Myers’ “Reassessing” Response

I found Sharon A. Myers’ Reassessing the “Proofreading Trap”: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction very interesting and agreed with much of what she said. I have not personally had the experience of tutoring and ESL student, but one of my good friends is an ESL student, and I know that he often has more problems with grammar, wording, and academic standards when writing papers than with organization and content–something Myers says is often the case with ESL students. I agree with Myers that it is most certainly not unethical as a tutor to correct ESL students’  sentence-level errors, and that it can be helpful to their understanding of English syntax to do so. And I especially like that she drew the connection between writing instructors and second-language teachers. I would like to be this to any ESL students I tutor and help them as much as possible.

Caroline Hernandez

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6 Responses to Myers’ “Reassessing” Response

  1. Matthew McCormack says:

    I agree with the points that Caroline raises, particularly with regards to the correction of sentence-level errors and general grammatical assiatance. Through my limited experience of working with ESL students, I know that this is almost vital in order for the student to make some progress in the long process of becoming a proficient writer. The fact alone that hundreds of hours are required to reach a substantial level of writing proficiecny in English is enough to support this assistance.

    I was particularly interested on Myers asessment of the Cogie et al article,
    Ethical Rationale; a case of a Japanese masters student failing her graduate application apparently due to the excessive levels of assistance from her tutor. The tutor Gadbow asserted that her student “was harmed by her focus as a tutor on helping her to graduate rather than on helping her become more proficient in English.” I agree with the response from Cogie; ‘certainly not all ESL sessions that fail to promote independence in the writer have such momentous consequences.’ Further, I agree with Cogie when she says that often the seemingly strong levels of input from the tutor are needed in the ESL tutoring process and that a high level of proficiency is often acquired over a long period. The ‘job failing’of the Japanese masters student would thus be attrbuted to other factors like Cogie mentioned. The tutor should not fall into the trap of thinking that their assistance is excessive and to intervening, especially if the ESL studnent is making pleasing progress.

    • Alex says:

      I agree with Matthew’s assertion that strong levels of input are needed from the tutor in the ESL tutoring process. To the extent that a tutor ‘simply’ helps a student overcome relatively short-term problems – such as the case with the Japanese student’s thesis – should necessarily make a tutor feel guilty if they are unsuccessful in their long-term goals. This example surely sheds significant light on placing important weight on the distinction between preparing for the interview and preparing for the actual job. All in all, I think that this can be tied back to tutoring practices, particularly with ESL students.

      Feedback, I find, is most helpful it is given in what can be effectively drawn out as two phases: the first is identifying the specific problem in the piece of writing (in most instances a sentence that has poor syntax, as is the case with many ESL students – their ideas are valid and interesting, but bogged down by ‘poor’ writing). The second phase is construing what this specific problem is (whether it is poor syntax or incorrect word usage) and explaining its significance to the student as a representation of a general issue that may be recurring in their writing with an accompanying strategy of how to avoid it. Such an explanation can be followed up with a ‘re-write’ of that sentence and identification of another example in the same piece of writing that a student can re-write themselves. This is a short-term strategy for how a tutor can help the student develop the self-assertiveness to critique their own writing to the degree that they will naturally improve and need not excessively draft.

  2. Laura Race says:

    Hi Matthew and Caroline,

    I agree with what you have both mentioned, however, I wonder if there is a middle-ground between correcting sentence level errors and struggling to promote idependent writing in ESL students… I definitely agree with Myers that showing is better than telling, so I was wondering if the tutor could provide a similar example of an error the student has made, and then provide examples of how this example error could be corrected. Then the student could go back to their own error and independently fix it using the example as a guide. What do you think? The tutor would be able to tailor the examples to make it easier for the student.

    I don’t think it’s unethical for the tutor to make corrections and play a more active role, however, I’m not convinced that it’s always the most effective way in helping improve an ESL writer. It’s very difficult for me to tell because I have hardly had any experience trying to write in a second language, nor have I had experience helping with an ESL students’ writing. Correcting work should be employed when helping ESL students, but I think there is an excessive level of assistance at some point.

    The most effective method for each student will always vary and we should respond to the student’s unique needs. While this is a very vague point, it definitely holds truth and I don’t think that there is a definite method that is applicable for every ESL student.

  3. Marthe Follestad says:


    I agree with Laura’s comment about the unique needs of each student. As Myers draws our attention to challenges associated with tutoring ESL students, she also gives us a variety of strategies that might be helpful in the cultivation of their success. She makes it clear that there is more than one way to work through a problem. Reading the article, I could not help but think that our most important job as tutors is to be openminded every time a student comes looking for help. Since I am an ESL student myself, I feel strongly that our challenges, and the solution to those challenges, can only be found by creating a dialogue that establishes appropriate goals.

    For me, English literature, lyrics, and movies keep me focused on continually improving my vocabulary and grammar, but not all students will be motivated by an increase of social interaction with the English language. Some ESL students might benefit from a more direct focus on grammar or by linking issues with writing to the technical features of their primary studies.

    It might seem obvious, but I believe that the fastest way to improve ESL students’ writing skills is to try and make the process enjoyable, while also reducing the stress factor as much as possible. This strategy may or may not require a more hands-on approach.

  4. Melanie J. says:

    Hi Caroline,

    Despite the common assumption that it may be of greater significance to discuss a tutee’s work more broadly in terms of concepts and ideas, I strongly agree that the importance of sentence-level errors should not be overlooked. While some may view such a process as trivial, all great improvements often begin with the smallest of adjustments. Adapting to, and learning the conventions of a language wildly different from one’s own is undoubtedly an incremental process. Why not begin with sentence-level work and gradually build your way up? After all, syntax and structure are vital to the vivid expression of ideas.

    Whilst I similarly, have not had the experience of tutoring an ESL student, it’s important to acknowledge that the experiences of all ESL tutees cannot be surmised by one core issue. It’s inevitable that some students may encounter more difficulties with sentence-level work, while others may struggle with tackling grander stylistic conventions. A key characteristic of a tutor should be able to easily adapt to the diverse abilities of a wide range of students, a great point touched upon above by Laura. I believe this is an invaluable lesson to take into the classroom not only with ESL students, but all students in general.

    As a side note, I particularly responded well to the notion of a tutor being a ‘cultural informant’ for the ESL tutee. I consider this an incredibly profound and logical way of defining the role of a tutor in this situation. I’m pleased with how well it presents the opportunity for linguistics and culture to intertwine as co-existing entities.


    Melanie J.
    Sydney University

  5. Peter McBride says:

    I too agree with the broad thrust of Myers article and also with the other comments. It is the substance of what is written that is important and not so much the form, although that doesn’t mean that it should be neglected.
    Having studied German for 18 months I fully appreciate the difficulties ESL students’ experience. Conversing in a second language is difficult enough but at least native speakers tend to make allowances and conversation tends to be collaborative effort.
    However, writing German for me is more difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, I find it difficult to think in German, so when I write I have to think what I am going to say in English before translating it into German, which means that I end up with a very English form of German. Secondly, I find it difficult to detect grammatical or syntactical errors because I have not yet developed an “ear” for German so that when I review my work by reading it aloud I can’t tell whether it sounds right. Thirdly, writing tends to be a solitary exercise with little or no assistance given.
    Writing skills will improve with practice and language proficiency but this takes time. In the meantime Writing Centre tutors should at the very least provide a “native speakers ear” when reviewing ESL student writing and point out obvious grammatical or syntactical errors. Let us not forget that it is not just ESL students who benefit from writing assistance. Even those who earn their living through writing such as such as journalists receive assistance through the editing and sub editing process.

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