Instruction Beyond the Assignment: Working with Learners of English

Multilingual Writers, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Research, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors / Monday, February 24th, 2014

By Rubén Casas

Rubén Casas is a Ph.D. Candidate in the English Department’s Program in Composition and Rhetoric. In addition to his Writing Center teaching, he teaches for the English 201 Program.

Two weeks into the spring 2014 semester I worked with a student in the Main Center who, upon asking her what she was working on, identified herself as a foreign student and asked, quite directly, “How do you write in the U.S.?” She explained that she knew what writing was “supposed to do” in Korea, “but not here, in America.” This must have been one of the clearest questions I’ve gotten as a Writing Center instructor, but it also caught me off-guard. Most students come to the Writing Center to get help with some specific element of their writing—often they talk about “flow,” or “development,” or “cites,” terms that somewhere along the way they’ve learned to use in relation to writing, and that I take for granted as evidence of their knowledge of the writing process and their own issues with writing—but it this actually the case?

The author presenting at a conference in 2013
The author presenting at a conference in 2013

The question I pose is probably not a new one for any Writing Center instructor; moreover, it’s an assumption that, in the scheme of everyday things, may not prove to be all that serious for a student whose education has exposed her to the writing process and certain key terms go with it. But what about those students whose experiences with writing, be it because they are international students, or students who are recent immigrants to the U.S., or those whom Harklau, Losey, Seigal (1999) identify as “Generation 1.5 students,” (students who’ve been educated in the U.S., but whose educational experiences as students in English-as-a-Second-Language or English-language Learners programs) has provided them with spoken fluency of English, but not necessarily as much dexterity or fluidity in written English, especially of the academic sort?

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The question I’d like to explore here is how do we, as instructors in the Writing Center, recognize and aide those students who a) have certain limitations when it comes to written English (especially academic English), and b) who lack the proper language to talk about their writing in the terms we are accustomed to? Because in the case of international students, recently immigrated students, and Generation 1.5 students, any assumption about their knowledge of the writing process or their ability to articulate their needs and skills as writers in the language most common to us, can be very detrimental to the instruction we proffer. And not all students are going to ask as direct a question as the one this student posed to me.

Therese Thonus provides a list of 12 ways in which this set of writers I’m discussing here differs from the larger population we serve. I list four here (the ones that seems the least obvious), and then offer some suggestions for how to keep these in mind as we find ourselves working with students who are English-language learners:

  • Lack native-like intuitions about what “sounds right” on paper
  • Prefer explicit direction, as opposed to polite indirectness (Gilewicz & Thonus, 2000; Thonus, 1999)
  • Have experienced marginalization in their secondary educations because of their perceived difference (i.e., race or ethnicity, accent, immigration status, etc.) in the form of being assigned to remedial or non-college preparatory courses; teachers and councilors might have steered them to technical or vocational training, as opposed to the university
  • May be unaware of the process approach to writing, including brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing, and may also lack the meta-language necessary to talk about their writing in rhetorical terms (18).
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With these in mind, it might be useful for Writing Center tutors to consider how these differences affect the type of instruction students expect and might find the most helpful during a Writing Center appointment. For one, we can’t indiscriminately deploy phrases such as, “does that sound right to you?” since these students might lack the academic register that would allow them to answer accurately. Same with terms like “brainstorming,” “drafting,” “editing,” and “revising,” especially since the student may not know how to put these concepts into action representing a process.

As such, it’s important to know that students like the ones I describe above are as much in the Writing Center to learn something about writing (in general, and within a U.S. context), as they are about the assignment they brought in with them. Because not all students will be as direct when asking for the type of instruction they most need, we do well to not assume that the person before us knows the rhetorical functions we’ve come to internalize and which we assume most U.S.-educated students have, too. This is especially true when a writer fixates on grammatical issues—instead of obliging indiscriminately, why not take the opportunity to sound out, as it were, what the student knows about the larger arrangement of ideas, and how they’ve gone about laying them out in light of their audience and purpose. 30 minutes can easily be taken up by doing some proofreading, but doing that will do little to teach the student about writing, at least in the context of the U.S. academy.

If we address these assumptions head-on we’ll also be in a better place to offer direct instruction when needed and called for, and to avoid the indirectness that might be beneficial for students possessing the meta-language required to glean what the we’re trying to say. Likewise, we should avoid appealing to the writer’s intuition—just because a student can speak English doesn’t necessarily mean that they know the rules we’re alluding to.

What it comes down to is that there’s a group of students whom we owe instruction on how to write, and not merely on what to write. If we are lucky, every now and then a student will come in and ask us for this sort of instruction directly; most likely they will not. Therefore, our responsibility as effective Writing Center instructors is to assume less and to identify those students whose needs are somewhat different than most of the students we see so that we can offer the type of instruction that would be most useful to them.

In reality, all students who come to the Writing Center benefit from tutors who are experts—tutors who understand and can communicate what an academic audience requires of writers—as well as tutors who are culturally sensitive, which is to say, tutors who can assess each writer’s needs and tailor the instruction to them. This is true for all the writers who come see us, from those who grew up in and went to school in a Milwaukee suburb, to international students, to students whose families immigrated to the U.S. in the past decade and who’ve established roots in the Midwest. But it’s the second and third sets of students which stand to benefit the most from tutors who can provide instruction that’s based less on assumptions about what the writer knows, and more on actual knowledge of what the writer needs. There are a variety of ways one can gain this knowledge; perhaps the most effective is to ask direct questions.

