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58 TETYC, February 1998

by Loretta Frances Kasper

ESL Writing and The Principle of Nonjudgmental

Awareness: Rationale and Implementation

A process-oriented nonjudgmental instructional

approach can help ESL students become better


Recent statistics show that ESL students

enrolled in community colleges are

steadily increasing. In fact, Crandall reports

that ESL is the fastest growing area

of study in community colleges in the

United States. In community colleges

within the City University of New York

system (CUNY), dubbed by Crandall, a

“microcosm of the United States as a

whole,”(4) 25% of entering students now

need instruction in English as a Second

Language (Nunez-Wormack). By 2000,

estimates are that more than 50% of fulltime

first-year students in the CUNY system

will be ESL students (Professional

Staff Congress). College ESL students

must demonstrate writing proficiency for

full entry into the mainstream curriculum.

However, developing this proficiency presents

an especially difficult problem for

such students.

Studies of both basic and ESL writers

have shown that instructor feedback plays

a significant role in students’ progress as

writers (Bass; Zak) and that the priorities

of the instructor become the priorities of

the student. Therefore, when responding

to ESL students’ writing, instructors must

be aware of the priorities they communicate

to their students and should provide

evaluative feedback that decreases writing

anxiety as it increases writing satisfaction.

I have found that implementing

Gallwey’s principle of nonjudgmental

awareness with a process approach that

emphasizes fluency and clarity of expression

and de-emphasizes correctness has

improved the performance of intermediate-

level (TOFEL score of approximately

350) ESL students.

The Principle of Nonjudgmental


The principle of nonjudgmental awareness

was first advanced by W. Timothy

Gallwey in his book, The Inner Game of

Tennis. Gallwey believes that learning proceeds

most effectively and effortlessly

when the learners allow themselves to

move naturally through the learning process,

aware of relevant aspects of performance

without making excessive critical

judgments about that performance.

Although initially advanced as a means

of learning a physical skill such as tennis,

the principle of nonjudgmental awareness

has been applied to learning skills in academic

domains. For example, Ploger and

Carlock successfully used this principle

to teach students to construct computer

programs designed to represent ideas from

biology. They found that implementation

of the principle of nonjudgmental awareness

made it easier for students to learn

how to write programs that were both

Copyright © 1998 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

ESL Writing and The Principle of Nonjudgmental Awareness: Rationale and Implementation 59

meaningful and accurate, and then, to

revise those programs to explain the problem-

solving strategy step-by-step. Ploger

and Carlock believe that the nonjudgmental

instructional technique lessened

the anxiety students felt about the task of

writing a computer program and ultimately

enabled these students to gain a

deeper overall understanding of the principles

of biology.

Task anxiety and insufficient understanding

of the writing process also plague

and inhibit the writing performance of

ESL students. For this reason, I decided

to adopt a nonjudgmental instructional

approach in an attempt to lessen my intermediate-

level ESL students’ writing

anxiety and to improve their writing performance.

As I use the term, “non-judgmental

instructional approach” refers to

an approach to writing instruction that is

process- rather than product-oriented, is

student-centered, and one in which the

chief goal of instruction is to help students

attain fluency and clarity of expression. I

do not explicitly teach grammar in the ESL

writing class; rather, students acquire and

improve their use of the grammatical

structures they need to express ideas most

effectively through a series of progressive

attempts to refine and clarify those ideas.

Thus, mechanical accuracy is not the

means to achieving fluency and clarity of

expression; rather, mechanical accuracy

is the result of having worked to express

ideas most fluently and clearly.

To evaluate the effectiveness of this

approach, I conducted an informal threesemester

study. My students come from a

number of diverse linguistic, ethnic, and

cultural backgrounds, including Russian,

Hispanic, Haitian, and Asian. Over a period

of three semesters, I gradually

adopted a less error- and more expressionoriented

response approach in which I

moved from correcting virtually all student

errors to simply identifying those

errors and requiring that the students

themselves correct them. The results of

my informal analyses indicated that over

the course of the three semesters a progressively

greater percentage (61%, 82%,

89%) of the students passed the final writing

examination. This writing final required

students to plan, write, and revise

a persuasive essay on their choice of three

assigned topics based on the work done

during the semester and was cross-graded

by two other ESL instructors in the department.

