Perspectives: Tutoring ESL Students in Writing

I used to work as an instructor at a private tutoring center where I was able to work with students one-on-one in reading, math, and writing. In this setting I encountered my first experience working with ESL students, and while I was helping them with geometry rather than writing––which undoubtedly makes a huge difference––I observed several analogs to the attitudes and tendencies described by Shanti Bruce in “Listening to and Learning from ESL Writers”.

Towards the end of the summer, two Japanese students began attending the center at which I worked. They were very polite and quite bright, but it was easy to see that they had issues interpreting questions and readings for their geometry assignments. I quickly found that the greatest problem they encountered was connecting what they knew with American conventions. I often found that the student would ask a question about some fairly rudimentary concept––say, fractions––and when I explained it in a slightly different way from how the text did, he was able to make the connection to the Japanese terminology used and quickly finished the problem. I anticipate this may be a similar issue with writing: constructing an argument that flows logically and soundly is fairly universal, and it may be just a matter of familiarizing oneself with English syntax and convention. In response to Bruce’s concerns about whether or not writing tutors should tutor grammar: I find that it may be of great use to a student unfamiliar with English structure, but at any given point, a writing tutor should also be able to focus on those aforementioned universal aspects as well.

I also found that the Japanese students I was working with disliked to appear needy, as widely described in the Bruce article. Whenever I asked if they needed help, almost invariably they would say they were fine, even if I noticed they were struggling. Yet from my experience at this tutoring center I would say that this is not necessarily a cultural divergence. Most of the students I worked with tacitly expressed insecurities when asking for help; I find that my students tend to avoid situations (sometimes, at any cost) that would make them seem incompetent or in need of help. Despite my relatively little experience with tutoring ESL students, I find from the Bruce article and the exposure I do have that tutoring ESL students does not vary terribly from tutoring any other student.

Bryce Bajar, Class of 2014. Stanford University.

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