How Writing Tutors can better help ESL Students (and Native Speakers)

(This blog post is about an article that uses anecdotes to discuss key issues writing tutors must address when working with ESL students. Among the issues discussed are grammatical issues, problems with tutee-tutor communication, student embarrassment about coming to the writing center, and tutees’ difficulties respecting tutors that are young, not incredibly experienced, or not fully focused on the task at hand)

What struck me most about the issues presented in Shanti Bruce’s “Listening to and Learning from ESL Writers” was their universality. While I can understand how difficulties with translation, grammar, and tutee-tutor communication might be especially pronounced with ESL students, I think most of the issues this essay discusses, including issues related to grammar and poor tutee-tutor communication, can and do apply to native English speakers as well. Some of these problems may actually be more difficult to broach with native English speakers because tutors may feel uncomfortable pointing out (and native English speakers be embarrassed to admit) that they are having difficulty with grammar/self-editing, with communication, or with interpretation of the prompt. This essay gives us valuable insight into what we should do to better help ESL students, but it also reminds us of certain fundamental strategies that we, as tutors shouldn’t ignore. In the next few paragraphs, I will quickly discuss a few potential solutions to two of the biggest problems presented.

One of the most important problems discussed in the essay is the stigma associated with coming to a writing center. In order to make students feel more comfortable about getting writing help, perhaps we should offer for tutors to meet with tutees at locations outside the writing center (and away from designated satellite tutor locations). Tutees should be able to meet with tutors in settings they are comfortable with. While I think we already do advertise that the writing center is a place where writers of all skill levels congregate and that it is not shameful to come to the writing center, students may need to see such a truth to believe it. Perhaps we, as tutors should be more vocal about encouraging our friends and people we know to come to the writing center in order to reduce the stigma sometimes associated with writing tutoring. Maybe we should sign up to be tutored more often as well.

In my last tutoring observation, I observed an ESL student working with a Program in Writing and Rhetoric professor. As an international student transitioning from a technical major to a more writing-based field, she was concerned about her difficulties with grammar. She seemed a bit nervous and embarrassed about her difficulty with grammar, and she admitted that she has trouble identifying her own grammatical errors in her writing. What the professor did to help her was absolutely brilliant.

Rather than read through her entire essay and act as her editor, he picked out just a couple of key sentences. He immediately noticed that the writer had difficulty with prepositional phrases. After first reassuring her that everyone has trouble with tricky English grammar, he taught her how to fix her own errors. He explained that a prepositional phrase describes a spatial relationship between two objects and then pointed out that the idea she was trying to express (she was trying to say something was “on” an abstract concept like “democracy”) did not describe such a spatial relationship. He showed her a list of prepositions (That may be what he did, my memory isn’t great) in a writer’s handbook and told her to, when editing her own writing, think about whether or not she is describing a spatial relationship each time she uses a prepositional phrase.

Later on in the same tutoring session, the professor also helped her overcome difficulties with verb-noun agreement and sentence structure. He did so by starting from scratch – he took a piece of paper and wrote a two-word sentence to illustrate that a basic sentence needs nothing more than a subject and a verb. He then picked a sentence from her essay, and he and the tutee together reconstructed the sentence, starting with the basic subject and verb and slowly adding in direct objects, prepositions, and other grammatical structures. Eventually, they emerged from the construction process with a strong sentence. The professor had given the student a template with which she could reconstruct her own sentences. Rather than simply edit her paper, the tutor taught her two effective strategies with which she could correct her own writing. She walked out of the writing center with a concrete, written example of how to construct a strong sentence from scratch. I think all tutors should use his logical, step-by-step model to help ESL and other students with grammatical issues. I know I intend to do so. In order to prepare tutors to use this model, maybe tutor training should include some rigorous training in formal grammar.

-Austin Block, Stanford University

Works Cited

Bruce, Shanti. “Listening to and Learning from ESL Writers.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. By Shanti Bruce and Bennett A. Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2009. Web.

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