Tutoring ESL Students: Best Practices

Hello World!

My name is Nick Ahamed; I am  training to be a writing tutor at Stanford University. This week’s topic of discussion is tutoring students from whom English is not their first language. Shanti Bruce’s interview-based article: Listening to and Learning from ESL Writers offers many difficult questions and situations, but also offers suggestions to address many of those issues. This article was also helpful to contextualize an tutoring observation I conducted at our writing center.

I observed a writing and rhetoric lecturer tutor a graduate geology student on her thesis. Many of the techniques adopted by the tutor were those argued for in Bruce’s article. First and foremost, the lecturer used a more directive, less minimalist approach. In so doing, he read the paper aloud. This is similar to an example Bruce uses, where an interviewee found reading it aloud helped her catch her own mistakes. I find this to be true of any student, both ESL and native English writers alike. However, Bruce notes, which I found insightful, that reading an ESL student’s paper aloud can help to combine writing and English language pronunciation skills. That which is written well, sounds good. ESL students can begin to pick up how things are phrased in English, allowing them to recognize and correct their own mistakes. In retrospect, I observed this happened in our writing center.

At first, the tutor would make suggestions to the student. In reading it out loud, he would notice if a sentence seemed overly long and complex. He would not specifically tell her how to fix it, but ask her how she could split up ideas or shorten phrases. Zahara, a writer from Bruce’s article, found this facilitative approach helpful. As the 60 minute session progressed, I noted that he was doing less and less of the correcting, and she, the student, was picking up on more and more mistakes. One time, the tutee specifically pointed out that a sentence was overly complex, even thought the tutor didn’t stop to talk about that sentence after reading it. Which brings me to my next point: the focus of the session was not so much about the general ideas of the paper than about “errors” — spelling, grammar and structure.

Bruce suggests that sometimes this less global approach can both alienate and help students. Sami at first said he was pushed away from using the writing center again because the writing center focused on mechanics, and not more global writing problems. In contrast, Zahara found that checking mechanics with an ESL student is very important. She believes that if you don’t point out and correct these mistakes, students will never learn to correct them on their own and eventually avoid making them. Furthermore, Jane, a Taiwanese student, used the writing center to make sure her ideas were translating properly into English. In Chinese, she would say “Tomorrow I am going to the supermarket.” And that’s how she would write it. But she wasn’t sure if that’s how it would be said, syntactically, in English. This is why she went to the writing center. Thus, there is a fundamental question: what sorts of problems should writing centers address for ESL students.

I believe that the answer should depend on the student. The minimalist approach should not be kept uniform here. We have to recognized that ESL students face unique challenges that require unique solutions. Thus, if the student needs a more directive, less global tutoring session to become a better writer, I am prepared to do that.

Signing off,

Nick Ahamed


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