I Used Spanish to Help in Tutoring English!

I’m a shiny new consultant in the Boise State University Writing Center—okay, maybe I’m not so shiny, but I am new—and as such, I just started “flying solo” and conducting consultations (i.e., tutoring) on my own very recently. One of my first few sessions involved an ESL student whose native language is Spanish, and though I’ve only had a couple of semesters of college-level EspaƱol, my limited knowledge of the language actually came in handy when I was trying to help this student. In addition to recounting the details of the session with some of my fellow BSU consultants, I also shared the info with our center’s director, Melissa, and she thought it was interesting and useful enough that she’s considering the idea of putting together some sort of venue where our consultants could share these types of successful tips and tricks for working with ESL tutees. Anyway, I figured if she was that interested in my story, then it might be something worth posting here at Peer Centered, too. So here goes.

I had actually met the student once before when I sat in to observe one of our center’s veteran consultants in action, so I was already somewhat familiar with his background and his level of proficiency with English, and I also happened to remember that his first language is Spanish. For my consultation with him, he brought in a personal essay that he was writing for an intermediate English class designed for ESL students, and his primary concern was grammar and punctuation. As we read the paper together, I noticed that he had consistently left out basic articles, and when I brought this to his attention, he seemed confused about what I meant by the term article. To define the term and explain the problem to him, I pulled a specific example from his paper to use as an illustration, and this is where my limited knowledge of Spanish, his native language, came in handy. In a section where he was writing about one of his high school teachers, I pointed to a spot where a needed article was missing and said, "In Spanish, you would say 'la profesora' here, correct?" After he nodded an affirmative, I said, "Okay. In your English version here, you have the profesora part, but the la part is missing. That missing part is an article." I could see the light go on in his head, and he promptly penciled in the missing the. Then, as we read through the rest of his paper, every time we came to a spot where a required article was missing, he penciled in the correct word without any prompting on my part. Realistically, it might take him a while to always remember to include the English articles in his future writing efforts, but at least he now knows what parts of speech the term article refers to, and it will therefore be easier to “remind” him about articles in future writing-center consultations.

Of course, some languages don’t have articles, so my specific example will not apply. But the point is, if you are tutoring an ESL student and you have a basic knowledge of that student’s native language, you may be able to draw upon that knowledge to make the consultation or tutoring session more productive.

Do any of you have similar experiences or tips to share?


  1. I have also discovered that knowing a little bit about some one's native language can go a long way, but I don't wish to discuss my particular applications. (You will have to read my blog entry for that.)

    In short, I have found that a simply little dialogue, e.g. greetings, in one's own language can really make ESL students feel relaxed and optimistic about the consultation. Just asking them a few questions about their culture, language, and recent schooling experiences can go a long way.


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