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Working with ESL Students

I am relatively new to being a writing tutor and have found some things more challenging than others.  One of these includes working with English as a Second Language students. Just last week, I had an ESL student come in saying, "I'm just stopping by before my class to get help with my grammar. I know it’s bad, and I also want to make sure my thesis is good." He proceeded to explain the paper and thesis to me. I was immediately able to tell that his thesis did not appropriately encompass the essay, but he was very unreceptive to this feedback and insisted that the paper be read so I could better understand.  

After he worked through his eight page paper, I still felt the same about the thesis and my attention was brought to some other higher order issues such as the organization and focus.  At this point, with the limited time we had left, his response to my prior advice, and his original requests, I began to question how I should proceed with the appointment. If you ever find yourself stuck in this or a similar situation, here are some suggestions to help you through.

Although higher order concerns often take precedence in tutoring sessions, when working with ESL students you may decide to focus on lower order concerns.  You have to take the student's wishes into consideration; if they want to focus mostly on grammar, you cannot simply ignore that for higher order concerns.  Although this appointment may seem like somewhat of a lost cause, with no solution that makes everyone happy, there are some ways to approach this session that can leave everyone feeling better by the end.   

The first thing you should do is make a plan for the appointment. William J. Macauley, Jr. explains this by comparing planning your session to planning a road trip on a map in his article "Setting the Agenda for the Next Thirty Minutes." There are going to be certain areas you want to focus on during your session, and the end goal is to touch on all of them. Planning out the session should be a collaborative effort; you do not want to overlook the student’s wishes but they shouldn’t make all the choices if they are unaware of some important issues. Using my previous example, a plan for a 30 minute session could look something like:

  1. 10 minutes: higher order concerns
  2. 10 minutes: thesis
  3. 10 minutes: major lower order concerns

The road map does not have to dictate exactly how your session will go but it might help you stay on track with such a short amount of time.    

After you have your road map for the session you can begin moving through it.  Higher order concerns are normally the same when dealing with ESL students or the standard student so you can approach this the same with all students.  For lower order concerns, Cynthia Linville’s "Editing Line by Line" states six major grammar mistakes made by ESL students. They include subject-verb agreement, verb tense, verb form, singular and plural form, word form, and sentence structure.  Work with the student to decide which errors they need to work on the most.  It is a good idea to show them an example of an error in their paper and then explain why it’s wrong and the correct form.

Depending on the length of your session you can work through more or less some of these issues and have the student engage more, as well.  You can ask the student to scan a paragraph, point out a similar error, and explain why it is an error.  This will help the student not only correct the current paper, but it will also help them to understand English grammar better so they do not make the same errors in the future. At the end of the session the student should leave with new insight and examples of what they need to fix in their paper and writing in general.  

When working with ESL students, it is especially important to remember the bigger picture. This includes working with them to improve their writing as a whole and not just one paper.  The more tools you supply these students with, the quicker and smoother they will become accustomed to English grammar and writing.  Their writing should grow immensely with lots of practice and learning how to self edit.  Make sure to invite the student back for more tips and further practice!

-Zoe Greim

Linville, Cynthia. “Editing Line by Line.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Eds. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2009. 116-131. Print.
Macauley, William J. Jr. “Setting the Agenda for the Next Thirty Minutes.”  A Tutor’s Guide: Helping Writers One to One. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publisher’s, Inc., 2005. 1-7. Print.


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