Rationale for the Nonjudgmental


Although basic writing instructors may

find nonjudgmental response not a radical

departure from traditional pedagogy,

the approach to teaching writing in many

ESL programs is quite different from that

in most basic writing programs. Basic

writing programs generally apply a process

approach to writing, emphasizing the

development of ideas and gradually placing

greater responsibility on the students

as they go through the writing process.

In this approach, writing becomes a process

of discovery in which “ideas are generated

and not just transcribed” (Susser 35).

In contrast, many ESL programs still

maintain a product approach to writing

in which grammar is explicitly taught and

in which the final product becomes more

important than the process by which it

was created. In product-driven ESL writing

programs, instructors continually provide

students with accurate models of

language, the assumption being that, with

more grammar and more correction, students

will be able to produce fluent and

clear compositions.

One of the rationales offered for product-

driven ESL writing programs is that

60 TETYC, February 1998

ESL students are required to pass college

assessment examinations that often judge

writing on the basis of grammatical accuracy.

In one study, Sweedler-Brown found

that “sentence-level error was . . . the critical

factor in pass/fail decisions in ESL essays”

(12), and she concludes that “we

may be doing our (ESL) students a disservice

if we are not willing to become

language teachers as well as writing teachers”

(15). The problem with this approach

is that too often the priority becomes

teaching students sufficient language rules

so they can write accurately enough to

pass an examination, rather than helping

them develop their potential to discover

and express their ideas.

Furthermore, a study conducted by

MacGowan-Gilhooly demonstrated that

when the ESL writing course focused on

producing grammatical correctness for the

purpose of preparing students to pass a

college writing assessment test, they did

not progress as well, and some actually

regressed from former performance levels.

Of course, this regression may have

been the result of students’ attempts to

produce more sophisticated linguistic

structures; however, MacGowan-Gilhooly

attributes it to the pressure produced by

writing for evaluation where that evaluation

depends upon correctness of language

rather than upon quality of content.

Like MacGowan-Gilhooly, Bass has also

found that, in general, students’ progress

is often inhibited when they anticipate

that their writing will be evaluated for its


Implementing the Principle of

Nonjudgmental Awareness

On the very first day of classes, I describe

the nonjudgmental instructional approach

to my ESL student writers. I explain

that I want them to focus on

expressing ideas in their essays, and we

discuss the purpose of writing as the communication

of those ideas to another person.

I tell students not to worry about

correctness in their initial drafts, to allow

their ideas to flow freely onto the paper. I

explain that they will receive both instructor

and peer feedback on each essay. I then

announce that when I respond to their

essays, I will not be correcting errors in

grammar. Instead, I will point out where

the errors are, but that they will be responsible

for correcting those errors. I tell

them that if they have any problems, they

should discuss those problems with me,

and we will solve them together.

Some students do express anxiety

when they first hear about this approach;

however, after only a few assignments,

they discover that as they work through

several drafts of each essay, increasing the

fluency and clarity of each subsequent

draft, they gradually become aware of the

mechanical errors and rhetorical features

which obscure meaning in their writing.

With their continued practice, my support,

and the suggestions of their peer

partners, the students learn how to reduce

their errors. Successfully assuming this

responsibility not only gives ESL students

the confidence they need to continue to

improve their writing skills, but also helps

them to view good writing as clear communication

rather than merely as accurate


Because priorities communicated

through instructor feedback have such a

great impact on the progress of student

writers, it is important to adopt response

styles that will be most facilitative to this

progress and which will lessen students’

anxiety and increase their confidence. We

can help students gain confidence in their

writing abilities by asking them to gradually

assume more responsibility for their

growth as writers, while at the same time

ESL Writing and The Principle of Nonjudgmental Awareness: Rationale and Implementation 61

providing them with the instructional

support they need to achieve their writing

goals. Implementing a nonjudgmental

approach in an ESL writing class does just

that by creating a climate in which students

are acknowledged for their successes

and, at the same time, are taught

specific strategies for dealing with their

deficiencies in writing. Moreover, a

nonjudgmental instructional approach

asks students to assume a more active role

in their own learning as they critique both

their own and their classmates work.

Feedback from both the instructor and

their peers encourages students to express

ideas more clearly and more fluently. As

Connors and Lunsford’s research demonstrates,

the more student writers focus on

clarifying meaning, the fewer the number

of errors they make.

