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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ongoing sessions with ELL students

In the Boise State writing center over the past year and a half, I have worked closely with a number of non-native English Writers/Speakers in weekly sessions. For example, I worked with an engineering professor from China, a graduate engineering student from India, and a Brazilian student in the early stages of her business degree. The professor wanted help editing, proofreading, and making minor revisions to a rough draft of a book about Wireless Networks. The student from India sought help in understanding the conventions for plagiarism in US academia and ways to synthesize large amounts of research into her own words and organizational pattern. The business student sought help with resumes, business memos, and short essays. In all cases, these people had high levels of proficiency in spoken English, so verbal communication was not a problem.

However, all three of them were not familiar with certain word patterns and grammatical structures that affected the cohesiveness and clarity of their writing. Since there is no "right" way to go about finding the most effective way to help writers, I had to take varying approaches to talking about writing with them. The most obvious thing I noticed through working with these three was that the sessions became became more effective when I started thinking of them as writers as opposed to non-native English writers. While I believe it is important to be sensitive to cultural and linguistic issues that may arise in sessions such as these, I believe it is not good to be overly sensitive to these issues, especially clients who are highly proficient in spoken English but who may not have a "native ear" for their writing.

Simply put, in most cases, these clients needed exactly the same help with ideas, organization, introductions, conclusions, etc. as native-English speakers. Because I have substantial experience teaching ESL classes in the Washington State Penitentiary and in Barcelona, Spain, I have a bank of strategies for dealing with issues that come up for people trying to learn English. At the beginning of my stint here at the BSU writing center, I was still in that mode of teaching, pretty fresh off the plane from Barcelona. While I think some things I did were helpful to students (I'll borrow a term from Gail Shuck and call them "grammar gifts"), I tended to get bogged down in trying to explain the difference between "a" and "the" instead of looking at the piece of writing as a whole. In the 101 classes I teach, we do not focus extensively on grammar and sentence structure, so it seems logical that in the writing center we should focus more on higher level issues such as organization first and treat highly proficient ELL writers in much the same way as clients who are native speakers and writers of English. As consultants, we have to find that balance between what the writer wants and what the writer, perhaps, needs.

And while I would like to accommodate all clients in everything, this simply cannot be done in half-hour and hour-long sessions. Through the previously mentioned experiences, I have found that it is much more fruitful to focus on a few items (for example, parallel structure) in order to give the writer a tool to work with when s/he revises on his/her own time. While the writer may be temporarily dissatisfied that the consultant did not "correct" the paper, it is better than bombarding him/her with too many ideas. As I result, when I have writers come in to the center who are not native English speakers and they are seeking help with grammar, I strongly encourage them to set up ongoing, weekly appointments at the center in order to tackle more questions they have about writing. That way, it becomes easier to blend sentence level issues with global issues. I actively offer repeat sessions as a possibility, and I show them how to book a weekly appointment. Because while one session will not be enough to address all questions, weekly appointments can allow the writer to get the repeated exposure and practice necessary for picking up some extra tools for boosting their writing skills. Also, because of the duration of time spent working one-on-one over the course of the semester, both the consultant and the client can see visible improvement in the writer's skills.

Here's a question I have: What can we do as consultants to work with ELL students who may not have the high level of spoken English that the three writers I mentioned have?

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