Tutoring ESL Writers: 8 Strategies

Tutoring second language writers has a lot in common with teaching writing in the classroom. However, there are a number of things to keep in mind when working with students one-on-one.

Here is a list of strategies that I learned from my colleagues as well as from my own teaching experience:

1. Start your tutorial by establishing an agenda. Because tutorials normally have a limited amount of time, it’s practically impossible to cover everything students want to talk about with regard to their papers. Therefore, decide together with the student what should be the focus of the tutorial. Be realistic and specific about the things you can accomplish in a limited amount of time. For example, you can focus only on one passage in a student’s paper or look at several recurring grammar mistakes.

2. Find a pattern in their writing. Because you don’t have time to go over all student’s concerns, you should help them find certain patterns in their writing, so they can work on them individually. For example, if you notice the most prominent grammar mistake, it will be helpful to focus on it, discuss it in detail, and let the student do the rest on his or her own.

3. Start with the positive feedback. If the student is bringing in a draft, point out the positive features of the draft and go forward from there.

4. Ask students to assess their writing. Before you give the student your own perspective on their draft, ask the student to articulate what he or she feels his or her strengths and weaknesses are in that particular piece of writing.

5. Point out the difference in your authority. Help students understand that you are not their instructor; this means you are not going to give them a grade for their paper or assume any responsibility for grading. You are a reader whose role is to help the student through the process of collaborative revision.

6. Ask for clarification. If you don’t understand what the student has written in a paper, ask him or her to reiterate the idea or message he or she attempted to communicate. “Please explain…” or “I think you are saying this…” might be more effective than questions that start with “how” and “why.”

7. Refer to other sources. If you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, it’s okay to admit it. But it will also be helpful if you refer the student to other resources that might help him or her find the information he or she seeks. It can be an online writing lab, a grammar book, or perhaps even another person on campus (e.g., when the student’s question is related to writing a particular field you know little about).

8. Prepare handouts. In spite of the individual approach that you take when working with ESL writers one-on-one, some of their questions/concerns might be common. For example, many students ask questions related to citation, certain grammar principles, punctuation, as well as proofreading strategies. Prepare handouts covering these topics for students to take away from the tutorial.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies that one can apply when tutoring ESL writers. I invite you to share your ideas and experience.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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One Response to Tutoring ESL Writers: 8 Strategies

  1. rully rozhani says:

    Teaching writing for students in EFL setting seems to be more complicated that in ESL setting. Most of the students were grown up in a culture where positive characters which support the development process of writing, for example, creativity, wasn’t built up by their parents when they were still a child. As a result, they’re usually passive, mostly rely on teacher’s model of writing, in other words, are not creative as it is expected in the process of teaching and learning writing.

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