Nonjudgmental Techniques

The pedagogical techniques used in a

nonjudgmental writing class are, for the

most part, student—rather than instructor

—centered. Students assume greater

responsibility for their progress and learn

instructional techniques to help them assume

this responsibility. Below I describe

some of the nonjudgmental techniques

that I have found effective. These techniques

include providing instructor feedback

via task-oriented questions, guiding

students in providing peer evaluation,

teaching students to vocalize thoughts

when they have trouble writing, and obtaining

student feedback through writing

evaluation questionnaires and writing


Providing Instructor Feedback Via

Task-Oriented Questions

While error correction is instructor-centered,

task-oriented questions are studentcentered.

Task-oriented questions direct

students’ attention to ways they may improve

the content and the clarity of their

ideas. Task-oriented questions may request

more information, reflect on students’

thoughts, and/or share experiences

similar to those expressed by the student

(Beaven). These are some of the task-oriented

questions I have used: “Could you

be more specific, provide more details,

about this point?” “Could you open up

the essay with a more general statement?”

“How does this example relate to the main

point of your essay?” These task-oriented

questions have helped ESL students improve

and expand the content of their

essays and increase the clarity of their


Using Peer Evaluation

According to Stanley, “peer evaluation can

provide student writers with a wide range

of benefits, including reduced writing

anxiety, increased sense of audience, and

increased fluency” (217). Moreover,

Stanley asserts that peer evaluation “facilitates

the transition from what Flower

and Hayes term ‘writer-based prose’ to

‘reader-based prose’” (218). In the process

of critiquing their classmates’ writings,

students take the stance of the reader; they

learn what works and what does not work

and develop an increased awareness of the

elements of fluent and clear writing. However,

Stanley has found that for peer evaluation

to be effective, students need to be

coached “to be specific in their responses,

. . . to point to problematic portions of

text, to alert writers to lapses in coherence,

to offer specific advice for solving

these problems, and to collaborate with

the writer on more suitable phrases” (226-


Following Stanley’s recommendations,

I offered ESL students such coaching.

62 TETYC, February 1998

Then I divided the class into several

groups of two or three students each, with

the only restriction that, whenever possible,

students within the same group not

speak the same native language because

they might tend to use (and so not recognize)

the same inaccurate English language

structures which would obscure the

clarity of their writing. I then asked the

students to exchange and read the drafts

of the others in their group and to fill out

a peer evaluation questionnaire for each

paper they read. This peer evaluation

questionnaire asked the students to evaluate

how clearly ideas were expressed as

they answered the following eight questions:

(1) What was the topic of the essay?

(2) What was the writer’s opinion

about this topic? (3) Where in the essay

was this opinion stated? (4) What did you

like best about this essay? (5) List any

places where you did not understand the

writer’s meaning. He/she will need to

clarify these things in the next draft. (6)

What would you like to know more about

when the writer revises this essay? (7)

Reread the first paragraph of the essay. Do

you think this is a good beginning? Does

it make you feel like reading on? Explain;

and (8) How could the writer improve this

paper when he/she revises it? Make only

one suggestion.

Some researchers have reported that

ESL students are often recalcitrant when

asked to evaluate the writing of their peers

(Nelson and Murphy); however, I found

that, after some initial hesitation, students

enjoyed the peer evaluation process and

said that it was very helpful. This activity

made writing “a task of communicating”

(Stanley 217), and in their interactions

with peers, students developed increased

confidence and were more willing to take

risks in their writing. In addition, these

partnerships helped to promote interpersonal

relationships among students leading

them to an increased understanding

and tolerance of cultural differences.

Teaching Students to Vocalize


Another effective nonjudgmental technique

is teaching students to vocalize

thoughts to help them get past writing

blocks. Students can do this alone or

within the context of their peer evaluation

group. Peter Elbow has pointed out

the value of vocalizing thoughts: “If you

are stuck writing . . ., there is nothing

better than finding one person, or more,

to talk to. . . . I write a paper; it’s not very

good; I discuss it with someone: after fifteen

minutes of back-and-forth I say

something in response to a question . . .

of his and he says, ‘But why didn’t you

say that? That’s good. That’s clear’” (49).

