Working with ESL Writers in the Writing Center

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.


  1. Anonymous5:57 PM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Anonymous6:01 PM

    Thanks for the post Susy! Being new to working in the writing lab, I've never had the opportunity to work with ESL student writers. I found your post both interesting and thought provoking. It gave me some important things to consider for when I encounter working with my first ESL student. I appreciated that you noted that our strategies and approaches to tutoring student writers needs to be reconsidered in light of the fact that ESL writers do not intuitively possess an understanding of how the English language works. I think that providing students with resources to learn how English works and to improve their knowledge of English grammar would be an excellent way of helping these students. In response to your thoughts, I did some research in order to find grammar resources that we as peer writing consultants can refer our student writers to. There are many resources available. One of the ones that I found extremely helpful was the Purdue OWL website. They have an entire section on their site devoted to resources for ESL instructors and students. There are many grammar and mechanics "worksheets" that are clear, and seem like they could be utilized easily for ESL writers who wish to study grammar in order to better understand the English language.

    "ESL Instructors and Students." Purdue Online Writing Lab. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue U, 2012. Web. 20 February 2013.

  3. Thanks for your insight Susy! I think that as one of our more experienced consultants you offer a unique view when it comes to working with ESL students. I myself have never worked with an ESL student but I would imagine that it would provide greater obstacles than a consultant and student would normally face. I think that you make a good point when you say that a consultant should begin a session by complimenting the student's paper. In vol. 15 1991 of the Writing Lab Newsletter at Purdue University, they state that this strategy is beneficial for all types of students not just for ESL students. I myself have noticed that this encouraging strategy has inspired many of the students who come to visit me in the writing lab. I think that ESL students would benefit from this even more as they are probably self conscious of their poor English skills.

  4. Having worked with an ELL student for the first time this week, I recognize how difficult it is. The strategies that work well with native English speakers, like having them read their papers aloud or asking leading questions, were ineffective. The thing that caught me most off guard was the question you mentioned, Susy: "Why is this wrong?" I am going to take your suggestion of studying grammar in between sessions to heart, so that I can explain why.
    In response to your post, I also researched other techniques that would help us learn how to work with ELL students. In her article "Rethinking Writing Center Conferencing Strategies for the ESL Writer," Judith Powers talks about the struggles her writing center at the University of Wyoming faced with ELL writers. One thing she noted was how we as consultants are reluctant to be more direct in answering their questions about content and editing. When a native speaker comes in asking these questions, we assume that he or she is shy and in need of reassurance, or lazy and wants his or her paper written for him/her (5). We are resort to our Socratic methods, and are able to help the writer make his/her own decision about the paper. ELL students do not have the familiarity with English to do that.
    Powers suggests that rather than use techniques designed for native speakers with ELL students, we need to take up new techniques designed to help them. Some methods that Powers suggests are explaining what is expected of American prose in general, what teachers expect, and asking questions that will help ELL's understand "idea generation and presentation of evidence" (7). Also, like you noted in your post, explaining "why" and what is expected of American prose is a big help to ELL's.

    Power’s, Judith K. “Rethinking Writing Center Conferencing Strategies for the ESL Writer.” Allyn and
    Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice (2001) : 368-375. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

  5. Anonymous8:10 PM

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  6. Anonymous8:13 PM

    Good thoughts, Susy! It definitely is a new challenge to work with ELLs in the writing lab. But it is an exciting challenge.

    ESL writers introduce new perspectives to writing labs. Not only do they push native English speakers to think critically about their own use of the English language, but they also bring various cultural and linguistic perspectives to writing. As my linguistics professor stated, culture and language cannot be separated, and to know a language is to know the culture of a people.

    Therefore, ELLs bring perspectives from other languages and therefore other cultures. A technique or style that makes sense in English may not make sense in an ELL's first language. At the same time, ELLs can introduce new ways of writing into the English language, teaching writing lab consultants new ways of expression.

    Even though they can be sources of fresh thoughts and writing ideas, ELLs are often only apprehensive about writing in English, afraid of making even small mistakes. One way to help remove their fear of mistakes is suggested by Bruce and Rafoth (2009). They suggest a technique called "white-writing" in which the ELL writes on the computer with the font color turned to white so that they cannot see anything they are typing. Therefore, they are not able to look at what they have already written and fear that it is filled with mistakes. They must instead concentrate on the content of what they are writing in the present. This will enable them to get thoughts down on "paper" without worrying about correctness. Later, the writing lab consultant can go over the grammar issues with them. However, content is more important in a free-writing activity like this.

    Bruce, S., & Rafoth, B. (Eds.). (2009). ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

  7. Anonymous5:41 PM

    As I read your article, I was wondering if grammatical issues are usually the primary problem for ESL students, or if there are broader issues of structure and content that come of a different cultural perception of what a paper ought to do and be. Certainly the grammar and wording issues are usually the most prominent, and do obscure the student’s meaning, but according to some, addressing errors first may actually hinder the ESL student’s growth as a writer. In “Responding to ESL Student Writing: The Value of a Nonjudgmental Approach,” Kasper and Petrello support MacGowan-Gilhooley’s “fluency-first” approach: teachers should focus on helping their students become comfortable creating a flow of ideas and only then work through grammatical issues. This will both keep the students from believing themselves failures and help avoid the tendency of the fearful student, which is writing with exacting grammer but little coherency. To do this, “…it is important to create and maintain an environment that encourages students to take chances in their writing” (2). This method will not immediately result in correctness, but it may help to build confidence and give ESL students a firmer grounding in English writing.

    Kasper, Loretta F., and Barbara A. Petrello. "Responding To ESL Student Writing: The Value Of A Nonjudgmental Approach." Community Review 16.(1998): 178. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.


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