Powers Adresses the Challenges of Tutoring Writing for ESL Students

Powers, Judith. Rethinking Writing Center Conferencing Strategies for the ESL Writer. The Writing Center Journal. 13:2.http://casebuilder.rhet.ualr.edu/wcrp/publications/wcj/wcj13.2/WCJ13.2_Powers.pdf

Judith Powers is the Assistant Director of the University of Wyoming’s Writing Center, and is the instructor for the school’s ESL Freshman Composition courses. Having also taught at Iowa State University Ms. Powers is able to comment on the differences in methodology between the tutoring of foreign language-speakers and native English-speakers. Recognizing the twin concerns of assumptions made about the proper methods of tutoring, and how ineffective these assumptions can be for tutors when working with ESL students, Ms. Powers shares her insight and advice.

More and more, the philosophy of ‘good’ writing tutoring has shifted away from a didactic approach to a Socratic approach; that is, writing tutors are now focusing on helping students help themselves rather than acting as instructors, while still working in with a collaborative approach. Powers states this nicely: “Occasionally, [tutoring sessions] might involve the direct exchange of information…More typically, though, we intend to lead writers to discover good solutions rather than answers, solutions that were theirs, not the tutor’s” (emphasis is this author’s). Due to often large cultural differences in accepted rhetorical practices, this strategy can prove largely ineffective for the ESL student. Foreign-language writers may simply have different rules than English writers. Examples of this might include the generally accepted practices of starting paragraphs with the main ideas of that section, or including no new information in the conclusion of a paper. Many times these practices directly conflict with what the ESL student may have followed their whole academic careers. Powers also notes that while the idea of “audience” is a familiar and helpful one to native writers, this has a larger meaning when considered by ESL students. “ESL writers are asking us to become audiences for their work in a broader way than native speakers are; they view us as cultural informants about American academic expectations.”

These differences led Powers and her staff to concede that the “Socratic, nondirective approach” may not be of any help at all to the ESL student. The classic dilemma for writing centers is that of editing and proofreading; many students seek help with the expectation that advisers will line edit their drafts for them, while current best-practices dictate that the writing center teaches how to proof and edit. The ESL student will many times need the help with proofing and editing. While English speakers can greatly improve their writing by the classic method of reading aloud their texts – students often hear the mistakes in their papers better than when reading them – foreign-language students often have much greater skill in the written rather than spoken word. Reading their papers aloud offers far less to the ESL student than to native writers. Powers speaks of how she and her staff struggled with this and other differences, and with the departure from nondirective tutoring it implies. The staff often had mixed feelings, judging the session a failure due to the abandoning of long-held principles, while failing to recognize that for the ESL student the session might have been a rousing success.

Ultimately Powers concludes that the needs of ESL students in the writing center can be better served by a simple “attitude adjustment” on the part of tutors and directors. Native-speakers and second-language-speakers often confront tutors with the same questions; the contexts are very different however. The native writer may be under-confident, overly dependent on authority, or simply lazy. Assuming that this is the case with the ESL student simply because the questions they have sound exactly the same is often terribly wrong. The collaborative approach wherein the tutor tries to effect an attitude change should be replaced by an “intervention” approach where the tutor is an informant. “Doing so may, in fact, involve teaching them directly what their writing should look like by supplying them with formats for presenting written responses to various academic assignments and informing them of what their audiences will expect in terms of presentation, evidence, shape, etc.”


Walker and the Overly Dependent Student

Walker, Kristen. Difficult Clients and Tutor Dependency: Helping Overly Dependent Clients Become Independent Writers. Writing Lab Newsletter. 19:8 (1995), 10-14.

Kristen Walker of Midlands Technical College is an experienced writing center tutor who has provided some advice for dealing with a too-common writing center occurrence – the overly dependent student. She identifies some common characteristics besides simple over-dependence: often they are students returning to school after an absence, and are unaware of the skills and demands required of academic writing; second, they are acutely fearful of failing their classes; and lastly, because of this fear “these students were powerfully motivated to do well.” To frame her analysis, Walker considers the challenges of and solutions for tutors of overly-dependent students in the context of a currently popular topic of debate among writing center scholars: the degree to which a student should be dependent on the writing center.

