Grammar rules and resources

Maggie Eismeier and John Masla

Tutors who speak English as their first language often don’t know how to verbalize English conventions as formal rules. It is often easy to tell when something is “off” in a sentence and much harder to explain why. Tutees who are native speakers of English tend to be more aware of when things “sound wrong,” since they have more experience with the English language. English language learners, on the other hand, are often more familiar with grammar rules than native speakers, but have less experience reading and writing in English. ELL students, who have likely learned English systematically, in a class, may want to know the rules and systems behind the intuitions a native speaker has, and these can be difficult for a tutor to supply.

Don’t worry about being able to explain every quirk of English, though: it’s not the tutor’s job to know all the rules of English grammar. In fact, it’s often more productive to work with a tutee to find a useful resource than to explain just one rule. We have talked with Lydia McDermott and with Jen Mouat (director of the LLC) about sharing resources among Writing Center tutors and ELL Fellows.

There are many useful online resources, including the Purdue Online Writing Lab ( and the University of Chicago Writing Program (  The Purdue OWL has lots of resources particularly for ELL students and tutors, and the Chicago site provides links to many other sites.

Looking for resources together is also a good way to establish a peer relationship with a tutee. Hearing a native English speaker say that they don’t understand why a certain rule works a certain way, or referring to resources to solve these problems, shows students that they don’t have to know every rule of English in order to be able to write well. Knowing when to refer to resources, and how to find them, is a valuable writing skill, and it’s important for students, whether native speakers or English language learners, to understand this. Working with a student to find and use grammar and language resources is useful not only because of the content learned, but also because it shows the student that it’s perfectly okay to make mistakes and to need help, and that this doesn’t constitute failure as a student or writer.

It’s a useful exercise to try to explain English grammar rules; it helps make us aware of our knowledge of English, as well as of the things we’re less knowledgeable about. Often explaining an idea to other is a very effective way to learn. If you’re working with a client who seems to know a rule that you don’t, you might try asking them to explain it: you’ll learn more about that aspect of usage or grammar, and they’ll solidify their understanding.

The aim of this post and presentation has been to highlight the usefulness of grammar resources in tutoring, and to point out some of those available to students and tutors and Whitman. As a tutor and native English speaker, you yourself are a language resource, but it’s important to understand that the tutor is not supposed to be an absolute authority on English. Working with a client to find resources helps both tutor and client to understand English rules better, and, more importantly, gives both a broader base to work from in the future.


Edited by Natalie Berg


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