Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Unexpected Challenges in Tutoring

Having been a writing consultant for two years now, I thought I had done just about every type of consultation: the ESL student, the introductory English course freshman, the reluctant visitor and the know-it-all. I was understandably caught off-guard, then, when my client struggled to tell me that she was severely hearing impaired. Unfortunately, I felt unprepared and untrained to carry out such an unusual session. Usually, we ask clients to read their writing aloud so that they may catch some of their own mistakes, but, obviously, I couldn’t ask her to read her paper aloud. Right away, I was forced to adapt to the situation and “think on my feet.” I read her paper aloud and stopped whenever I had suggestions or concerns about her writing. She suggested I type out my comments for her to see. Since it was a face-to-face consultation, even though I was writing my comments to her, I had to think of a concise and clearly worded written explanation of the issue extremely quickly. I could tell that not only was there a communication barrier, there was also a language barrier (she was an ESL student). Thus, I often had to come up with alternate explanations for a single grammatical issue. I found that using varying techniques, such as examples, grammatical rules, and asking questions, just as I would in any other consultation, was most effective. Asking her questions helped me to maintain the consultation as “normal” as possible. Through our interaction, I was able to help her more by responding specifically to her concerns and modifying my suggestions. I also realized the importance and usefulness of body language that we often take for granted. By reading her face, I could judge her comprehension, agreement or disagreement with my comments. And between typing out comments and using hand gestures, we were able to communicate effectively. I grew more comfortable with the situation as the consultation went on.

Reflecting over the session, I also realized that, though it may have been a challenge to very carefully gather my thoughts and articulate a comment as clearly as possible, it is something that could improve my consultations with any ESL student; by being more deliberate about wording, I can avoid confusion on their part or repetition on my part. After the session, I also realized that I had all the basic training I needed-- everything in the consultation remained the same except that I communicated my comments to her by writing them out instead of verbally. In this way, I did adapt to the client not being able to read her own writing aloud, but I still refrained from taking over the paper, writing all over it, and not taking advantage of the face to face interactions.

Lesson learned: Be prepared for the unexpected, and adapt your tutoring style to the client or specific situation, while maintaining the integrity of tutoring principles. Again, we are all already prepared to handle these situations whether we realize it or not. This is because adapting to a client with any sort of disability does not mean completely changing the outline of a consultation; it simply means that you have to identify what is no longer possible (reading aloud, for example, if the client is blind or hearing impaired) and change how you do just that one step. The rest remains the same.


  1. Conal9:29 PM

    I couldn't agree more with your post. This has been my first year working as a Writing Assistant, and I think improvisation is one of the areas I've had to work hardest to improve. So often I would be in a conference where things were not going to plan, and I would get very flustered when I had to think on my feet. It took me a little while to figure out that not every student will understand how we do things at our Writing Center, and that there were things I could do differently to make conferences more useful for the students I tutor. For example, rather than simply telling them that we like to have the student read their papers out loud, I also add that if they are not comfortable doing that, we can try some other method. I think the key is flexibility, and as you say, we are all probably more able to be flexible in our conferences than we even realize.

  2. Wow, I'm glad you were able to learn something through your session that we often over look - the importance of body language.