Learning a Language: How can tutors create a higher level of understanding for ELA writers?

You know how sometimes when you enter a new group setting, you’re asked to participate in an icebreaker activity that requires you to tell everyone an interesting fact about yourself? Well, I’m going to tell you guys what I always say during that awkward icebreaker scenario (and I promise it’s relevant to the topic of this post).

My most ‘interesting’ fact about myself is that, when I was 11 years old, my mom got a promotion at her company that required our family to move abroad. I spent the next two and a half years (my 6th and 7th grade years) living in the city of Lausanne, which is located in the French-speaking sector of Switzerland on the edge of the famous Lake Geneva. Super awesome, right?

Well, this maybe be surprising, but my experience wasn’t all skiing in the Alps, learning to yodel like a true Swiss, or singing The Hills Are Alive in a scenic flower covered field.

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Despite the incredible opportunities that accompany any excursion abroad, there were huge obstacles I faced as an American with no knowledge of the language or culture. I attended an all French-speaking private school where virtually no one could communicate with me. I went from being a high-achieving student to failing most assignments because I didn’t understand or speak French. Things got easier, but I will never forget that feeling of alienation that colored my experience of living in a foreign country.

Even though my stay was brief, I was able to leave Switzerland with a high-intermediate level in French. However, I know that I would have never reached that point of communication ability without the teachers, tutors, and friends who helped me learn. Based on my knowledge of what it’s like to live in a foreign country and learn a new language all at once, here are some tips for peer tutors that I think can improve appointments with English Language learners:

1) Whether it’s a Conversation Partner, Face-to-Face, or Written Feedback appointment, it’s important to match the language level that you gauge the writer to have. I don’t mean that you need to use over-simplified terms, but I do think it’s essential that the tutor isn’t using language that will fly right over the writer’s head. We don’t want writers making appointments just so they can understand the feedback they have already received.

2) If you have an in-person appointment with an English Language Learner, be expressive! You would be surprised how well something as simple as hand gestures or drawing a picture can transcend language barriers. And if the writer is still not understanding, or if they are having trouble explaining something to you, don’t be afraid to use the technology that’s available to us. If all else fails, hop on google translate and bridge that communication gap so that the appointment can progress.

3) In any type of appointment with with an English Language Learner, provide options. Create as much opportunity for comprehension as possible. If they don’t understand something during an in-person appointment, or you are worried that the writer won’t understand when they review their written feedback, say it more than one way. Rephrase, and be as direct as possible.

4) Lastly, here are a few links that I have found helpful for explaining grammatical errors that are commonly made by English Language Learners:

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It can be super hard being life in a new, and often very different country, but one way we can make it easier for international students is adapting our tutoring styles for the needs of English Language Learners. Do you have any tips to add to this list? Share them in the comments below!