My name's Alex. I work as a Peer Tutor at the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center. This is a reflection about teaching language to people who didn't grow up speaking English. The following entry comes from an experience I had with a student and thoughts from an experienced tutor, Clint Johnson, who's worked at the Center for seven years.
In a session with Clint Johnson, he talked to me about his thoughts on this. He shared a lot of good insight. I shared with him a concern that I didn’t know grammatical terms well enough and that I thought knowing them would help me improve as a tutor. He said, after reviewing a report I had written and brought in,
I’ve known students who know grammatical terms and can remember what the symbols are but don’t know how to use them. I mean, you’ve written an excellent report that shows you know how to use grammar better than they do yet you have no idea what the definitions are. Knowing the rules is of limited benefit because many of the rules are so complex that they are difficult to apply [and understand]. What works best is being immersed in a language that has actual purpose.
Clint brings out that being immersed in a culture, say, when you are asking for directions to an area, works better than studying that possible scenario out of a textbook. This is right in line with what Chapter Seven of ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors says. “Not simply rhetorical style but also purpose, task, topic, and audience are culturally informed” (Nordhaus and Staben 80). Essentially, why they’re writing a paper, how they’re supposed to write it, what they’re writing about, and who they’re writing to are more important, and more difficult to learn, when writing a paper. These are more important factors than grammar that go into language learning because regardless if that language is “correct,” if it doesn’t have context, it doesn’t matter how they say it if what they’re saying is off base.
For example, I had a student come in yesterday with a draft. He spoke three languages, English being his third. He handed me the assignment sheet which contained instructions for a “Research Proposal” (which basically means “Tell me [the instructor] what you plan on researching and how you aim to go about writing your paper.”) The paper he had written had been pointed out by his instructor as an essay, not a proposal. I put my hands on my head, took a deep breath, and did two things. The first was tell him he needed to start over. The second thing was attempting to explain why he needed to start over and help him understand the assignment. It took him about ten minutes to read five questions. I explained one question about how to insert his own thoughts into the academic conversation by pretending his topic was a conversation. I motioned to an empty table next to us and said
Let’s say this is a room, and as you walk in, you see people there talking about injury prevention in football. Now, this conversation has been going on for a long time. [I stood, walking over to the table.] For now, all you can do is just listen. You aren’t sure what they’re talking about so you need to listen before you can respond. [Then I leaned over to the table like I was listening.] Then, once you understand, that’s when you lean over and say, “This is what I think.”
A smile crossed his face (the first real smile of our session) and I could see he understood. I think active learning helps more than word service (telling them what they need to do when they don’t understand the language isn’t as effective as showing them what they need to do.) Showing isn’t easy; drawing the concept of “Thesis” isn’t easy; I think one of the most effective ways to teach language is to give what they’re doing context (help them understand the purpose of what they’re learning), to show them (when possible) rather than tell them, and to help them understand the culture to which they’ve arrived and which is foreign to them.
Popular posts from this blog
I have posted a poll in the IWCA forums: IWCA Forum: Peer Tutor => What do we call ourselves: the poll! It is a part of an earlier discussion that kind of petered out about the titles used for writing center workers. Please take a moment and vote! If you don't have an account on the forum, you can register for one by clicking on the "Register" link (next to the rocket icon in the top-right of the page.) Don't forget to state your institutional affiliation when you request and account. (That's how the IWCA Forum keeps out spam accounts.)
So, I was driving to school today and as always was listening to NPR (that's my self-promoting conversational piece informing you on how intelligent and connected I am) really, I just like the coverage on the campaign and "This American Life." Okay, I am already getting off topic and I haven't even gotten on topic yet. Anyhow, the story I was listening to was about a woman who used to be a part of the admissions committee at Dartmouth and is now working as an independent consultant helping students with the admissions process for schools. For a cool $40,000, she will work with you from 9th grade to graduation to help prepare you for your college admissions process. And for the budget price of $14,000, she will help you write and revise your college application essay. So, how in the world does this correlate to our world? Well, her work with college applications includes helping students decide on effective topics (staying away from "teen angst, or
I remember my first year as a peer tutor at my high school’s writing center. I could not have been more than fifteen years old when I went to my very first orientation session. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I was enthusiastic to learn. That year, the managers of my center were very excited to tell us all about something called minimalist theory. Minimalist theory is a consulting style that focuses on getting students to think for themselves. I won’t go too much in depth here, but if you want to know more I wrote a different article on the subject called “Minimalist Theory: When and When not to Use it.” The managers pushed this theory pretty hard, undoubtably because they wanted us to focus on practicing it. However, in doing so I, as an itty-bitty baby consultant, internalized the message that minimalist theory was the only way to teach writing. This was a problem for a number of reasons but the main one is that minimalism is most certainly NOT th