Working with ELLS at Hume

Many tutors can feel frustrated working with English language learners because 1) these appointments can be particularly labor intensive (for student and tutor) and because 2) these appointments seem to challenge the nondirective Writing Center pedagogy that many are acculturated in. It can be useful to consider these points in order to make consultations more productive for you and the tutee:

  • MLL students challenge us differently.  While these appointments might be challenging, they make up a significant portion of all consultations at Hume. If you think of these consultations as more of an opportunity to connect with a student as both a cultural ambassador and language informant, both you and the tutee will feel more relaxed and, therefore, productive. 
  • You are playing a crucial role in the language learner's intellectual and linguistic development. Writing centers, more than almost any other space at the university, give students individual academic guidance in a supportive, low-stakes environment. According to Ilona Leki, "Writing centers may be the ideal learning environment for students whose first or strongest language is not English: one-on-one, context rich, highly focused on specific current writing need, and offering the possibility of negotiation of meaning" (1). In addition, the writing center can provide an intellectual community to foster the socio-academic relationships which, according to some studies, is essential for language development.
  • We should consider strengths, not deficits. Jennifer Craig states that it is more appropriate to use the term "language user" than "language learner." In fact, because they are working in a non-native language, these students likely have more advanced language skills than most native-speaker students at Stanford.
  • Fluency does not mean total accuracy. It is unrealistic to expect students to produce 100% error free writing that sounds completely indistinguishable from English written by a native speaker. In addition, the goal is not to remove every marker of difference. In fact, "writing with an accent" does not necessarily affect the clarity of the text; sometimes, it even enhances the style.

Getting Started

Tutors often feel that MLLs come to the writing center looking for simple proofreading. Following this basic model for consultations, however, you can avoid feeling forced into editing or having the student leave feeling that you didn't listen to him/ her. 

  1. Introduce yourself and Hume. Is the student familiar with Hume? If this is a first-time visit, you can give a brief introduction to Hume services.
  2. Discuss student's expectations. It is important that the student feels that you hear him/ her. If a student wants you to "proofread," instead of flat-out stating that we don't do that at Hume, you might integrate the student's desire into your plan. For example, you might say that you will certainly keep an eye out for any grammatical issues, although you would also like to learn more about the paper's argument, organization, etc.
  3. Come up with a plan. Be clear about what you intend to do in the 30-60 minutes. This will help orient the student's expectations appropriately.
  4. Read, then strategize. If possible, do a quick silent read of the text to assess the best strategy for working with this student. That way, you can get a sense of what would be most productive to work on: issues such as argument and organization, or sentence-level issues such as grammar or word choice? You might then revise and restate your plan for the session.
  5. Keep the session interactive. Even if you work on sentence-level concerns, be sure to involve the student fully.
  6. Recap. When the session is over, recap what you talked about, see if the student has final questions, and remind the student to keep coming back! You might even identify goals for the next session. 

Play to Your Strengths

Many of the skills that you use regularly as a writing tutor are directly transferable to consultations with ELLs. Play, to your strengths, then, when meeting with a language learner:

Invite students to reflect on their writing process. Many international students—like native English speakers—have not learned how to talk about their writing process. Encouraging them through this process will help them develop as writers

Think about the rhetorical context. Not all language learners are alike and there is no “one size fits all” model for these tutoring sessions. As with all other sessions, it will help to talk through the assignment, expectations, goals, etc. What issues do you think most impair meaning—organization, strength of argument, or sentence-level problems such as word choice and grammar? Given the goals of the assignment, what area should take priority?

Emphasize the positive. Many ELL students feel deep anxiety about their language abilities. They often focus too much on the concept of language errors. It is therefore particularly important to emphasize the progress they have made and their writing successes. It can also help to remind the student how amazing their academic accomplishments are. One of the great strengths of the writing center is its atmosphere of support.

Keep using motivational scaffolding. While working with language learners may often invite an approach that leans towards instruction and cognitive scaffolding, there is still room for motivational scaffolding. This approach, which focuses on positivity and the writer’s authority, can be particularly valuable in encouraging ELLs to not be overly focused on the concept of error.