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.

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