Peer Tutoring for ESL Writers

Arden Robinette and Dana Burgess

Peer tutors negotiate a tricky passage between non-directive and directive work.  On the one hand, peer tutors are not subject-area experts;  on the other, they may be able to offer valuable guidance for struggling writers.  Within this tension, work with non-native English speakers adds additional challenges.  Non-native speakers come to the task of composing academic English with obvious linguistic challenges.  It seems silly for a native-speaking tutor to deny knowledge of English usage and idiom in the interest of maintaining a non-directive approach, but it makes little sense to consume an entire tutoring session by picking the nits of grammar when the writer needs attention to clarity and coherence.  Non-native speakers come to the task of composing academic English with the additional cultural challenges of an outsider.  A native English speaking student is also an outsider when approaching a new academic discipline, but the non-native speaker is doubly challenged.  It serves no one for a native-speaking tutor to deny knowledge of conventions of North American academic culture, but it would be insulting and counterproductive for the tutor to command the non-native client’s conformity to all conventions of American academic culture.

Non-native speaking clients sometimes approach issues of authority differently than many North Americans.  Styles of education around the world often command student obedience, with an assumption that knowledge is transferred from teacher to student.  For such students Whitman operates on a very unusual set of assumptions.  The Whitman student is encouraged, or even forced, to think independently and to come up with original ideas and arguments.  Students accustomed to returning only the correct answer to a direct question may be baffled by Whitman’s emphasis upon ambiguity, indeterminacy and nuance.  The non-directive peer tutor may exacerbate and frustrate a client who just wants to know what verb tense to employ in a particular sentence.  The highly directive peer tutor may satisfy the clients’ desires for the right answer but will likely fail to help clients’ improve their abilities to determine that tense for themselves.

Cultural differences around authority also become evident as non-native writers work to adapt to the rhetorical conventions of North American academic writing.  Not all academic cultures prefer that a thesis be confidently asserted toward the outset of a paper.  Students trained in such a context may advance theses later in a document or may advance them more tentatively than North American instructors prefer.  The non-directive peer tutor runs a risk of failing to inform the client of the rhetorical conventions preferred at Whitman, while the overly directive peer tutor may seem to be arbitrarily commanding a rhetorical form the client finds impolitic or rude.

Here is a sample of writing from a Japanese native speaker, writing for a class about teaching writing to English Language Learners. Consider the thesis of this piece:

“However, in my opinion, the lack of opportunity for students’ first-order thinking is a defect in the current English writing classes in terms of their attitude toward mistakes and their meaning of writing itself.”

The possessive “their” is unclear—a grammatical problem.  Who is “their” referring to? The students? The current English writing classes? Teachers? The Japanese education system as a whole? More questions follow. If “their” is referring to the students, for example, it could be the students’ personally defined meaning of writing, or their understanding of the meaning of writing, or a definition they learned of the meaning of writing. It could be a collective meaning that students have created together, or a synthesis of what writing means to each of them individually. The English language learner tries to utilize the possessive in an attempt to make the idea stand out but seems confused as to the precise meaning of the idea.

This problem also raises the question of directive versus non-directive tutoring. A tutor who is also a native speaker may be tempted to take a directive approach and simply tell the non-native speaker to change “their” to “the” or to clarify the referent of the possessive. But how will this help the client in the long run? If they change something because the peer tutor says so, without knowing the rationale behind it, how will they fix that problem in the future? On the other hand, if the tutor takes a non-directive approach and simply hints that it could be changed, the client may feel insecure about their language ability. They may feel that they have made a stupid mistake and become so discouraged with their writing ability that they give up.  There is no right answer to this problem. However, it can often be helpful to the client if the tutor not only points out what is wrong, but explains why it is wrong. This can help the client find ways to correct the error on their own.

