Have you ever worked with ESL students in your writing center before? Have you asked questions such as: What strategies can I use when helping ESL writers? Is the writing process the same for an ESL writer as for a native speaker of English? Do I need to use a different approach when helping ESL writers?
Working with ESL writers in the writing center adds a whole new dimension to peer tutoring. While sessions may be similar in the sense that peer writing consultants help students to become better writers through a collaboration experience, the individual concerns addressed are vastly different because their language proficiency is not the same as a native speaker of English. Issues that native speakers of English do not normally deal with arise quite frequently in sessions with ESL writers. Ultimately, the approach is the same, but the strategies for helping ESL writers based on their individual concerns are different.
Where do we start? In the article entitled “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options,” Muriel Harris and Tony Silva discuss the difficulties of helping ESL writers in the writing center and also offer advice concerning what should occur in sessions with these students. First of all, we are not editors; we are collaborators. We assess what skills students do or do not have and then provide strategies so that they may become “effective, independent writers” in the future, not necessarily produce perfect papers (Harris and Silva 531).
When I was first researching about tutoring ESL writers, I expected to find articles and prominent researchers suggesting specific approaches and strategies for helping these students. I expected to find the key to unlocking all of my questions and uncovering the treasured answers that lay beneath. What I found was not exceptionally dazzling but was no less profound.
Harris and Silva emphasized beginning each session with stating what has been done well in the paper, as should be done with all student writers. They suggest giving priority to one or two difficulties rather than tackling all the problems at once (526). This allows for writing improvement over time because tutoring is a process rather than a “one and done” event (526). Sounds like a regular session, right?
One strategy that I emphasize repeatedly to student writers is reading aloud. Reading a paper aloud can help students catch errors or mistakes that may not sound correct to the listening ear. Try suggesting this strategy to an ESL writer the next time you're in a session with a speaker of another language. How do you think it will go? You’ll ask them to read a section of their paper out loud so they can fix their errors on the basis of what “sounds” right, and they will stare at you thinking that their sentence does sound right. Only those who are proficient in English can use this strategy so we, as peer writing consultants, must provide “strategies that do not rely on intuitions that ESL writers may not have” (529).
Since ESL writers do not intuitively possess an understanding of how English works, we must use different strategies for helping them become better writers, despite their proficiency level. ESL writers need explanations for certain aspects of English that come naturally for most native English speakers (530). While studying grammar in between sessions may seem like a chore, understanding how English works will be beneficial and advantageous when helping ESL writers in future sessions. We must remember that ESL writers have to rely on rules and on acquiring strategies based on these rules because they do not have an intuitive understanding of how English works (530). Be prepared for the question that many of them will ask, which is, “Why is this wrong?”
While I have not provided a comprehensive examination about working with ESL writers in the writing center, I hope that you found my discoveries enlightening and thought-provoking. If you would like to read more about helping ESL writers in the writing center, please read the article cited below. I highly suggest it! Also, please comment with questions, thoughts, or ideas for further discussion!
Harris, Muriel, and Tony Silva. “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options.” College Composition and Communication. December 1993: 525-537. JSTOR. Web. 18 February 2013.