Back to Basics: Practical Theory for Tutors of NNS Students

Writing center tutees are responsible for learning, and eventually integrating writing center tutoring theory. Upon becoming a tutor the theory will (theoretically) aid in the actual practice of tutoring. Much of what the theory does is provide a foundation for dealing with an almost infinite amount of variables that could come into play during a tutoring session. It is virtually inevitable that situations will occasionally arise that the tutor does not have previous experience for. In these events it would be necessary that the tutor have a good working knowledge of the different theories related to writing center tutoring. Having that base allows for the tutor to use sound principle, while at the same time allowing her to professionally customize it for any given unique set of circumstances.

There are several different topics that come out of writing center research that provide a tutor with established groundwork for handling concerns. One of the patrons that a writing center tutor will conference with quite often are NNS (nonnative English speakers) students who may have grown up in a bilingual or trilingual household (Gillespie 117). Since writing centers encourage the theory behind working with an ethnically diverse clientele, NNS writers, who come into a center seeking guidance will be met with a professional staff equipped to handle the intricate and delicate layers associated with language and cultural barriers.

When working with NNS students one of the things the research points out is the emotional undercurrents that may be disrupting a student’s natural ability to communicate. In the DiPardo essay it is asserted that a student may feel self conscious speaking English because she has an imagined embarrassing accent or lacks the vocabulary to effectively get her point across (102-103, 105). This insight into a possible emotional scenario allows the tutor to draw on even more theory (non-verbal communication theory, for instance) and adjust a session accordingly. Gillespie suggests encouraging an NNS student to read in English and to make native English speaking friends (126). This is just one possible strategy to help these students overcome the stress related to having to convey thoughts in another language. Overall, the research is clear that establishing empathy is key to helping an NNS student overcome negative emotional attachment connected to her perceived ability to communicate in English.

Sometimes critical errors can be made by the tutor if he assumes too much when dealing with the writing of an NNS student. Gillespie’s text identifies several common myths, one being that lower order concerns, such as grammar, might have to come first when consulting on NNS writers’ papers (121). However, Gillespie emphasizes that even with an NNS student, higher order concerns will always take precedence over lower order concerns (126). Diligently applying this theory to all (not just ones with an NNS writer) tutoring sessions will create a healthy habit that will sustain a tutor through murky waters.

One thing Harris stresses is that it is important to differentiate between mistakes that are hindering the writer’s ability to communicate a concept clearly and those that are not (526). Any inaccuracies that lead to a writer being misunderstood is considered a higher order concern and is therefore addressed first. Another thing that a tutor should take into account when collaborating on NNS writers’ papers is to understand that there are patterns of rhetoric favored in diverse cultures that are singular to them and unlike the American style of rhetoric and that teaching the American standard is part of the tutors job (526). To put it another way, the tutor is warned not to assume that because NNS writers’ papers are not written in the contemporary American custom that it means she or he is a bad writer.

Furthermore, the Harris text suggest that the tutor “internaliz[e] the concept of the tutorial” (focus on a limited amount of issues during a session), (526) which will allow both the tutor and the tutee to remain focused. Ideally all writers would become critical students of English rhetoric. With that being the goal it is easy to understand why having a firm grasp of the building blocks of tutoring is necessary to being an effective tutor. Consistently conducting sessions that stay true to the basic rules of collaboration will allow the tutor to remain professional and focused even when meeting with NNS students.

Works Cited

DiPardo, Anne. “Whispers of Coming and Going: Lessons from Fannie.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 100-116.

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

Harris, Muriel, and Tony Silva. “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 44, No. 4. National Council of Teachers of English,1993. 525-537.


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