Preparing to Tutor Multilingual Student Writers

In this analysis, I examine both theory and practical suggestions for tutoring students with fluency in multiple languages. Many of these students struggle to write in academic English and need help not just in grasping language but general writing skills as well. I also take stock of previous experiences I have had working with ESL students and the successes and challenges I have encountered.

In Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers, Ben Rafoth invites writing center directors and tutors to reevaluate the population of students they serve and how they serve them. With growing numbers of multilingual students in American universities, Rafoth encourages college writing centers to “make greater use of theory and research from the field of second-language acquisition, particularly as it relates to one-to-one interaction, academic discourse, and providing corrective feedback” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 3). With this in mind, Rafoth situates the writing center as a locus of development and change within the university system, emphasizing the benefits of individual interaction and personalization inherent in the structure of the tutoring session.

              As a former peer tutor and adjunct lecturer, I have helped multilingual writers from multiple angles. Oftentimes, teachers who are unable or unwilling to work with students one-on-one shuttle them to the writing center in hopes that a peer tutor will be able to offer individual assistance. Once the multilingual student arrives at the writing center, however, they may be met with a tutor who is ill-equipped to meet their needs. There are many reasons for this, one of which is a history of universities upholding a standard of English monolingualism. As noted by Paul Kei Matsuda (2006), “Writing programs in U.S. higher education – as well as the intellectual field of composition studies, which has grown out of that particular historical and institutional context – have been based on the assumption of English monolingualism as the norm” (p. 637). Rafoth (2015) suggests that the first step in changing this pattern is “raising tutors’ awareness, especially awareness of writers’ identities” (p.12).

              Unfortunately, writing centers are often treated as “the grammar and drill center, the fix-it shop, the first aid station” (North, 1984, p. 37). Students walk through those doors because their teachers made tutoring a requirement, or they need help editing and revising their work. Oftentimes, they expect tutors to “fix” their writing errors, thinking the tutor will proofread, point out mistakes and most importantly polish their work for them. Once they sit down for a tutoring session, however, they will quickly learn that is not how today’s university writing center operates. Many times, a tutor will point out an error but encourage a student writer to edit their own work. A different strategy may be required for some multilingual writers, though. They may need more explicit instruction because they lack the ear for language that a native English speaker has developed. Rafoth discusses some of these unique strategies throughout Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers.

              One of these strategies, recasting, is achieved by pairing implicit negative feedback (interrupting) with implicit positive feedback (providing the correct form) (Byrd, 2005). For example, a student may have an incorrect verb tense and while reading the text aloud, the tutor pauses, stops and then rereads the selection, replacing the incorrect verb with the correct formulation. While this may be viewed as “giving the answer away,” it is a helpful way of providing valuable information for a multilingual student who may not know or be able to provide the correct formulation on their own. In considering strategies such as recasting, Rafoth recognizes the need for tutors to communicate with student writers in a way that best meets their needs, as well as listen for what kind of help is needed: “Tutors must be authentic listeners, listening not only for what they expect to hear, but also for what they don’t. Most of all, they need to be ready to respond to the writer, one human being to another” (p. 52).

              Alongside increasing the strategies in their toolkit, tutors should develop a vocabulary to discuss language learning. According to Rafoth, “Without knowing and being able to discuss the terms upon which language is organized, as well as understanding the idiosyncrasies involved in learning a second language, tutors cannot develop the tools and skills needed to have a truly successful one-to-one conference” (p. 73). Many of these terms and ideas were new to me, as we had never explicitly discussed multilingual writers and their unique needs within the writing center I worked at as an undergrad. One of these concepts, translingualism, refers to “efforts to reach beyond the limits of any single language and thus create communication bridges…that compel cooperation through communication” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 29). Translingualism bridges the gap between two languages and can often be found “not only in utterances that dominant ideology has marked as different but also in utterances that dominant definitions of language, language relations, and language users would identify as ‘standard’” (Lu and Horner, 2013, p. 585).

Another concept is the comprehensible output hypothesis, where output is defined as whatever a language learner writes or says. “With output, the learner is in control. In speaking or writing, learners can ‘stretch’ their interlanguage to meet communicative goals” (Swain, 1985, p. 99). In the comprehensible output hypothesis, Swain posited that second-language learning requires learners to speak and write comprehensibly so that they gain practice and feedback. This type of language learning can be practiced not only in the language classroom but also within the framework of a tutoring session.

