Practicing Sentence-Level Intervention

For the past few decades, dominant Writing Center theory has cautioned tutors to avoid relying on a directive approach in working with students. Meanwhile, non-native students who ask for more direction have often been perceived as merely wanting "editing." Recently, however, a growing body of research has argued that Writing Center tutors should, in fact, take a more directive approach with English language learners. Talinn Phillips argues, "nondirective tutoring is rooted in practice with native-English-speaking undergraduates" and "this practice so dominates many writing centers' identities that it has left little room for other subject positions, including those of second language graduate writers" (5-6). In "Reassessing the 'Proofreading Trap': ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction," Sharon Myers makes a case specifically for sentence level intervention: "I think that ignoring the sentence, which is a central feature of writing in the texts of both native and non-native speakers, is a disservice to both populations. In the case of ESL students, whose greatest and most consistent difficulties are badly manifested in the boundaries of the sentences itself, it seems like an eerie kind of denial." 

The Case for Sentence-Level Intervention

There are compelling arguments for taking a more or less directive approach when working with English language learners. Ultimately, individual tutors must decide what level of intervention they are comfortable with. Myers, Paul Kei Matsuda, Shanti Bruce, Sarah Nakamaru and other ELL writing researchers make these arguments for working with ELLs at the sentence level:

  • "Global" or "higher order" concerns are often different in ELL texts.

While we tend to think of "global" or "higher-order" concerns as matters of argument and organization, so-called "local" issues such as grammar and language can be the greater influence in obscuring a text's meaning.

  • When ELL writers say "grammar," they often specifically mean "word choice."

Bruce argues that native speakers and non-native speakers mean different things when they ask for help with grammar. Although many tutors interpret this request as a request for editing (which native speakers might mean), ELLs "who are often very knowledgeable about grammar rules, generally want to make sure they are saying things the way NES students would." According to a growing body of research, ELL texts need guidance most often in lexical issues.

There are three types of lexical needs: 1) Facility (ease and fluency in producing language); 2) Flexibility (access to alternatives); and 3) Intuition (having a sense of what "sounds right") (Nakamaru 4). According to Nakamaru, ELLs tend to need the most help with facility. In addition, many language learners will not yet have developed the intuition to judge what "sounds right" or hear the nuances that distinguish lexical alternatives generated by a thesaurus.

  • Dominant Writing Center strategies for working on grammar and word choice are often better suited to native speakers.

Matsuda points out, "Because ESL writers often have not internalized some of the rules of grammar, they are often not able to identify errors on their own by, for example, reading the text aloud" (44). And according to Nakamaru, while it is still useful for tutors to look for patterns of error, "lexical needs will fall outside of a discernible, rule-based pattern" (16).

In addition, minimal marking is also not always effective in ELL texts. While some ELLs will be able to identify the error when a sentence is marked, others will not be at the level of proficiency to do so. 


Avoiding Appropriation

One of the greatest challenges to practicing sentence-level intervention is avoiding appropriation. Responsible sentence-level intervention does not mean editing or re-writing. The student should be an active participant in working with the tutor on the sentence. In addition, Carol Severino cautions, "We are more likely to avoid appropriation if our recommended changes and the resulting reformulation do not project a level of language proficiency and sophistication that is inaccurate" (59).

Strategies for Sentence-Level Intervention

Making a compelling case for sentence level intervention can be easier than figuring out exactly how one should practice it. While ultimately the methods a tutor or instructor uses will be determined by the individual context, these specific strategies can help in working with ELL writers:

1. Read the Essay Aloud: Instead of having the student read the essay out loud, the tutor can read the essay aloud so that the writer can hear when the tutor stumbles or has trouble reading the text smoothly. This performed reading might work best if it follows an initial silent reading for meaning.

