Consulting with International Students

How many times have you struggled to explain a difficult concept of the English language to International students, such as why we say “report on” rather than “report in,” or why we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? We tell them that’s simply the way it is, and there’s no logical reason why because it’s English. Other times, the waythey’ve written something doesn’t quite make sense to us in English, so we tell them to write it a different way because, frankly, it’s “wrong.” This is a problem because it probably sounded correct in their native language when they wrote it; they just have trouble translating it the right way into written English.
Often, we tutors might think the best solution is to give our clients an example of how we ourselves would write it and let them model their own writing after our given example. The problem with this, however, is that some students may just take the advice at face value and not actually learn from it. They will simply just take the tutor’s word for it and then move on. But isn’t the point of a writing center to help students become better writers so they can correct their own errors without our guidance?
First of all, it’s not usually a good idea to tell our international students their writing/English is wrong. That can be very detrimental to the learning process. Many international students have expressed how they feel when they’re told their writing is wrong or bad: they already feel like outsiders, so it is very discouraging to be told they have to go back and revise after working so hard on a paper. As tutors, we should try to steer away from the directive approach. All students will see is a paper full of errors, but the beauty of the content, their thought processes, may be overlooked.
When we come across a sentence that might have correct punctuation, but confusing syntax and diction, our common reaction is to try to re-write it. We’ll stare at it for a few minutes until we can say, “I think you meant to write it like this.” Sometimes, the student will simply nod and agree, because we are the ones with more writing experience. But what is the student going to take away from this session? A correctly-written paper, yes, but no knowledge of how to become a good writer.
A better way to overcome this roadblock might be for us to, first, put the pencil down. We should try to become a listener and a guide for our clients, letting them explain their original thought processes behind that sentence. We can ask, “How would you have said this in their native language?” and let them think about it and either voice their answer out loud or write it down. Then, we should ask them to break down that sentence and translate it literally into English. This should help demonstrate the idea they were trying to get across. Then, we can take that literal translation and show them how to reconstruct it in the English language’s sentence structure. For example, we might pull out the subject and the verb, put them in the right order and verb tense, and explain how English tends to follow the structure of subject-verb-object. This would provide a visual representation of the English language. In addition, if they try to use a word that isn’t commonly used in that context in English, we can explain that concept to them and give them some examples of what word or words we might choose instead. All of this hopefully will help alleviate some of the miscommunication that can occur in these sessions and help the consultation run more smoothly for both parties involved.


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