Walker has this to say about the issue: “The current issue in writing center theory doesn’t seem to be whether clients should be independent of dependent but how dependent they should be.” She speaks about how the old clinic/hospital metaphor is being phased out by many writing centers, but that they still view the end goal as sending “well” clients on their way with no further need for a writing center. Modern theories have changed however, with the acknowledgement and recognition of the needs of writers to collaborate and receive feedback from other writers. This is presented here as the current mainstream thinking within writing center theory. Quoting from fellow theorist Dave Healy, Walker expands on Healy’s three main measures to fulfill both the needs of the student and the writing center. Healy lists these as the need for writing centers to redefine their jobs, provide nourishment to developing writers, and to encourage writers to have a lifelong desire to collaborate.

Taken as a given that a tutor should not “end up doing clients’ work for them,” Walker proposes that a primary way to redefine the purpose of the writing center should be “receiving more information from students instead of giving it.” Her solution, adapted from scholar James Upton, is the Worksheet, designed to get the student to think, write and talk about the assignment before writing or during revising. After this step, students often have a much clearer understanding of the assignment.

The worksheet thus functions both as a means to collect information from the student, as well as a form of nourishment, Walker’s (and Healy’s) next point of focus. The student’s responses to the worksheet should be verified to ensure the student is familiar with all the needs and requirements of the assignment; now the tutor has a jumping-off point for encouragement and nourishment. Confirming to the student that their answers reflect understanding of both the Worksheet and the assignment can reduce the student’s over-dependence. Showing the student how to better self-edit their papers can free them from over-reliance on tutors; after all, any line-editing or proofreading we do as tutors only discourages active skill-acquirement and self-reliance  Walker recommends use of Edward Vavra’s sequential grammar system, the details of which are beyond the scope of this blog post, a system shown to be effective in showing students how to correct their own papers.

“True nourishment comes in part as a result of collaboration, collaboration that is neither overly critical nor insincerely flattering.” Walker here recommends another tool developed by Upton, the Reader Evaluation Sheet, adapted from scholar Bill Lyons’ “Praise-Question-Polish” model of writing critique. Throughout the revising process, this sheet can help the student improve their paper, often to the degree that the student keeps the worksheets for future reference. One critical aspect of this worksheet, with Walker quoting Lyons here, is the need for “the comments [to be] ‘as specific and positive as possible.'” It is also stressed here that the worksheet is simply another tool for the student and tutor – a means to encourage collaboration – and not a replacement for discussion or actual writing.

The end goal of all this is summed up by Walker at the end of her piece:

“Clients will then leave the writing center with the sense that their efforts and feedback from others both make a difference in their writing instead of leaving with the idea that the writing center exists to do their writing for them.”

Takayoshi and Selfe Explain the Merits of Teaching Multimodal Composition

Takayoshi, Pamela and Selfe, Cynthia L. (2006) “Thinking about Multimodality”

To begin their piece, Takayoshi and Selfe consider the standard form of the student composition, a pages-long stream of written words that has remained unchanged for a claimed 150 years, while the forms of communication in the new, digital, connected world hardly limit themselves to characters only. This new form of communication, thanks to recent advancements in computers and the merging of technologies, uses easily-manipulated still images, animations, video, audio and color; they term these new compositions multimodal texts. And while these digital tools may be new to the traditional composition, the authors make a compelling case for their acceptance into current curricula. They present their reasoning for the wider adoption of multimodal composition, and answer what they term as the five most often-asked questions by teachers.