When my ESL students are doing inclass

writing or interacting in their peer

evaluation groups, I circulate around the

room to check work or offer assistance. If

I notice an inaccuracy or a confusion in

writing, I ask the student, “What did you

want to say here?” I then suggest that the

student write down what he or she has

just told me. I also tell students that if

they get stuck in the writing process, they

should think of how they would express

the idea if they were speaking to someone.

More often than not, my intermediate

level ESL students, even those with

somewhat limited fluency in the spoken

language, are able to tell me or their writing

partners in relatively correct English

what they wanted to say. On those occasions

when students are not able to vocalize

their ideas completely, they usually

can communicate enough of the idea so

that either I or their peer partners can

provide assistance. Thus, asking students

to vocalize thoughts can help them to improve

both written and spoken English.

ESL Writing and The Principle of Nonjudgmental Awareness: Rationale and Implementation 63

If we can get students to think of how

they would communicate their ideas

orally and then transfer that oral communication

to the written form, we may be

able to demystify the writing process and

help students to improve their writing. I

have found that when ESL students vocalize

their thoughts when writing, the

result is a decrease in the number of structural

and grammatical errors and an increase

in the clarity of expression.

Student Feedback: Writing

Evaluation Questionnaires

This questionnaire, designed to elucidate

the kinds of teacher responses that students

perceived as helpful, asked them to

identify the specific instructor feedback

techniques they found most useful when

revising their writing. A majority of the

students found instructor feedback in the

form of task-oriented questions useful in

revision, stating that these questions directed

attention to exactly what needed

to be improved in the essay. Some of the

other responses indicated that feedback

on how to organize the essay and on how

to write a good introduction and conclusion

was helpful. Many of the students

also said that although at first they were

uncomfortable about correcting their own

grammatical errors, as the semester went

on, they were able to find and correct

many of their errors. This discovery went

a long way toward helping students become

better writers. As many of them indicated

in their feedback questionnaires,

being able to find and correct their own

errors gave them confidence in their ability

to write English.

Student Feedback: Writing


The writing autobiography was the last

essay students wrote before taking their

writing final. The writing autobiography

question sheet was adapted from one used

by Sandman and Weiser (19) and asked

students to describe positive and negative

experiences in writing English and

their strengths and weaknesses as writers.

In addition to the three questions

suggested by Sandman and Weiser, I also

asked students the following question,

“What have you learned this semester

about your ability as a writer? How, specifically,

do you think your writing has

improved? What areas of your writing do

you think still need work?” This writing

autobiography had several objectives—to

elucidate students’ attitudes toward writing,

to help them monitor their development

as writers, and to assist them in

developing sound criteria for assessing

their writing performance. Moreover, by

increasing students’ awareness of their

own writing experiences and knowledge,

the writing autobiography encouraged

them to think of themselves as writers.

Their responses to the writing autobiography

activity indicated that students

had developed a clearer understanding of

their personal involvement in the writing

task. The students all said that writing was

a positive experience when they were

writing about something that they enjoyed

because then they were able to express

their ideas on a subject of interest. They

each noted that a negative experience was

when they had to write an essay for the

writing assessment test upon entrance to

the college. Many of them said that they

lost confidence and felt unable to write

because of the pressure. They knew that

they had to write correctly to pass the test

and that the result of the test would determine

which courses they would be required

or allowed to take in college. As a

result, some said that the pressure of the

test “had made their minds go blank.”

These responses support the claims of

64 TETYC, February 1998

both MacGowan-Gilhooly and Bass that

writing for evaluation can inhibit students’


Their responses to the writing autobiographies

indicated that when these ESL

students focused on expressing their

ideas, they found writing to be a positive

experience. In contrast, when students

focused on producing correct language,

they concentrated on their perceived

weaknesses, their ideas were stifled, and

writing became a negative experience.

After being exposed to the

nonjudgmental approach, when asked to

describe their strengths and weaknesses,

students generally focused on their

strengths. A common response was, “I

have good ideas, and it’s interesting to tell

other people about those ideas.” Furthermore,

few of these students cited grammar

as a weakness; in fact, their responses

illustrated that they had come to view

mistakes as a means to improving writing.

Rather than weaknesses in grammar,

their responses now focused on weaknesses

in conveying meaning, such as difficulty

organizing their thoughts or

writing an effective introduction or conclusion.

