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ESL Students and Confidence

It's interesting that students are so willing to relinquish the hours of work they've put into a paper into the hands of someone they've never before met. I could give her poor advice; I could tell her to change a word or a paragraph and she would agree. I wonder how to instill more confidence into a writer while, at the same time, helping them improve their writing. Whenever I make suggestions to an ESL writer, their confidence seems, at times, to diminish. They see my corrections or confusion as a sign they are incompetent or stupid. In reality, they're just learning. I suppose helping them change their attitude about their progress, that even though they're struggling they're still doing fine, would be a good first step for them to see that struggle as part of the learning process and not a sign of failure.

Unfortunately, this thought is just a thought and is not yet converted into a plan of action. I don't know how to instill confidence in someone if they're writing is so rough I can't understand it. I guess just pointing out what they did well is a good start.


  1. I notice the more I work with students the less I have a tendency to do line-editing. As time wears on, I've come to realize that this type of help is almost an exercise in futility. Sure, I can point out grammatical biffs here and there, and occasionally it might ignite a fire of brilliant realization, but one thing is certain: either a student will learn the language, or zhe will not.

    As much as professors might profess that collaboration benefits writing, we cannot forget about the writer zhimself. When it comes time to sit down to type that essay, the rest of the world vanishes. The act of writing is an act of solitary confinement. We might ask for help from others, but in the end its our own brains at work, not anyone else's.

    As tutors, all we can do is spur our students on toward greatness. And yes, perhaps we might even be able to lend them the occasional helping hand.

  2. Alex,

    I know what you mean: I have struggled with similar circumstances in my early days of tutoring. In almost every session with an ESL student, I find control quickly relinquished to me, and honestly I feel unqualified to assume such a position. Like you said, I am working with a piece into which someone has invested time, effort, and emotion--who am I to be made master of such work?

    I recently worked with a student who had written a description of her father and wanted to address the grammar therein. As I was began to read, however, I quickly encountered a moving and passionate glimpse into this man, and I realized something: behind these words were ideas and emotions from a unique individual, and she had labored to describe her father as well as she could. This realization completely changed the manner in which I approached her grammar; it intimidated me, honestly. I began to look for patterns of error to discuss, trying to conjure suggestions that stayed true to her ideas, but I noticed that the student took these immediately as corrections, as orders to be followed. It seemed she was embarrassed and discouraged about her writing in general, though she only struggled with grammar (and not to a degree that the piece was incomprehensible).

    ...How can we help address the notion that the worth of a piece is relegated to the writer's grammar? I am not sure, though I think acknowledging good qualities and discussing ideas is far more meaningful and effective than is a dissection of grammar. Perhaps some encouragement will foster a passion for learning and writing that I myself cannot. After all, it is the individual who is ultimately master of the text, and the individual who decides whether to learn or not.

    Hopefully, experience brings enhanced understanding of how to work in these situations... I aspire to better answer questions like these as I learn more, but I must confess that I am as unsure at present.


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