A blog for tutors to share their ideas, experiences, and insights.

Monthly Archives: October 2012

Share with our blog-o-sphere a strategy to improve written text at the sentence level in a writing tutoring session. Follow these three guidelines:

1) Set the scene. In other words, in what scenario would you use the strategy?

2) Describe the strategy in detail (perhaps number or bullet if appropriate).

3) Include dialogue when you can: how would you explain the strategy to the writer or how would you walk the writer through the strategy? Write specific dialogue to help others see how they can implement the strategy.

After creating your post, select a category or two that best represents your post including the category that represents your “group.” For example, if you are in Group “A” and your post is about the role of the tutor and the politics, you should choose the following labels: Category A, the tutor, and politics.

In my experince there has always been a slight amount of culture shock when traveling abroad. Even up in Canada I experienced a wall between effective communication. Here in America the vast, sometimes ironically disdainful dependence on mostly American things, such as our strange media, allows for a fast track, so to speek, when communicating. The use of idioms, references to our culture, and unique adaptions of the english language allow us to bypass longer routes of expression and communicate what we are thinking in shorter ways. Keeping up with my dated reference theme, an American can communicate so much simply by saying, “Well they just jumped the shark.”

The use of our culture to maintain short cuts to understanding through communication is something that has become deeply imbedded and mostly subconscious in our day to day communication. When I have travled abroad it always takes me a conversation or two to remember to bypass the short cuts in communication that our media and culture have provided us. I think that this somewhat restricted, interwoven stretch of highways, whom individuals not familiar with American culture may be unaware of, is most likely the greatest cause of miscommunication at a basic level on our part.  Of coarse I would be a fool not to mention the cultures of the individuals we engage in sessions with as well as the more respectable clash of our own deeper cultural identity, yet I think that approaching communication doing ones best to avoid these “fast tracks” would allow us to commit ourselves to practicing routes of expression that are somewhat untended by those of us who rely so much on our vast bank of references to quicken understanding.

I find it somewhat humorous that we use such “fast tracks” without really considering the implications. Every time we use an expression such as, “jump the shark,” we rob ourselves of using our brains to create new froms of expression. Think how weird things would be if a poet were to create the perfect, lets say, three line poem that expresses all the angst of losed love. If we all immediately began to turn to this easily expressed cultural poem we would rob ourselves of the chance to craft our own words and thereby advance our intellect.

Personally, I feel that the opportunity to work with non-native speakers is rich with opportunity and formost amongst the benefits for the self, is the opportunity to be challenged to effectively communicate in a simple way without relying on our own bak of cultural references. 

Sometimes our environment can make us feel like this.

Culture can be a difficult thing to account for.  While most of us take our culture and standards as the norm, it is important to realize that not everyones culture is the same.  During a class video we watched on Wednesday we witnessed one student from an African country explain that she did not feel that she could objectively write a paper because in her country she was not allowed to criticize government at all.  My own family has a similar experience because my mother is orginally from Cuba.  My own mother and aunt remind me to never take my freedom to speak my mind for granted.  This idea of culture can sneak into our writing in many different ways.  As a tutor it is our job to recognize culture and help the student to understand that things can be handled differently.  There are several examples of possible conflicts.  Some students writing may not be politically correct, as in having a mesogynistic message or tone.  Some students may have an issue with expressing their opinion because culturally they try to never speak out against people in positions of power, like a boss or professor.  As a tutor it is important to not only be contious of grammer and format, but also of tone and message.  Remember that our job is not to make them conform to “The Way we Do Things”, instead our goal should be to explain to them that they have other options.  The wonderful thing about English is the variation.   Two people can take a great piece of work, rewrite and reorder it, and that can produce two outstanding pieces.  There is no magic bullet, or one particular way to do things.  Lastly I think it is important to discuss different standards of organization between cultures.  American writing tends to focus on organization and delivery.  Is your message organized and is it written effectively to engage the reader?  Some Asian cultures put very little emphasis into organization and clarity.  They feel that there job is to write and the readers job is to understand.  By putting all this onous on the reader they are freeing themselves of having to make stylistic choices about clarity.  Again while we should feel free to insert our opinion and try to explain to the student why changes might be nessecary, ultimately it is up to the student to adopt these changes or ignore the problem.  If the student is leaning towards not listening, he will most likely be given his greatest reason to change when he recieves the first bad grade back from his teacher.   As tutors we should try our very best to free students from the prison of one way writing and try to inform them of all the possible avenues their piece can take.

