How to Tutor ESL Students? An Exploration of Various Techniques

Emily Kohn, Stanford University Class of ’15, PWR 195

I write this post in response to “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction” by Sharon A. Myers (as published in The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors).  Ms. Myers focuses on the role of the tutor as a cultural informant and a helpmeet in all areas of writing, including proofreading, and points out that students cannot be expected to fix proofreading problems in a foreign language without help.  I agree with Ms. Myers, but found that her practical advice for ESL tutoring was scattered throughout the essay, often mixed in with criticism of other techniques.  I have thus consolidated her tips into a list to clarify what Ms. Myers believes ESL tutoring should be.

1.  It’s OK to suggest alternative vocabulary/grammar when a student seems to lack the words or phrases they need to suggest their ideas.  This is not writing a student’s essay for them but rather helping them acquire the language.

2.  If a student repeats an error made and corrected in an earlier tutoring session, it is not a sign of ineffective tutoring or student laziness.  English is complicated and it is easy to forgot one or two specific rules.

3.  Learner’s dictionaries are useful for both vocabulary acquisition and grammar rules.  However, it’s best to tell the student what they’re looking for rather than simply say that there was an error with a verb or phrase so that the student doesn’t futilely hunt through the whole dictionary for their error.

4.  Providing students with grammar exercises can be useful in specific areas (comma splices, for instance).

5.  Offer examples of “acceptable” writing (aka past student essays).

These are all useful tips that I plan on using in my time as a writing tutor.  I’d like to add two more that I believe helpful.  First, reading the essay out loud can help the writer recognize errors that don’t sound quite right; since most students are better at speaking a foreign language than writing it, they may be able to recognize a spoken error better than a written one.  Second, although Ms. Myers describes error logs as “bogs” that slow the writer down, I feel that they could be useful if, rather than logging every error, a student simply logs frequent or confusing language issues in order to have a source of reference tailored to their own needs.

Techniques for tutoring ESL students are varied and sometimes difficult.  As tutors, we must recognize the additional needs of ESL students and alter our  tutoring accordingly.  However, we must never forget that we are not only proofreaders; we cannot get so bogged down in language that we forget the ideas that the essay is trying to convey.

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