The authors point to five reasons why teachers should take multimodal composition more seriously. With an ever-more digital and connected world, it becomes increasingly important for students to not only continue to “consume” multiple modalities – a second-nature for them now that they have grown up in the internet age – but to learn to “compose in multiple modalities.” This is their first point. The second is the need for composition to stay abreast of this changing world; if it to stay relevant, the “definition of ‘composition’ and ‘texts’ needs to grow and change to reflect peoples’ literacy practices.” Third, the writers remind us that although there may be a sometimes steep learning curve and occasional frustration, the fact remains that multimodal composition can be engaging and fun, and thus a good vehicle for important concepts regarding rhetoric. In fact, their next point is exactly that: that multimodal composition requires fluency and command of traditional rhetorical principles, and that audio/video work can sometimes require an even better grasp of these principles than traditional texts. The fifth and final point is an extension of the previous two, that for true “progressive education” following the theories of John Dewey the student and teacher must come together in a mutually respectful environment where the student has more than a little say in the course of her education. Meeting on the playing field of the digital connected world, a world perhaps more familiar and easily navigated by the student than the teacher, can capture and maintain the attention of the student, and the more collaborative atmosphere may ultimately prove more efficacious than the traditional model.

Takayoshi and Selfe address a list of their five most often asked questions by other instructors. The first and most important is: “When I teach multimodal composing, am I really teaching composition?” They answer this first with a reminder that the very rules of writing originate from the oral tradition, and at one time even writing itself was seen as a distraction from clear oration. The authors outline how each important technology related to the written word – the advent of the press, engraving, photography, etc. – has caused concern for educators of the day. But if rhetoric is the art of effective persuasion, then these technologies are merely new tools in the student’s arsenal to be mastered. Other questions include practical matters, like: shouldn’t the video department teach video? will i have to become an expert in these new technologies? and does my department or school even have this equipment?

These are minor matters, answered efficiently by the authors. The main points of importance are summarized above, but further reading is encouraged – just follow the link at the top of this post.

Brooks Defines the Role of Tutor

Jeff Brooks. Minimalist Tutoring Making the Student Do All the Work. Writing Lab Newsletter 15 (Feb 1991), 1-4.  http://writinglabnewsletter.org/archives/v15/15-6.pdf

“…the goal of each tutoring session is learning, not a perfect paper.”

Jeff Brooks of Seattle Pacific University presents this axiom early in his article. Taking this idea as his starting point, Brooks presents his philosophy of proper tutoring and some best practices for sessions with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students. Throughout, he shows how applying this first principle can effectively aid the tutor in finding solutions that serve the needs of all, especially the student.

Brooks takes great care defining the role of the writing center tutor. First, he reminds tutors to avoid falling into the twin traps of “muscling in” on papers and trying to reshape them entirely, or becoming simple line editors. The needs of the student – who often comes in because their professor told them to, or because they fear a failing grade – many times simply boil down to “I have to get an A, help me fix this,” a plea that may be hard to ignore. Also, a tutor may feel compelled to let no piece of sub-standard writing pass their eyes without improvement; this can work in concert with the “fix it” request from the student, and soon the bulk of the work is being done by the tutor and no the student. To avoid this scenario, Brooks stresses the importance of keeping “ownership” of the paper firmly with the student. He states that tutors must take a “secondary role, serving mainly to keep the student focused on his own writing.” Brooks reframes his axiom (the very first quote at the beginning of this post), stating that “a writing teacher or tutor cannot and should not expect to make student papers ‘better’; that is neither our obligation, nor is it a realistic goal.”

The role, then, of the writing center tutor should be primarily one of a patient, helpful listener that can give undivided attention to both the student’s writing generally as well as the specific paper being evaluated. Brooks gives two assumptions that should help the tutor avoid being too heavy-handed with editing. One: rarely will students critically reread their own writing even once, as often it is a last-minute little-loved task to write a paper. But if the tutor can get the student to regard her own paper as a text “that deserve[s] the same kind of close attention we usually reserve for literary texts,” then the value of improvements to the paper is clear to the student. Two, he stresses a main difference between a student and professional piece of writing: while real world writing is driven by an attempt at perfection, student writing is about the process of writing, and most writing teachers know this. “Students write to learn, not to make perfect papers,” says Brooks. Thus, the student’s need to ‘fix’ their paper is often misguided. If the goal is actually the process, fixating on the end-product is counterproductive and the student should refocus on learning all the tools necessary to improve the process.

Brooks offers some advice on body language that should help reinforce to the student that the tutor is not an editor, or hired gun ready to rewrite the paper for them. He advises sitting next to, not across from, the student; keep the paper closer to the student than ones self, perhaps even sitting with your dominant writing hand away from the paper; and he, like most other writing center experts, advises that the paper should be read aloud by the student. Often students will find their own errors, large and small, simply by reading and hearing their paper. He also offers three advanced techniques: the tutor should focus on the positives of the paper, both as encouragement as well as to subtly reinforce that the paper is “a ‘text’ to be analyzed, with strengths as well as weaknesses”; the tutor must get the student to talk about their paper. He suggests (positively phrased and encouraging) ‘leading’ questions that get the student engaged and thinking about their own processes; treat them as the expert on the paper. And finally, he suggests assigning a small writing task during the session. As an example, he suggests that for the paper without a clear thesis statement, to have the student spend a few minutes on their own writing this out. Lastly, Brooks offers two insights into dealing with difficult or defensive students: mirroring their (often disinterested or demanding) body language, and learning how to be effective with brutal honesty, such as a response like “I don’t know – it’s your paper.”

Through all this detailed and helpful advice, Brooks wonderfully supports his main thesis, and shows how dilemmas or difficult situations with a student can be resolved by remembering his central idea, “…the goal of each tutoring session is learning, not a perfect paper.”

Thoughts on Powers: Consulting with Technical Writers

Shelley, Powers. Consulting with Technical Writers. Praxis. 1:1 (2003).

Ms. Shelley Powers at the University of Texas PhD program in American Studies has written a clear, detailed guide for humanities writing tutors making the transition to technical writing tutoring. In it, she adresses the differences between the two writing styles, and provides many thoughtful approaches to help make the transition.

Powers’s introduction contains two important general guidelines that frame her all her subsequent points. Regarding the likely resistance to advice many engineers or other technical types may have, she states that “the simplest and most helpful thing we can do to address it is to adapt a little.” For many tutors coming from a humanities-based approach, this is important to keep in mind, as there are many differences between technical and non-technical writing, as will be seen below. The other main idea she presents to begin the article is: “we can offer suggestions to make writing as rational as possible—and that is exactly what we ought to do to help writers produce good technical writing.” This statement nicely sums up the requirements of both technical writing and technical writers; a piece of technical writing MUST be rational, clear, and precise. And, as might be guessed, many engineers, scientists, researchers and other technical-minded people respond most readily to structured, logical, reason-based approaches to writing.

Powers begins by considering the ‘prerequisites’ a technical writing tutor should expect from one seeking help. Firstly, she points out that unlike most humanities writing, engineers, scientists and the like usually work in groups, subdividing many tasks including the writing of papers by sections. Powers reminds us that the person coming in for help is often the team member tasked with “tying together” the sections written by others. She recommends that the consultant ask this team member to bring in the entire team – this may be difficult to achieve, but should be pursued. The second, and more critical point she makes, is to ensure that the appropriate format or style guide is available. Many different standards exist for technical writing, and each field or subfield has its own specific requirements and expectations. Powers calls the need for the proper style or format guide “crucial.”

Powers names four aspects of the paper as a whole to address: purpose, audience, clarity, and grammar. Regarding purpose, she states “the writer should be able to tell you, in one sentence, what the writing is supposed to do.” She also stresses the need to know if the focus of the paper “is on the process of acquiring the information or the information itself.” One example of this might be a laboratory experiment report versus a research paper.

Powers next aspect to consider is audience, and this can be a relatively simple determination. Usually an instructor will specify to the student to write for an “educated non-technical audience.” If not thusly specified, it can often be assumed (especially in lab classes) that it should be strictly technical writing, i.e. you are writing for the professor or TA, and they will expect rigorous compliance with the rubric given.

Clarity is the third consideration; here Powers stresses the need to follow the guidelines of the style sheet, as well as “getting into the data as quickly as possible”, which is something many humanities writers would fail to recognize, or consider ‘bad form’. Powers also provides some advice that applies to the variable requirements of technical writing across all fields: sentences/paragraphs can, and should, be fairly short; repetitions of definite nouns is much preferred to ambiguity in pronouns; negative constructions are weak and should be avoided; headings ought to be descriptive; be aware of emphasis, like two vastly different-sized charts; and to to remember that the data should be the focus of the writing.

Powers’s last ‘whole-paper considerations’ is what she calls ‘counterintuitive grammar’, presumably in a nod to humanities-based writing consultants. “Passive voice is not always bad,” she states, and in fact many professors and technical journals will insist on strict adherence to the passive voice. She also addresses the sometimes daunting tense requirements of technical writing. Her simple advice here is to “help the writer make sure the tense stays consistent within each section.”

Response to Chamberlain’s FAQ’s

Chamberlain, Kalie. The English Tutor’s FAQ’s. Praxis. 2:2 (2005).  http://projects.uwc.utexas.edu/praxis/?q=node/28

At the time of publication of “The English Tutor’s FAQ’s,” Kalie Chamberlain was a senior at Southern Utah University completing her English Education degree. Ms. Chamberlain had worked at the Braithwaite Writing Center for three years, rising to positions of Office Manager and Master Tutor; as such, she is eminently qualified to give a brief “Frequently Asked Questions’ for new writing center student advisors.

Chamberlain begins quickly by addressing one of the greatest fears of new tutors, the negative student. Though at first reading it may seem to be simply standard bromides of “encouragement” and “try to relate to the student” – perfectly valid and useful advice of course – a closer look reveals two very central ideas. The first is simply a reminder that “(the tutor’s) enthusiasm is the most effective aspect of a session.” The second idea is almost a definition, or theorem of sorts: “the job of a tutor is to help students gain the life-long communication skills they need to succeed.” Between the two, one has easily understood guidelines of how an advising session or long-term relationship with a student should go. The first serves to remind tutors that while we may feel helpless when trying to help uncooperative, disinterested, or frustrated students, we have much power; our positive outlook can change a students’ outlook on his or her writing abilities. And the second, while more abstract, is equally powerful. Effective, clear communication doesn’t come easily to most, and it can be a life-long challenge to continually improve our communication. But it can also be a life-long reward. The ability to shape peoples’ opinions, explain one’s own, the tools necessary to frame an argument effectively, or to present technical information clearly and plainly – these are skills that separate team leaders from team members. Or to combine Chamberlain’s two ideas: if we can change a student’s outlook on writing from one of having to do a chore to one of enthusiasm and satisfaction, we give that student much more than just a passing grade on their paper. Rather we give them the tools and confidence to tackle any future challenge.

These two main ideas of Chamberlain provide a thorough philosophical underpinning for effective tutoring, but what about the actual tutoring? The nuts-and-bolts of getting someone to be a better writer? As can be seen from the phrasing of the third question, “what do I do with a student who won’t read out loud?” it is clear that Chamberlain agrees with many who feel that reading aloud of papers is very effective, and simply assumed as a best-practice. While I had understood the benefits of this, and how obvious errors and mistakes sound when reading aloud, she also mentioned another benefit of reading aloud. She advises in the sixth and seventh questions to read aloud to the student, with no draft in from of them, and ask questions afterward like “where was it clear?” and “where were you confused?” This process, with the written copy removed, seems to turn the writers’ attention from the micro-scale of the grammatical to the more important macro-scale of content, organization, and writing for the proper audience. I had not considered that reading aloud could help with these big-picture issues, and considered it mostly for grammar and sentence structure only. But I can appreciate how the writer, only hearing and not seeing her words, could find areas to improve the flow and organization of her writing.