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.”