2. Modified Minimal Marking, Approach I: Matsuda and Cox recommend a technique that is similar to minimal marking. The tutor reads the whole text for the gist, then minimally marks moments where, as a reader, he or she is “stuck,” as well as “near features or details that seem surprising or those that jar the reading process: the unexpected.” The tutor and writer then use these moments as an “opportunity” to work together to make the reading process smoother, whether that means clarifying word choice, altering syntax, or making an argument clearer (48).

3. Modified Minimal Marking, Approach II: In this modification of minimal marking, students mark passages that they believe do not communicate as clearly as they intend because of grammar, syntax, lexical choices. The tutor and student then go over these individual sentences to work out what is hindering meaning and how the sentence can be revised (Severino 59). 

4. Make the Intervention a Participatory Process: For example, instead of simply changing ineffective word choice, explain to students why the word choice is an issue (too colloquial, etc.) and ask if this is the meaning they intend. The student then can actively choose to keep the original word or seek an alternative.

5. Discuss Alternatives: Similarly, instead of simply “fixing” an issue, you can offer alternatives to students who do not have the proficiency to generate lexical alternatives themselves. Instead of using a “pick a card, any card,” approach, suggest possible alternatives and explain the differences in register and nuance, etc. Then ask the student which alternative seems most appropriate to his/ her meaning.

6. Speaking-into-Writing: Many ELLs are more comfortable speaking about their ideas rather than writing them. The writing can be a more labored process, which shows on the sentence level. When the tutor reaches a sentence that is particularly unclear, he or she might take the opportunity to ask the student to “speak-into-writing.” As Severino notes, “Tell me more” questions “often result in language that is clearer and more idiomatic than what is on the page.” (61) Connecting the spoken to written word will make some students, at least, more comfortable with the writing process.

7. Use Hints: This strategy allows the tutor to work at the sentence level without always directly correcting ELL writing. Instead of pointing out a problem (“This is the wrong verb case”) a tutor can provide hints to help the writer recognize issues him or herself. These hints might sound like, “What do you think sounds strange right here?” or “Where is the verb in this sentence?”, “If ‘they’ is plural, what form of verb is needed here?” or “Do you think ‘research’ is countable or non-countable?” (Andrade and Evans 57)

8. Reformulation: Tutors can use strategies of reformulation—restating the writer’s text in a linguistically more effective way—in ways that register between minimally to intensely directive. The challenge of practicing reformulation is that it can very easily lead to appropriation. To avoid this problem, Severino advocates that instructors think of L1 (native) and L2 (non-native) writing as “points on a continuum” rather than as completely distinct. Rather than complete rewriting, then, reformulation becomes “reducing the number of L2 features and increasing the number of native language features” (52).

9. Short Passage Reformulation: Andrade and Evans recommend a specific reformulation strategy. They suggest that the tutor/ instructor revises a paragraph (a shorter passage will also work) of the learner’s text. The learners then compare the reformulated passage with the original. Then, the learner revises the original passage in his/ her own way without looking back at the reformulation. The instructor and learner then discuss the revisions and the learner reflects on how the reformulation influenced his/ her revision. (54)

10. Work on a Select Passage: Tutors and students can work on a select passage—without the tutor explicitly reformulating this passage—together to talk about sentence level-concerns. This passage can then serve as a model for discussing other areas of the text.


Andrade, Maureen S. and Norman W. Evans. Principles and Practices for Response in Second Language Writing : Developing Self-Regulated Learners. ESL & Applied Linguistics Professional Series. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Matsuda, Paul Kei and Michelle Cox. "Reading an ESL Writer's Text." ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed. Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook, 2009. 42-50.

Myers, Sharon. “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction.” Writing Center Journal 24.1 (2003): 51-70.

Nakamaru, Sarah. “Lexical Issues in Writing Center Tutorials with International and US-educated multilingual writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 19.2 (2010): 95-113. 

Phillips, Talinn. Examining Bridges, Expanding Boundaries, Imagining New Identities: The Writing Center as Bridge for Second Language Graduate Writers. Diss. Ohio U, 2008.

Severino, Carol. “Avoiding Appropriation.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed. Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook, 2009. 51-65.