For a nonjudgmental approach to enhance

writing proficiency, it must result

in students’ experiencing increased confidence

and decreased anxiety when writing

English. The students’ feedback on the

question of what they had learned that

semester about their ability as writers

demonstrated that the nonjudgmental

approach had achieved this goal. One response

predominated in each of the essays;

the students had learned that they

were able to communicate their ideas in

written English. They expressed an increased

confidence in their ability to write,

so that they were more willing to take risks

in their writing. Moreover, they had

learned that if they made mistakes, they

were not only able to find and correct

those mistakes, but they were able to learn

from them.

Here are some students responses: “I

learned I could make my writing better if

I tried areas that I still need work in”; “I

saw that after every writing task, I could

express my ideas better and fully”; “I

learned how to check my work by myself.

I was really surprised when I saw that

I could find a lot of mistakes without any

help”; “I realized that I can break down a

subject in my own words without much

difficulty”; “I learned that I have the ability

to write more than I used to”; and “I

got more confidence in my writing. It is

my firm belief that in the future I will

know how to write English better if I practice

it every day.”

The focus on fluency and clarity of

expression in the nonjudgmental, process-

oriented approach also helped ESL

students to learn the value of revision. I

encouraged students to refine ideas, not

just to correct language in their revisions,

and many commented that writing an essay

several times had taught them how to

clarify meaning by adding new information

and by rearranging sections of the


In his research on second language

writing, Krashen (19) has found that developmental

writers usually do not understand

that revision can help them

generate new ideas. In fact, they usually

think that their first draft contains all their

ideas, and they believe that revising an

essay simply means making the first draft

neater by correcting language errors. In

the process of revision for clarity of expression,

my students discovered not only

that they could write English, but also that

writing itself became easier and more satisfying

with each subsequent revision.

ESL Writing and The Principle of Nonjudgmental Awareness: Rationale and Implementation 65

Conclusion and Implications for


Bernard Susser has noted the concern of

some ESL researchers that process-based

approaches emphasize fluency at the expense

of accuracy. However, my experience

indicates that a process-based,

nonjudgmental instructional approach

can help intermediate-level ESL students

improve both the fluency and the accuracy

with which they express their ideas

in written English. Like the students in

Sweedler-Brown’s study, my students had

to improve grammatical accuracy to pass

the writing final. Nevertheless, in contrast

to Sweedler-Brown’s contention that we

should become “language teachers as well

as writing teachers” (15), I found that the

number of students who passed the final

rose as I provided less grammatical feedback.

In fact, the students made the greatest

progress in expressing themselves

fluently, clearly, and correctly when they

themselves assumed the most responsibility

for their own learning.

As my ESL students shifted their focus

from correctness of form to fluency

and clarity of expression, they discovered

that they had something to say and that

they were able to say it fluently, clearly,

and, for the most part, correctly. Writing

became a more positive experience as they

gained confidence in their ability to express

themselves in written English. The

students became aware of their strengths

and weaknesses as writers, and when

given the time and the opportunity to

develop their strengths, they were able to

minimize their weaknesses.

Most importantly, they got their priorities

straight as they came to realize that

the primary goal of writing is the communication

of ideas and that through the

process of writing we discover and refine

those ideas. They also learned that in the

process of clarifying ideas, they could

minimize language errors. As a result, they

became less intimidated by their mistakes.

For years, basic writing programs have

focused on refining writing skills through

a step-by-step process in which the writer

is encouraged to develop and expand

upon ideas, and is ultimately responsible

for his or her own progress. It is time for

ESL writing programs to follow suit. If the

goal of ESL composition instruction is to

help students become proficient writers

of English, it must provide a learning environment

which both allows students to

gain confidence in their ability as writers

and transfers the ultimate responsibility

for their development as writers from

teachers to students. Implementing the

principle of nonjudgmental awareness in

the ESL writing class achieves this goal

by making communicative competence,

rather than grammatical accuracy, the primary

focus of instruction.


I thank Dr. Don Ploger for sharing his ideas and insights on learning and awareness

during my research.

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66 TETYC, February 1998

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Loretta Frances Kasper, PhD, is associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community

College/CUNY. She regularly teaches reading and writing courses to intermediate and advanced

ESL students. Reports of her research have appeared in a number of journals. She is author of

the text, Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology.