Tutoring ESL Students in the Writing Center

I am writing in response to Shanti Bruce’s article Listening to and Learning From ESL Writers, which explores the cultural differences that exist between writing tutors and tutees whose second language is English. In preparation for becoming a tutor in my campus writing center next fall, I read the article while keeping an eye out for possible issues that I anticipate in working with ESL students, and applicable practices to address those issues.

The article raises the question of what the true purpose of a writing center is, and whether simple proofreading among its duties. We are taught that the larger goals of a tutoring session are to discuss ideas, clarify theses, and work on structural issues with tutees in order to improve the effectiveness of a piece of writing. We are also often advised to ignore the minutia, such as the simple grammatical errors that students are expected to catch on their own while independently proofreading. I believe that this is one of the places in which the common tutoring practices my class has been discussing breaks down. We aim to talk about large concepts and clarify ideas when tutoring a piece of writing to make it more effective, but the effectiveness of writing does not lie solely on the power of its ideas, but also on the clarity and flow of its prose, all the way down to the sentence-level. ESL students have unique needs, and I believe writing center tutors take on the extra task of pointing out issues in spelling, grammar, and syntax for and ESL student who is essentially speaking out of his or her language milieu.

It also follows, in addition to the extra attention to grammar and spelling, that the task of a tutor working with an ESL student might better off be more extensive and less minimalist. It is difficult for a non-native speaker to hear the mistakes or infelicities of his prose. We might be more effective simply telling the tutee the entirety of what is syntactically or grammatically wrong with a section of writing. This is not to say that tutors must take on an extensive role, marking up the entire paper, but an increased activeness in correcting and pointing out issues with an ESL student’s writing can be effective if the tutor identifies problematic patterns (such as common misusage of a word) and urges the tutee to take extensive notes and correct his own mistakes (while also stepping in as the “scribe,” as the article states, if things become a too complex for the ESL student to clearly understand at first).

If I as a tutor did in fact encounter a student whose cultural beliefs caused them to be biased towards me in some way, and the student did not respect me because of my age or status as an undergraduate (as the article gives such an example), I believe it is also advisable to shed the common practice of acting as the student’s equal, and to instead increase one’s authority as a tutor and ethos as a knowledgeable individual deserving of respect.

Overall, a more hands-on, active approach is not the only difference I anticipate when working with ESL students. It is difficult to express ideas equivalently across languages, as direct translations often do no exist, and sentences are inherently syntactically dissimilar. I believe tutors and ESL students will still spend time discussing ideas and concepts on the macro level, but in a slightly different kind of way than we would with native English speakers. As languages are not mirrors of each other, we may find ourselves discussing connotations of and metaphors for ideas, in order to discover whether or not what an ESL writer means and what he actually says are the same.

Monica Masiello, Stanford University ’14

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