Throughout the semester, I could have been more diligent about posting regularly on the blog or responding to questions quicker; I admit this. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t see the benefits of this assignment. Bringing together peer tutors from around the country discussing candidly about their experiences or feelings was quite interesting. It gave students a platform to discuss with other individuals how tutoring was going for them, offer advice to other peer tutors, and promote discussion on questions or concerns one might have with their tutoring techniques. This is all well and good. However, how did we explain this experience to those outside of this blog and quite possibly out of the peer tutoring realm altogether?
Discussing the purpose and goals of the writing center with students, friends, or family members, the major assumption was that peer tutors wrote and/or corrected English papers students brought in. I am sure at least some, if not all, of you have heard this same thing. People didn’t realize that we help guide students, from all areas of academia, through the writing process allowing the student to extrapolate their own ideas from their own work. Simply put, we help individuals become better writers while becoming better writers ourselves. We are not just dumping information on to the student. The tutoring session is an exchange of information. The peer tutor also benefits from the session as well. As Phil Collins once said, “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”
Peer tutoring allows students to talk with someone who isn’t seen as a superior. They aren’t intimidated to express their ideas because they know that we aren’t there to criticize or grade their papers. We are there to help and be helped. Peer tutors provide a one-on-one session that is very rarely found in classrooms that can, for instance, encourage non-native English speaking students to become more comfortable speaking English, students that utilize disability services, or students that just want to become more familiar with the written language.
As I explained the nuances of the purpose of the writing center to folks that may not have been familiar with them, I was reminded that I am in a position to improve students educational confidence and career, and in doing so, being able to have my educational confidence and career improved as well. This is something that I am genuinely proud of, even if this sentiment isn’t readily apparent. As I cogitate on the experiences and learning that I have been involved with over the course of the semester, I am truly grateful to have been able to be a peer tutor. I hope this sentiment is shared amongst you all.
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and Knowledge.” -Albert Einstein.
“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.” ~Charles Peguy
The meaning of a sentence is dependent on the writer. As readers, we can try to extrapolate meaning; however the true meaning will always be understood by the writer. I use a few different strategies to understand and improve papers on the sentence level. The strategies I use allow participation and input from both student and tutor. Going over the assignment together helps understanding on both sides and, if the student catches their own sentence level issues, it can help the student use what they learned during this session and apply it to other writing assignments.
I am focusing on strategies to clarify meaning at the sentence level. As writers, and readers for that matter, we want sentences to have meaning and to be grammatically correct and complete. We often strive for a certain air of refinement in our writing, but at the least we want our writing understood. The strategies go as follows:
1. Have the student quickly read/skim through the paper aloud. This gives you a global understanding of the paper. Even though the session may be just about focusing on line level concerns, having a global understanding of both the text and assignment can be very helpful.
2. If, while reading, the student comes across a sentence that fouls them up or just reads awkwardly, have the student notate that sentence and move on. As the tutor, if you hear a sentence that stands out to you, feel free to make a reminder for yourself to refer back to that sentence.
3. When the writer has finished skimming, return to those sentences that sounded off to either you or the student and have the writer explain what they are trying to say in that sentence. When you know what the writer is trying to say, you might be able to pinpoint a bit easier what sort of things the writer should work on or needs help with.
4. Do your best to not try to word the sentence how you would write it. Remember, this is the writer’s paper. They have their own voice and that is the voice that should be represented. Obviously, if they have questions on syntax or vocabulary feel free to guide them to the words they want, not the words you choose. Asking questions like “do you know of another word that could be used here?” or “do you know the meaning of this word?” could be helpful in building the writers vocabulary.
This short list is most certainly not all inclusive. There are many more steps to this approach, but this represents the framework for this strategy. Aside from that, there is a multitude of ways to help writers work out sentence level issues with clarifying meaning.
After establishing some rapport and discussing what the student is looking to get out of the writing center appointment, potential dialogue with using this strategy goes as follows:
Tutor: So from what you’ve told me you are looking for some help with clarifying what you’re trying to say in certain sentences. Maybe there are some questions with flow or word choice?
Student: Exactly! I’ve read through my paper and there are just some sentences that don’t sound right. I’m not too sure what exactly needs to be fixed.
Tutor: Alright. No problem. Well because we are both already familiar with the assignment, how about you do me a favor and sort of skim through the paper aloud and you and I will both be listening to sentences that sort of stick out?
(Student reads paper)
Student: So I came across this sentence in the introduction that seemed strange. The sentence is “Based on the fact that he is pessimistic and feels life is not worth it, he is forgetting about his loved ones whom he said he did not want to hurt.”
Tutor: Okay, what didn’t you like about this sentence? Is there something that caught you off guard? Is it too wordy, too awkward?
Student: It seemed too long. I feel like it could be shortened.
Tutor: I agree with you. I think this sentence could be shortened as well. I think some clarification could help too. How would you go about doing this?
Student: Well I think I should explain who “he” is. Also, I could be a bit thriftier with my word choice. I feel like the sentence is cluttered.
Tutor: I agree. Maybe try to showcase in the sentence what was the result of “his” pessimism. What are you trying to say in this sentence?
Student: Well I’m trying to say that because of his pessimism, he ultimately ended up creating a situation he didn’t want to happen.
Tutor: Okay, good. You know what you want to say and you know why this sentence isn’t coming out the way you want. How would you revise this sentence to have it have your intended sound and meaning while keeping your writing style?
Student: Well I was thinking something along the lines of… “The author’s basic pessimism causes him to forget the very loved ones he said he didn’t want to hurt.”
Tutor: I think that sentence conveys meaning more clearly and flows a lot better than the original sentence. Great job! Let’s look at a few other sentences, shall we?
(And the session continues on.)
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.
I see writing centers and tutors as an invaluable “middle man” between the professor and the student. Writing centers provide a certain freedom for students to ask questions and show their work in an environment that in the classroom they might feel were dumb questions and don’t want to be singled out for potentially “being behind” the rest of the class. The environment of a writing center is less threatening because tutors are not the ones administering or dictating their final grades. Even though they aren’t administering the grades does not mean that the students should not be as dedicated to the time they spend in the writing centers as time they would spend in the classroom. Discussion between tutor and student promotes new idea generation and allows you to see how your writing is understood from a different perspective. Tutors don’t necessarily just point out the mistakes of the students or shoot down the concept of their works. They ask the students questions about thought process, the approach they took for their writing, and why they chose certain themes, ideas, or even word choice. Turning the situation into a discussion rather than a deposit allows the students to become more engaged in the assignment and take lessons from their tutoring sessions that they can apply to other assignments and classes. Some see tutoring centers as “the blind leading the blind.” However, I see it as I take what I know and offer it to you and in exchange, I take something from what you bring to the table. Everyone has insight on something and has something to provide. When we turn a section of the learning process into an educational exchange, we pool our resources together to all become more well rounded students, tutors, and writers.
Hello, all! My name is Robert Adamson and I am a transferring junior at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I am very much looking forward to interacting with you all via this blog and discussing our feedback on the tutoring experiences that we will all share. I tranferred to Colorado two weeks ago from the state of Washington where I tutored elementary students for a bit. I also wrote and helped edit my high school newspaper. I am currently a communications major and am considering becoming a professor of communications.