidence of the second language learner's strategies of attempting to learn the target language rather than as signs of the persistence of habits.

In teaching English composition to bilingual Indian students, the choice of a behavioral or cognitive framework can also be a determining factor for the kind of instruction these students might receive. Within the behavioral framework, contrastive analysis for the predictability of "errors" at the rhetorical level is advocated in Kaplan (see Note 3). By contrasting English paragraph developments with those in other linguistic systems, Kaplan attempted to point out a culture's unique logical system. For example, among speakers of Semitic languages he found an emphasis on parallel constructions, while among speakers of Oriental languages he found a kind of circular arrangement of facts. Furthermore, speakers of Romance languages revealed frequent complex digressions from the central idea. Kaplan concludes that interference occurs not only at the phonological, morphological, and syntactic levels but also at the discourse or rhetorical level.

A composition course suitable for bilingual Indian students based on the notions outlined by Kaplan can be found in Bander (see Note 1). In this course, the student is introduced to a particular kind of method of paragraph development through a model paragraph or composition. In these models the most salient features of English organizational styles are pointed out for the bilingual student. It is recommended that the model paragraph first be read aloud by the teacher, or that the students listen to tapes of the model. Next, students copy the model and later take dictation. After discussion of particular grammatical features, the student is finally asked to write his own paragraph or composition by imitating the model. Toward the end of the course, the student is allowed to combine paragraph methods. The approach reveals the typical behavioral view of structural linguistics, in which language acquisition is seen as the formation of new habits and differences between languages (contrastive analysis) rather than similarities (universals) are emphasized.

Emphasize Creative Language Abilities

In contrast, the cognitive orientation of the generative rhetoric approach discussed in Christensen(2) puts emphasis on the innate creative language abilities of the student. Methods of paragraph development are viewed as natural channels of the mind, and it is considered pointless to dwell on a single method in an artificial manner. In fact, it is almost impossible to write a paragraph without employing a combination of methods. The cumulative nature of paragraphs can be compared to that of sentences. Topic sentences are thought to be parallel to base sentences and the supporting sentences as parallel to the added single-word modifiers and clusters and subordinate and relative clauses. Christensen outlines four main principles for generating paragraphs: (1) All paragraphs include the principle of addition. (2) A supportive sentence must contribute to the direction of modification or direction of movement. (3) Sentences that are added to develop a topic are usually at a lower level of generality. (4) Finally, the more sentences are added the denser the texture.

Paragraphs that bilingual Indian students in ESL composition programs write are likely to be as thin textured as their sentences. Therefore, it is often necessary to return to the sentence level in order to have students produce sentences with additions to base clauses. At this point it is often essential to divert students from prescriptive notions such as simple, compound and complex sentences. These concepts are very complicated for ESL as well as native students. The longer the sentence the more possibilities for grammatical errors besides, longer sentences do not guarantee a better style. Instead of trying to avoid errors, instead of consciously trying to write a simple sentence followed by a compound sentence followed by a complex sentence, students should concentrate on additions to basic sentences.

One of the easiest places to add is at the end of a sentence. There is conceivably no limit to layers of increasingly concrete detail that can be added to the base clause, as long as the reader can make sense of the structure. The end of a sentence is of course not the only place addition can occur. Participial phrases, gerunds and infinitive phrases typically appear at the beginning of basic sentences. These structures should possibly be delayed for very advanced ESL composition discussions. However, to bilingual Indian students who are just being introduced to the generative nature of rhetoric, the additive principle can best be demonstrated by first concentrating on the end of sentences. Additions at the beginning of a sentence also interfere with the forward direction of movement or modification.

The principle of addition at the sentence level can then be expanded to the paragraph level. In a basic kind of paragraph, the topic sentence is the first sentence. This sentence can be seen as the matrix sentence. The sentences that follow are at a lower level of generality in that they are comments or developments of the topic sentence. At this level, there is again no reason for introducing other positions of topic sentences. Topic sentences at the end or in the middle of paragraphs are rare. Therefore, why complicate the issue with such notions?

In conclusion, this short article has attempted to make a case for the use of a creative model in ESL composition classes for bilingual Indian students. The imitative behavioral approach frequently used in ESL composition classes fails to capitalize on the innate language competence the bilingual Indian student brings to class. The generative approach, on the other hand, follows principles of cognitive theory, in that language learning is seen as a mental operation controlled by the learner. Since language is basically a creative activity, the principle of addition at the sentence as well as paragraph level promotes the creative use of language. The primary concern is that students have active practice in going from thought to performance by means of competence.


1. Bander, Robert G. American English Rhetoric. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. New York, 1971.

2. Christensen, Francies. A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph. College Composition and Communication. (1965) Vol. 25, pages 144-156.

3. Kaplan, Robert B. Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education. Language Learning. (1966) Vol. 1, 2, pages 1-20.

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