The sentence above also provides an example of a rhetorical problem as well as a cultural problem. The writer chose to put the thesis late, at the very end of a paragraph, with other paragraphs preceding it. As a result, the writer’s thesis is not immediately clear to one accustomed to American rhetorical conventions for which it is customary to place a thesis early in a paper—often at the end of the first paragraph. But how does a native speaker communicate this to a non-native speaker, who may have been taught a different convention? Many native speakers don’t know why conventions such as these exist, but uphold them as the right way to do things. It is a native-speaking tutor’s responsibility to communicate conventions such as these and act as a cultural informant to a non-native speaker. However, the native speaker must find a way to do this without making value judgments. The tutor must be able to explain to the non-native speaker that their way of structuring a rhetorical argument is not wrong, but that it doesn’t fit the conventions of American academic culture. The tutor must carefully consider how, when, and where to be directive or non-directive. These considerations become even more crucial when the client is a non-native speaker, as the tutor is not only a grammatical and rhetorical authority, but a cultural authority as well.

Asking (and Answering) the Right Question: How to Know What to Write Next

by Jonas Myers


“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

In my job in the Academic Resource Center, I meet with about ten different students on a weekly basis. While I was hired specifically to help these students with accommodations-related issues (usually, dyslexia), most of the time we end up working on writing just the way you would with the average Writing Center student. We do some brainstorming; we talk about how to craft strong theses and support them; we discuss clarity and sentence structure; perhaps most of all, we work on some level of organization. This makes sense: the easy part of writing (relatively speaking) is haphazardly getting your raw ideas onto the page. It’s the subsequent shaping and arranging that takes real nuance and care. Indeed, “organization” is second only to “clarity” in terms of what students cite as the reason they seek help at the Writing Center. “Clarity” is perhaps most common in the Writing Center because the majority of our visitors are one-timers, coming in with nearly final drafts, very close to their due date. This persists as the most common way people make use of the Writing Center, and that’s fine. What’s nice about my job in the ARC is that no one is coming in just one time. Don’t get me wrong–people still bring me drafts late in the game (sometimes only an hour from the deadline). But I’ll have already worked, and have future chances to work, with these same folks. Ideally, we’ll look at the same paper multiple times together before it’s time to turn it in. This is the main difference between what happens in my office in the ARC and what happens at the Writing Center.

This regularity provides fertile testing grounds for tutoring methods. Working with the same student over the course of a semester or more, inevitably you find out, to some extent, what works and what doesn’t. One method I’ve been finding widely useful lately is question-driven organization. Allow me to explain: the previous sentence, “one method I’ve been finding widely useful lately is question-driven organization,” left you with questions, did it not? More specifically, it left you with one most burning question: “What does he mean by ‘question-driven organization?'” I’ve dropped in this term at the end of my sentence like it’s something you might be familiar with. However, given that it’s something I’m currently in the process of coming up with myself, I imagine the concept won’t immediately register in your mind. My next sentence better do at least some of the work of answering that question, or I’ve broken your trust–that elusive substance by which the writer-reader relationship is sustained. Now, this explanatory sentence will almost certainly raise questions of its own–which I’d then better answer. And so on. By this method, my writing becomes a series of answers to questions I’m pretty sure you have. Now we’ve got a basic organizational logic.

The real difficulty of this dance is trying to anticipate what the reader is wondering. The reason this is difficult is that you are the one person in the entire world who is decidedly not “the reader.” It takes your best attempt at untying your author’s shoes and slipping into your reader’s loafers. Actually, this is probably something that, as experienced writers, we’re all fairly used to doing. Even if we don’t always think of it in terms of questions, when we write, and specifically when we decide what comes next, we’re engaging in this exercise. We know you have to have your audience in mind. We know sometimes we need to listen to them, and sometimes they need to listen to us. Sometimes we must answer their burning questions, sometimes we step in and answer questions they didn’t even know they had. Far from surrendering all power to the reader, by this method we simply make writing a bit more collaborative. The problem is that you’re collaborating with a ghost. “The reader” is, at this stage anyway, an abstraction. That’s what makes this tricky. Still, anyone who has done a lot of writing has learned a thing or two about the dance, and we dance it less clumsily than we used to.

The much trickier thing is to teach this skill to inexperienced writers. I work almost exclusively with first-year students, so in a college-level writing context, they are all inexperienced. This skill does not come easily for them. If they bring me a draft, I’ll ask them to pick a paragraph; I’ll read them their first one or two sentences, and ask them to identify the questions they’ve raised. What, as a reader, am I wondering? Can they guess?