Americans are infatuated with efficiency. Everything from our roads to our restaurants are designed with the utmost sense of urgency in mind. This sense of immediacy comes through in our writing, as well. We feel that our essays should be clear and concise. We should introduce our subject, discuss key, relevant details, and then summarize our ideas in a conclusion. Although we feel that this is the most logical and efficient way of writing, other cultures see essays differently, mainly because they don’t think the same way Americans do. In my own experience, Arab culture is much more relaxed, with an ‘Insha’Allah’ attitude (the idea that if it is God’s will for something to be done, it will be done in time). This kind of worldview can obviously lead to writing that seems very unstructured to Americans. Asian culture also uses a more indirect way of writing, often throwing in new ideas in the middle of a topic. This can be the source of a lot of frustration to foreign students, because to them, their writing is normal, but American professors see it as having severe structural problems. So how do we tutors help these students and their writing? The best answer for this is to simply explain to the writer how different cultures have different writing styles. Make sure the student understands that their way of writing isn’t necessarily inferior or wrong, it is just different from how we write in America. Ensure the writer has a good idea of what an ‘American’ essay will look like, and work with them to incorporate the positives with their natural writing style with what works with ours. The saying goes that ‘knowing is half the battle’, and the sooner International students understand that they are expected to write in a certain way, and that their troubles as an English writer are the result of a culture gap and not their actual ability to write, the better.

As I stated in an earlier post I am a senior in an engineering program here at PSU Berks. Even though I am still working on my degree I have been an engineer for, let’s say many years.  So even if I’m not equal in age or wisdom (but do share a preference in hairstyle) with Master Po in the 1970’s TV show “Kung Fu” as seen below, I sometimes feel like him. The old master in this show tried to pass his knowledge and experiences to a much younger student by acting as a guide throughout his lessons. I am not a teacher nor do I try to pass as one, but in many ways I have unknowingly accepted the role of cultural informant.


I had never heard the term “cultural informant” prior to this class and had no idea that I could be considered one. Now with accepting the responsibility of tutoring this semester I realize that I am even more involved in this role. Some of the challenges that I found from serving as a cultural informant were the age and cultural differences between me and my fellow students. The cultural differences that I noticed are not mainly based on language or geography, although these did exist, but mainly on the generation gap that exists between us.

Now that I am a writing tutor and work exclusively with primarily first year engineering students I try to use these differences as an advantage by emphasizing the difference in practical experience versus the difference in age. When working one on one with a student I try very hard to not assume a role of authority. Instead I try to use my experiences and abilities to set an example for the student to want to write better reports.

The main thing that I have realized about being a cultural informant is that it is a two-way street. I like to think that I usually add something good to a tutoring session or just a discussion, but I have noticed that I always take something away with me as well.

This person was selected to be a tutor. She has been trained. She’s an incredible writer. What am I? These questions may run through a writer’s mind as he walks into a tutoring session. Even with perceptions of the writing studio as a space for remedial writers debunked, insecurities about writing ability can be compounded when compared to these intimidating tutors who have been chosen for their prolific writing. As the writer closes up, it can be difficult to run a productive session. The writer may be too shy to speak, or may be unwilling to share the composition. It is thus up to the tutor to reach across the threshold and encourage the writer to open up.


Maybe like a shell. A tutor might accomplish this by talking about what’s working well in the piece. Or by engaging in normal, non-writing related conversations with the writer to assure him that both are the same—simple, normal students struggling over the same classes. Perhaps then the writer will be less intimidated. And, like a shell, the open writer may discover that he has a pearl inside, waiting to be discovered.

When enrolling into this class, for some reason, I did not even take it into consideration that we would be working with foreign students who might not have string English speaking skills. Once realizing that we would be working with foreign students, a huge wave of anxiety rolled over me with questions like: “what if I can’t help them?” “what if they can’t understand me?”. But then after watching the video we watched in class from the University of Oregon, and discussing how to handle these situations I realized that the student and I would both be frightened, but it is up to both of us to put aside our fears and realize that we are there to help each other, not to judge, not to criticize, just simply to help! Even if the student comes out of the session with learning one new thing about the english language and how to better their paper then i have done my job as a tutor and as a fellow peer. I am there to simply make them feel more comfortable to ask questions, as many as they want.

Coming from a foreign country to learn a completely different culture is easy for not one and is most definitely frightening; so the best thing to do is to provide a comfortable energy to help the individual relax, and to create a sense of excitement rather than a fear to learn.