Beyond learning some of the scholarship and theory behind language learning, Rafoth also describes a more concrete way of approaching error and corrective feedback in multilingual writing. This is a strategy I feel can be embraced, not just by writing center tutors but by composition instructors as well. That is “raising writers’ awareness for distinguishing between errors they make naturally and unavoidably…and the rhetorical choices they can control” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 94). In distinguishing “errors” from “mistakes,” Rafoth explains, “An error is something learners say or write incorrectly and usually cannot recognize or repair on their own because they don’t know the rule behind it, while a mistake is something they can both recognize and repair because they have learned the rule and can apply it” (p. 106). Focusing on student mistakes, rather than errors allows for corrective feedback that students can actually address without a prolonged explanation of a new rule they may have not yet mastered. In one-to-one conferences or tutoring sessions, instructors and tutors can address the errors that require more work and explanation.

Overall, Rafoth, describes today’s writing centers as “places where multilingual writers see language less as an end in itself and more as a means to achieving what they want to do, like sharing an experience, building relationships, and making a life for themselves and others” (p. 39). With an increasingly diverse and multilingual student population, “today’s students require tutors who are prepared for such diversity and who have the knowledge and skills to help multicultural and multilingual writers meet their goals of improving their written English” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 138). While the strategies, theories and concepts described within Rafoth’s text are extensive, what he provides is not a how-to manual for tutoring centers, but a call to action. The student population is shifting and writing centers must adapt to meet the needs of that more diverse, multilingual population.

What Rafoth suggests is an increased awareness of multilingual writers and further training and development for writing center directors, tutors and ultimately universities as a whole. He recommends regular staff meetings for tutors, as well as internship or credit-based tutoring. As Boyd (2013) observes, “Locating tutoring within the academic curriculum… establishes the process of tutoring as a clearly intellectual endeavor, rather than a matter of skills-based or technical training” (p. 172). I feel this is a strong move, because including curriculum as part of the tutoring experience would not only benefit tutors in their one-on-one sessions with student writers, but would also help them build their academic portfolios. Bringing an academic slant to the tutoring process elevates tutoring beyond error correction to education of student writers and provides more expertise and experience to peer tutors.

More than anything, we as a learning community need to invite multilingual writers into the conversation. As Rafoth so astutely observes in his introduction, “it is one thing to know grammar and vocabulary but quite another to know how to use language in specific, local contexts where one feels welcome and accepted” (p. 1). Even though the idea of authorship and ownership is constantly shifting, student ideas are still paramount to their development and to the ongoing conversation about how we approach composition and communication. “If students’ own ideas are the most important… tutors must get these ideas to language, and doing that requires rich discussions that move between meaning and form” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 128). In the end, it will be the needs of student writers which will drive many of Rafoth’s suggested changes. In the effort to meet student needs, writing centers will need to grow and adapt to changing student populations. As noted by Rafoth, “multilingual writers will drive many of these changes themselves” (p. 138). In concluding, he asks one final question, “Who benefits more – tutors, or the writers they assist?” (Rafoth, 2015, p. 139). By this, he is referring to the additional training and education needed to meet student needs, which in the end benefits the tutors themselves as they grow their knowledge base and become more equipped to deal with the unique challenges presented by multilingual writers.

Works Cited

Boyd, J. L. (2013). “Writing Centers and the Problem of Expertise: Knowing and Doing in Peer Tutoring.”

PhD Diss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania. ProQuest (AAT 36042777).

Byrd, P. (2005). “Instructed Grammar.” In Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and

Learning, edited by Eli Hinkel, 545-61. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Matsuda, P. K. (2006). “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U. S. College Composition.” College

English 68 (6): 637-51.

Min-Zhan Lu, & Bruce Horner. (2013). Translingual Literacy, Language Difference, and Matters of Agency. College English, 75(6), 582-607.

North, S. M. (1984). “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46 (5): 433-46.

Rafoth, B. A. (2015). Multilingual writers and writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State Univ. Press.

Swain, M. (1985). “Communicative Competence: Some Roles of the Comprehensible Input and Comprehensive Output in Development.” In Input in Second Language Acquisition, edited by Susan Gass and Carolyn G. Madden, 235-253. Rowley, MA: Newberry House.

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