The answer turns out to be “kind of.” Or “yes, tentatively, with some help.” The question “What should come next?” will almost certainly earn an answer not unlike what they did write next. The key difference here is that I’m not asking what should come next. I’m providing an intermediate step: “What am I wondering? What am I confused about?” This way, we identify the reason for writing what comes next before we attempt to actually write it.

It takes some encouragement. But it’s an intuitive enough idea that it will start to catch on. Even if my students can’t exactly replicate the process, it still ends up being an “aha!” moment for them. It was an “aha!” moment for me when, very late in the college game, I learned about the idea of guiding questions. I learned it as a way of choosing a topic, and of eventually reaching a thesis. I’ve just read a book and a bunch of criticism, now I ask “what do I want to better understand?” It was appealing because it meant choosing to write about what I found interesting.

I’m modifying this idea, and applying it more widely, to practically every stage of the writing process. Several things are appealing about tutoring via question-driven organization. First of all, it works at many levels. Gauging reader questions can help a writer craft a thesis, choose an overall direction for the paper, or just shape a paragraph, and order individual sentences. It can even help within a single sentence–we probably ought to start our sentence by answering a question and end by raising another one, if the sequence is to continue. Second, examples are easy to come by. Pick up any piece of halfway-decent writing and you’ll be able to point to a sentence that answers a question raised by the previous sentence. You can even pluck a piece of the conversation you’re having with your tutee and point out how this logic is working there. Third, the method is easy enough to understand that students can take it home with them after one or two sessions. That’s because it’s based on a very simple principle: try to answer your reader’s question. Chances are, it’s something to which your student hasn’t given much if any thought (hence the “aha!” moment). I mentioned earlier that students have had some difficulty doing this with drafts they’ve already written. I would imagine that it’s much easier to put into practice once they’re writing a new paper. I might not be there to help them through it, but neither is their initial choice there to obscure a much better one. Implementing this process during draft-writing will not only make writing the draft that much easier, it will also mean less time and effort spent reorganizing later on in the process.

Try this method with your students if it intrigues you, and see if it doesn’t get them a little bit excited. Too often, inexperienced writers (and we’ve all been inexperienced writers) feel like they’re writing in the dark–driving through a nighttime fog, as Doctorow would have it, only without headlights in this case. Either they feel like what they’re choosing to write next is random, or they simply get stuck. Getting stuck, or “writer’s block,” comes from a lack of a guiding logic–you can’t see in front of you. I say, if you want to know what comes next, just ask. Ask what you think the reader is asking.

Would you look at that! Suddenly your headlights are on.

Here’s to a new semester!

Well, it’s been a while since we posted anything here at the Whitman Writing Center blog. But each semester we’re growing, expanding our outreach, and honing our mission. This semester is off to a great start with a few new tutors, regular events such as Tuesday Tea Time (1-3:30) and Faculty/Staff Fridays (1-3), and we even had an open house to kick off the semester! One of the open house activities was a group composition, also known as an “exquisite corpse.” Each person at the event contributed a sentence. Here is the rather remarkable piece we produced: 


“Gently now, Rutherford,” cautioned the boatswain. Rutherford swung his club in a barbaric and jerky arc.

“Shit,” muttered Rutherford.

The boatswain reiterated this sentiment: “merde.” You see, the boatswain, Ben-Zouf, was from that most illustrious of Parisian neighborhoods, La Batte de Montemartre. A neighborhood known for the pervasive presence of feces, “La Batte” was not a great place to be after dark.

Utterly woebegone, Rutherford wandered through the neighborhood. There, he heard a small kitten meowing and followed the sound. After wandering awhile, he discovered that he wasn’t following the sound; rather, the sound was following him. Desperate to escape the feline terror stalking him amongst the beautiful Parisian buildings, Rutherford took a sharp left down a deserted alleyway, where he found the very kitten he was trying to avoid. It turned out that the kitten was a mouse.

The mouse wore a heavy orange cat mask, but the mask was so large it dragged on the cobblestones. “We meet again,” said the masked mouse, much to the surprise and chagrin of Rutherford.

Rutherford pivoted to run, but midscream, the boatswain hooked his throat, and Rutherford fell to the cold, silent ground.

“It always works,” muttered the boatswain.