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I'm sorry, I have no words to express what i know

in our intro class we've talked a lot about ELL students and how to manage the consultations in the most productive manner...i felt prepared. I felt ready. I got slammed with insecurities today. I had a student, who is from Russia, studying at bsu on a fellowship. He spoke English very well. When I'd ask questions about areas of the paper i found confusing he was more than able to articulate his intent to me. But, the writing itself was confusing and full of grammatical errors. Furthering the confusion on the sentence level, was his choice of phrases. He used "by the way of," in the the terms of "in consideration of." many phrases native speakers understand inherently. While his sentences were not incorrect, they were not "standard" English. As a tutor where do i stand? correct his correct sentences. I told him they were awkward phrases to native speakers, not normally used in the fashion he was applying them. But, he wasn't wrong...
of course there was the grammatical issues that native speakers have no problems with. He did not use articles in the proper way. I tried to explain, in a text book fashion why his use of them were incorrect, but i wasn't very coherent. Articles, the differences between that and which/of and for, ran throughout his paper. I had no intellectual means to help him. I found myself admitting that i didn't know why they were wrong, i just knew, and i simply told him when to use what...
i wonder if the simple fixing of errors that run throughout the paper, can be beneficial to the writer. It's possible that he himself can start to see the differences by observing the several cases in which each edit was made. Are seeing patterns enough to help the student, or am I convincing myself i helped when all i did was dictate?


  1. Youch, that's tough. And I think you've hit one of my biggest fears as well—how am I going to articulate something that I just know, something that's inherant within me? I think it's a definite challenge, and I also comend you for taking the risk in admitting that you simply "didn't know."

    In doing this you not only risked your ego, but you also risked your ethos with that consultation. Perhaps that worked though—I mean, if I was learning to write or speak or whatever in Russian, I'd want someone to inform me when my usage of a phrase was awkward or incorrect, and I think that I'd realize that there are differences between grammatically correct and 'just not used' in Russian too—even of the person talking to me couldn’t exactly explain why.

    Let this one go, nothin' to be insecure about, you’re still learning—like him, and us, and I am too.

    Good luck!

  2. You can't fix everything, especially given the time constraints in a consultation. I have a hard time explaining why something is or isn't correct too, as a native speaker we just know what sounds right. I am sure that the student was grateful for any help you gave him. Hopefully, he was able to take the suggestions you gave him and apply them to the rest of his paper. I wouldn't be so hard on yourself. You do but you can with what you have.

  3. Normally, in this situation I explain my quandary. I tell the writer that what they have written is understandable and OK, but I go on to explain that in Academic English, it doesn't sound correct. I try to delineate between what is understandable and what is expected in college. This seems to help the writers understand that they are learning and what is further expected of them.

  4. I had almost the same thing for my very first consult, ever. I don't know where she was from, but she spoke English evtremely well and brought in her masters thesis for some help with the truly nitty gritty aspects of English. Things like the difference between 'that' and 'which,' how to use prepositions properly and under what circumstances she needs to use a definitive article. I did what I could, but most of these things just take a lot of time to learn in a new language.

  5. Anonymous12:42 PM

    It's moments like that when I decide that a simple grammar manual, like Hacker, comes in handy. I grab a copy, hand one to the student and say, "Let's read about this together, so we can both understand." Next thing you know, they have a coherant explaination in front of them...and so do I! And then I also know how to verbally explain it to someone the next time the situation arises. We're always encouraged to use our manuals as consultants. After all, we DON'T know all the answers.

    It sounds like you handled yourself very well! I get terribly embarrassed when I don't know an answer, and as soon as that client I go, looking for a way to explain it. :)


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