For English-as-an-Additional-Language (EAL) learners enrolled in first-year composition courses in Canada, navigating different academic genres can pose both challenges and opportunities. In a 2019 survey of the experiences of Chinese EAL learners enrolled in a Canadian first-year composition course, most reported feeling isolated, overwhelmed, and unsure of where to turn for academic support.
One particular participant, whom we’ll call “Young,” graduated from a prestigious university in China and enrolled at a Canadian university as a senior. Although initially confident in his spoken and written English, over the course of the semester Young felt increasingly challenged by his course requirements and unable to keep pace with his English-speaking peers. As one of two EAL learners in his class, Young felt isolated, despondent, and uncertain of how to communicate with his course instructor and classmates.
Young’s experience is significant because it speaks to some of the challenges that EAL learners may encounter while undertaking undergraduate study in Canada. Indeed, Young’s example underscores how vitally important it is to respond to social isolation, discomfort, and uncertainty by forging meaningful connections with others.
What is learner agency?
Connecting to and drawing on available supports is a powerful way to practice your learner agency. Although considered from multiple perspectives within various disciplines, learner agency typically refers to a learner’s capacity to exercise control over their learning processes. Related studies indicate that learner agency is not innate but acquired through and shaped by larger cultural and environmental factors. Simply put, learner agency is an ongoing practice that students can cultivate and improve through seeking out available supports.
How does EAL agency improve writing?
To meet the requirements of your academic writing course, we encourage you to leverage academic supports. For example, you might consider attending your instructor’s office hours, booking a writing centre appointment, or registering in an academic skills workshop. If your educational institution does not offer robust educational support, you might consider other assistive avenues, such as consulting online collocation dictionaries or discipline-specific resources. If, like Young, you find that you are struggling to keep up with your coursework, enacting your learner agency may enable you to identify and fill educational gaps, reframe academic challenges as opportunities for growth, and make informed choices within your writing to amplify your distinctive voice.
How is learner agency practiced?
As a course requirement, your instructor might ask you to engage with the cultural conventions of a specific genre of writing, such as a traditional research paper, academic blog post, or online portfolio. Before undertaking this task, you might seek additional information on the imagined audience for, or conventional expectations of, that genre of writing. You might also enact your learner agency by selecting a topic, perspective, or approach that showcases your unique insights or cultural experiences.
Furthermore, in addition to consulting the online databases and citational guides provided by your institution’s library, you might request further guidance from your course instructors, academic advisors, writing centre tutors, peer mentors, and friends. If you are open and receptive to help, you may soon find yourself surrounded by a trusted web of support. To that end, you might practice greater learner agency on an ongoing basis by…
- Recognizing opportunities and barriers in your learning environment
- Resourcing yourself by embracing challenges as growth opportunities
- Relating meaningfully to knowledgeable and supportive mentors
- Reflecting on your what you have learned in your writing experiences
Returning to the aforementioned challenges Young encountered as an EAL learner new to Canada, mid-way through his first semester, Young began practicing his learner agency and eventually completed his composition course with a mark that satisfied his program requirements. In response to academic challenges, Young proactively sought additional supports by booking weekly appointments with writing centre tutors, leveraging online academic resources, and seeking additional assistance from knowledgeable research librarians. Instead of shutting down or withdrawing from his studies, Young redirected his time and energy towards making the most of various learning opportunities in his new academic environment.
As Young’s example shows, seeking academic support is not a sign of weakness but a crucial step in practicing learner agency. In keeping with Young, if you show up, ask questions, and engage in skill-building activities, you are likely to strengthen both your oral and written communication skills as an EAL learner.
- Jing Mao, “Thriving through Uncertainties: The Agency and Resourcefulness of First-Year Chinese English as an Additional Language Writers in a Canadian University,” BC TEAL 6, no. 1 (2021): 78-93. https://doi.org/10.14288/bctj.v6i1.390
- Yana Manyukhina and Dominic Wyse, (2019). “Learner Agency and the Curriculum: A Critical Realist Perspective,”Curriculum Journal 30, no. 3 (2019): 223-243. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1599973.
- See, for example, Diane Larsen-Freeman, “On Language Learner Agency: A Complex Dynamic Systems Theory Perspective,”Modern Language Journal 103 (2019): 61-79. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12536.