Tips For a Successful ELL Tutorial

By January 31, 2012Peer Writing Tutoring

I’ve never had a conversation partner appointment, but I’d like to think that I’d know what to do with one.  The UCWbL abounds with strategies for a successful conversation partner appointment, and everyone has ideas of what to say, how to say it, and what to encourage.  We hear about it in WRD class, orientation settings, tip-sheets, and from other tutors.  What these tips didn’t prepare me for was a somewhat difficult (and confusing) writing tutorial with an English language learner – and for a paper outside my discipline, no less.  What do you do when communication breaks down in a face-to-face setting with an ELL student, though?  Your focus is different here – their writing, not their speaking – and yet the tutorial’s dependent on clear and informative conversation.  With that in mind, perhaps there is overlap between the conversation partner appointment and the ELL student face-to-face tutorial, and perhaps strategies designed for the former can be applied to the latter.

In my case, the writer came to me with an assignment sheet and a lot of questions.  Her final project focused on creating a classical music program, then writing up descriptions and an argumentative essay concerning her chosen musical works.  Most of our session was spent figuring out what exactly the teacher wanted from the assignment, which leads me to a sort of point #1:

Make sure you’re on the same page.  Especially if, like me, you’re not completely clear on what a music paper needs.  We talked it out extensively – nuts and bolts, components of a successful essay, ways to come up with a thesis – and I found myself doing a lot of explaining, for her benefit and mine.  Maybe it’s a comprehension issue, but maybe they’re just not familiar with a particular format or method of argumentation.  In either case, talk it out.  It can help you focus on the writing as well, rather than going into speech concerns.  Going over what’s needed and asking the writer questions about their topic are always helpful, but especially so when you’re trying to prevent a language-based misunderstanding.  Which brings me to point #2:

Rephrase, rephrase, rephrase.  Sometimes it’s hard to know if the writer’s getting what you’re saying, and this problem can be compounded when you’re working with an ELL student.  With the music writer, I would sometimes find that my explanation of a bibliography or footnote was met with silence and a look of confusion.  So I tried it again.  I used examples, I typed out models in a Word document, and in short did what I could to establish my point with the writer.

I noticed throughout the tutorial that we weren’t looking at the content so much as the formatting, assignment type, and bibliographical concerns (this was partly because she hadn’t really started the assignment, and partly because I had a limited idea of what to do with a music paper).  Instead of worrying about that thesis or even suggesting paper organization strategies, I did what felt natural: Follow the writer’s lead.  With an ELL writer especially, letting them direct the conversation and ask the questions they want to ask can make them feel more comfortable, and shows them that you’re invested in their concerns.

Point #4 is another one that can apply to any tutorial, but is especially important in an ELL tutorial where you might feel the need to provide all the answers.  When in doubt, refer the writer to their professor.  It might be that the assignment prompt is unclear, or you don’t know that style of formatting, or whatever.  For instance, neither of us could figure out from the prompt if a certain component needed footnotes.  It’s natural to want to answer all of their questions, but don’t give the wrong information to feel helpful – you might end up having the opposite effect.

In the same vein, we come to point #5 (or possibly #4B): If it’s not just a language barrier, consider referring the writer to another tutor.  As my tutorial with the music writer went on, it became clear that she had topical questions I just couldn’t help with.  We’d exhausted the conversation of MLA citation and research methods, but we hadn’t even touched on what’s expected from a music paper or brainstorming an appropriate thesis for her discipline.  I mentioned that I didn’t have a lot of experience with music, and the writer asked if there were other tutors who might know more.  We had a look through the tutor directory and found several alternatives.  She planned to make another appointment with one of them, and I contented myself with the fact that she’d receive help from someone better suited to this particular project.  Sometimes the best help you can give is to direct the writer to the right resource.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mia Amélie says:

    I think that the points you make here are well worth keeping in my back pocket. Of course, what always strikes me when discussing tutoring approaches to tutorials with ELL versus native English speakers is how much crossover there is (as you point out). It’s always important to make sure you’re on the same page with every writer and rephrasing is often key to assuring this. Of course, how long it takes to get on the same page varies from writer to writer, so remaining aware of these important strategies is key for a successful tutorial. That said, your last point seemed to stem from a discomfort with the discipline rather than the language differences, and I found it interesting that you felt you needed to refer the writer to a more “qualified” tutor for that discipline. Of course, this was very considerate, but I think another back-pocket item we as tutors should always remember is that our role isn’t purely of “expert.” Rather, our role as engaged readers is just as helpful to a reader. Even when terms or ideas are unfamiliar to us, our question asking and verbal clarity seeking often serves as a great way to test a writer’s own understanding of how their paper operates.

    Side note: Music theory papers may seem like foreign territory to those outside the discipline, but they actually operate in much the same way. Music theory papers tend to be one of two types, both of which should be familiar to most other academics: historical and analytical. That is, music theory papers rooted in music history will explore a musical composition, performance, or composer in its historical context while music theory papers rooted in analysis will treat a composition as a text, unpacking the notes, rests, key changes etc. for their rhetorical meaning. This is, of course, an ultra simplified explanation, but hopefully a helpful one. Just think “history paper” or “rhetorical analysis” the next time a musician walks in with a music theory assignment. 🙂