(i know it’s a little early but) Happy Halloween

Lindsay :)

When I enrolled in this Writing Tutors class, I sincerely believed that I would be able to contribute to UWT by appealing to undergraduates interested in science and foreign students from Chinese speaking countries. Why? Well, I’m Chinese and I like science. However, I slowly realized that my future tutoring sessions may not go in the way that I expect if I maintain that mentality. Whenever, I attempt to speak Chinese to our foreign students, they would always talk back in English. That was weird because I thought that they would speak in a language that is more familiar to them. An incident that I experienced a weeks ago involved a foreign student commenting about my “lacking grammar”. That…was…interesting. However, I came away from that conversation with a new perspective of tutoring; one that is based more on mutual understanding than a typical tutor/ tutee relationship. These individuals are taking the initiative to come to me for assistance. That act exemplifies the hierarchy of the tutor/tutee relationship. There is no need for me to make premeditated assumptions. I have to be the professional and give the writer sound honest advice. I am not supposed to make assumptions and biased argument. This applies not merely to Chinese and Science oriented writers but to all writers. I am to look at the whole picture: student and essay. The student does not reject American culture but rather embrace it. We should encourage them to continue to do so.

American culture is less of this:


And oddly….more of this…


When tutoring ESL students, you should always keep in mind not to take anything for granted. Most importantly though, just because someone speaks with an accent, does not necessarily mean they don’t have a firm grasp on the English language and assuming so could be quite insulting. What you might consider common practice or common knowledge could be completely new or unnatural to non native speakers. When working with native English speakers, you can assume that the writer knows what a thesis statement is, that they know what a paragraph basically looks like, and the connotation of cultural idioms. However, with non native speakers none of this can be assumed. To no fault of their own, the non native speakers might not have this information. Writing structures are not universal and can be quite puzzling for some students. Different cultures think in different ways and therefore they express themselves in different ways.

In order for these students to write successfully in America, they need to be tutored on higher level concerns rather and lower level concerns. These students need to understand not only the vocabulary and grammar style in America, but the conventions and nuances of American rhetoric. Asking the student where they would want to start or what aspect of their writing they feel most uncomfortable with can help you prioritize your session. You only have a certain time limit and only focusing on grammar or only focusing on theme might not necessarily be the most productive.

I would recommend not trying to correct every mistake they make. They may feel self-conscious about writing, and even speaking, in another language and dominating the session or “fixing” their every mistake may discourage them from continuing their writing. One helpful tip might be to point out certain sections of the paper and focus on those. Having the student take notes to resort back to while revising this paper and/or working on future assignments could be quite helpful as well. As with any tutoring session, building rapport is important. However, upholding self confidence, bridging cultural differences, and potentially decreasing shame are challenges that can be unique to ESL tutoring sessions.

Culture and language were my biggest concerns with tutoring when I realized that I would get peers from around the world. Honestly I was fearful, how can I possibly tutor them? I know nothing about where they come from and what if I do not understand them? What if I can’t explain things to them? What if I panic and just mess them up more?

Well as I thought about this it occurred to me this was probably an even more stressful scenario for them. They want help and what if they do not ask for it or convey it how they want to and they cannot get the help they need to get grades they want. I realized quickly that I needed to work through my fears and just be as prepared as I could.

My first peer I worked with was from China. I adjusted quickly to her accent and realized if I engaged her and asked questions she actually shared a lot about her culture. I would ask her how to properly pronounce a Chinese name in her essay and she would ask me how to properly pronounce an English word. We built a connection and it made us comfortable with each other. I listened to her describe her life and what she wanted to portray on her paper. As the video I watched, Writing Across Borders, stated I realized the articles being correct in her paper was one of the last steps to worry about. Was I seeing in the paper the story I had heard from her lips. I realized at this point exactly what I see in this photo….


This is where our future needs to be moving and in the end embracing the differences instead of trying to get rid of them will make better tutors and better teachers. Going back to the video from class, different cultures write different ways. Embrace it, we may actually learn something as we try to tutor.

One of my other peers I worked with that broke into the culture and language barrier is Spanish. She speaks English pretty well and I have worked with her twice now. She has a desire to learn and I love helping her. I think that our relationship isn’t shaped as I may have once assumed it would be. “I am the native English-speaking Professional writer the power lies in my hands.” She has just as much to say and can probably say it just as well if not better. English is not her first language, but in a Spanish culture I would be struggling. We understand each other and learn about one another and I feel like so much more gets accomplished in their writing abilities and I learn a lot along the way too.