When the Devil’s Not in the Details: Addressing Lower Order Concerns in Tutoring Sessions

By Henry Allen

Note to readers: This piece is for writing tutors, though writers are welcome to read it for a peek inside the tutoring workshop.

In every tutoring session, certain concerns need to be prioritized above others. Writing pedagogies have traditionally distinguished between two rough levels of priority: higher order concerns (HOCs) and lower order concerns (LOCs). HOCs are things like the organization of a paper, whether it has an arguable thesis, and how well it uses evidence. These are the concerns that will make or break a paper. LOCs, on the other hand, are errors in, for example, sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. They will reduce the clarity of a paper but, unless they are especially egregious, won’t significantly obscure the paper’s argument. In grading, professors will usually weigh lower order concerns less than higher order concerns. Consequently, unless a writer asks to work on LOCs in a tutoring session, HOCs should be prioritized.

However, there will often still be time to deal with lower order concerns. When there is time, it can be hard to know when to address them, how to address them, and how long to spend doing so. In this post, I will lay out a method for dealing with LOCs that involves saving them for the end of the tutoring session, dealing with one type of error at a time, and ensuring that the writer understands the error at hand before moving on.

First off, when should LOCs be addressed? When I tutor, I am often tempted to correct LOCs in passing as I read through a paper, with a quick remark of explanation. But this can easily turn into glorified editing. Often, I feel like my explanation just goes in one ear and out the other. The writer will leave with a corrected paper but without having learned anything, just as liable to make the same mistake in the future.

Consequently, it’s better to save lower order concerns for the end of the session and only deal with them when you can devote some time to them. As you read through, mark all their LOCs but don’t stop to discuss or fix them until you are done with their HOCs. Yes, this will mean that in some tutoring sessions LOCs will be completely ignored. But that’s the cost of setting priorities. If you fix their LOCs and they learn nothing, you have merely helped the writer’s grade in the short term and set yourself up for a plagiarism proceeding.

Note, however, that this only applies (A) for when the writer has not explicitly asked you to focus on LOCs and (B) to truly minor LOCs. Some LOCS are serious enough that they critically obscure the meaning of a sentence and prevent you from understanding what the paper is trying to say. These LOCs will need to be addressed before HOCs—you can’t fix an writer’s argument if you don’t know what the writer is trying to say. However, most LOCs are not this serious and should be saved for the end of a session.

So, when you do have a chunk of time to devote to LOCs, how should you go about addressing them? First, make sure to prioritize here as well. Pick a mistake they made repeatedly, or one that has the highest risk of obscuring the meaning of a sentence. Then, in determining how to deal with it, keep the goal of the tutoring session firmly in mind: the improvement of the writer, not the paper. As noted above, the writer of course won’t improve if the tutor simply fixes their paper. But neither will they improve if the tutor, using a strict non-directive approach, forces them to guess their way to the right answer. This is because many of our grammar rules are arbitrary. A writer will never figure out such rules by making educated guesses from common sense. Rather, they need to be told what the rules are and then be given the chance to practice applying them.

Thus, for the first instance of the given error, fix it for them and then clearly explain why you did so and what the operative grammar rule is. Make sure to translate any grammatical terms you used that the writer is unfamiliar with into plain English. Most writers who haven’t studied a foreign language and for whom English is a first language will be unfamiliar with the most basic terms. If they give you a blank expression at the first mention of “independent clause,” assume they know nothing and translate every term you use.

Next, check whether they understood your explanation. Ask, “Did that make sense?” However, don’t rely on a simple “yes.” Many writers will say that they understood when they didn’t just to keep the session moving. Instead, if they made the same mistake elsewhere, ask them to fix the other instances of their error and then explain to you how they did so. If they really understand, they should be able to justify their correction.

If they only made the given error once, ask them to paraphrase your explanation of the error and the grammar rule. Say, “Why don’t you explain that back to me.” So as not to seem like you’re just giving them a hard time, be clear about why you’re doing this. Tell them, “this will help you understand better.”

Now, what happens if they’re not getting it? Maybe they can’t give you a clear explanation, or maybe they’re unable to fix the other instances of their error. First, don’t assume that they’re “slow” or stupid. Unless you can tell by their body language that they’re disengaged and not willing to learn, they probably aren’t getting it because you’re not explaining it clearly. So try again. Alter your explanation. Maybe invent some examples, or find some online, to help you. But don’t move on to their other errors until they get this one. It’s better that they truly understand one of their mistakes than none at all.

A significant part of this method depends on you being able to provide a grammatical explanation of their error. But this kind of knowledge of English grammar goes beyond what many tutors are expected to know. So what do you do when you know they made a mistake but are unable to explain why? As Maggie Eismeier and John Masla explain in “Grammar rules and resources,” this is a great opportunity for you to look together online for an explanation, using a resource like the Purdue OWL. As Maggie and John say, this not only solves your immediate problem but shows the writer where to find grammar resources for the future. Further, it tells them that it’s okay to not know everything, to need to seek help, and that being able to write well doesn’t demand knowing every arcane rule of English grammar. Turn your own grammatical ignorance into a learning opportunity!

In sum, tutoring a writer on lower order concerns rather than simply correcting their mistakes demands a significant amount of time in a session. So, unless LOCs seriously obstruct meaning, save them for the end. Then, pick one to focus on, fix it, and explain why in plain English. Next, have them practice on other instances of the error and ask them to justify their corrections. Or, if they only made the mistake once, check for understanding by having them paraphrase your explanation. No matter what, don’t move on until they get it.

Hopefully, this method will slowly give writers a rudimentary understanding of something that most college classes don’t have the luxury of covering: the principles of English grammar and the basic rules that ensure clear writing.

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