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We certainly don’t want to replicate the marginalization some of these students have previously experienced through our questions, or to suggest that they have a deficit by how we frame our inquiry—this, too, is a question of sensitivity—but we do want to communicate to them that successful and effective writing in the U.S. university requires that all of us think about writing rhetorically. Sometimes we can benefit from asking them how they have learned to write, or what effective writing looks like in their tradition. We can then compare and contrast what they report with what we know about writing academically in the U.S. context, and then go on to discuss the reasons for the differences. Here, a set of writing examples in common academic genres might in handy. Together the instructor and the student can pick out the effective rhetorical choices made by the writer. As the instructor and student discuss these choices the instructor can begin to introduce the meta-language that the student can take with them beyond that particular session, and into writing contexts in and around the university. Sure, a single 30- or even 60-minute session isn’t going to stand in for the holistic and comprehensive type of writing instruction that will ultimately make this writer as effective as she can be, but it does represent, at least, the beginning of writing instruction that goes beyond the assignment.




Gilewicz, M., & Thonus, T. (2000, November). Descriptive and evaluative language in group tutorials. Paper presented at the National Writing Centers Association, Baltimore, MD.

Harklau, L., Losey, K. M., & Siegal, M. (Eds.). (1999). Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of English. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Thonus, Terese. (2003). “Serving generation 1.5 learners in the university writing center.” TESOL Journal 12.1, 17-24.

Thonus, T. (1999). How to communicate politely and be a tutor, too: NS-NNS interaction and writing center practice. Text, 19, 253–279.

8 Replies to “Instruction Beyond the Assignment: Working with Learners of English”

  1. Thanks for this really thought-provoking post, Ruben. I especially appreciate your point that part of our jobs, as instructors, is to communicate the expectations and contours of academic discourse, or of a particular genre, etc. It’s so important to consider about how some of our most well-intentioned practices–student-centered tutoring, asking questions, and so on–can serve a gatekeeping function if we are not reflexive.

  2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Ruben! Working with multi-lingual writers in the Writing Center was a hot topic at MWCA this year, especially as universities market themselves to students overseas in order to get their out of state tuition dollars. Many of us have seen growing multi-lingual populations, but just as many seem unsure how we should treat them. So many have a better grasp of the mechanics of English grammar than many native speakers because they’ve learned terms and rules in a language classroom. As you point out above, this demonstrated knowledge can make us assume that these students also know about the writing process, which isn’t always the case. I like your suggestions to have some meta-talk with the student in order to give him or her some language to use when talking about writing.

    A few years ago, I participated in an OGE about multi-lingual writers and one of my big take aways was the idea that reading aloud doesn’t always help. You point this out nicely. In my practice, I will sometimes ask someone who identifies themselves as a multi-lingual writer if he or she thinks reading aloud has helped in the past. If not, I will frequently read it for them, so they can hear it again without having to struggle over words.

    I’d love to hear what best practices others have when working with multi-lingual writers.

    Leah Misemer
    TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center
    University of Wisconsin-Madison

  3. This is such a timely post, given the ever increasing numbers of multilingual students at the university. It is also timely because my 201 class was just discussing this exact issue–and I am now going to make your post a reading assignment for my students.

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post, Ruben. I just re-watched Oregon State’s _Writing Across Borders_ and found that your post really resonates with the experiences of the international student writers featured in that film. While I spend a great deal of time thinking about disciplinary differences in writing, that film and your post remind me of all the cultural scripts and norms in “standard” English that I too often ignore as a monolingual English speaker, writer, and teacher. Thanks for this post. It definitely has me re-thinking my practices!

  5. To echo some earlier responses: I found this a really helpful, timely post, Rubén.

    Just last week, I was talking to an ongoing student — a very smart, deeply knowledgeable graduate student in the social sciences who has high spoken proficiency but still had lots of questions about how to write in her field — and she stopped me halfway through a sentence to ask what I had meant by the word “genre.” It made me check back in on some of my own assumptions and, more importantly, it led us to a productive activity during our session. We skimmed a couple of articles in her field that she had on her computer and talked about how to read for patterns in form, rhetoric, discourse, etc. — for instance, we anatomized the opening two paragraphs of three different articles, which revealed to her a recognizable pattern (loosely, it went from larger context of research > defining terms > gap in research > article’s contribution). She did incredible work and, as soon as she knew what we meant by “genre” and that she could see discernible rules or patterns in her research work, she was off and running.

    Your post here help me put vocabulary to what I liked about that exchange — namely, that this pulled us back from what to write, and it tilted that conversation, and subsequent conversations, towards questions about how writing in specific genres get built brick by brick. Thanks so much!

  6. Thank you for this insightful post! It seems closely related to the topic of my short presentation on “ESL Writing Apprehension and Differences in Academic English Writing Pedagogy Across Cultures” this Friday at the Writing Center Joint Staff Meeting. I look forward to working with you, and thank you for moderating our panel!

  7. This is a great challenge, Rubén. At one point, you say, “What it comes down to is that there’s a group of students whom we owe instruction on how to write, and not merely on what to write.” This is so true because it’s easy to get comfortable in the question-asking mode I use with experienced writers. I had an experience recently where a student did ask me for some direct instruction, and I remember feeling a little out of practice. Your challenge is a good reminder that writing center instructors need to be prepared with the kinds of instruction and examples you talk about.

  8. What a wonderful post! As a writing center employee at an online university, I have always struggled how to navigate the obstacles that multilingual students present. I am guilty of suggesting that students “read this aloud to see if you can hear the error” or “to hear if it sounds right”. This clearly is not always an effective strategy.
    Over the past couple of years, we have really started to try to cater to our international and multilingual students. We have done things such as revise the wording of our appointment forms and post-review surveys so they are less confusing for students who may not be familiar with the rhythms and vernacular of writing in the U.S. We have also started to develop what we refer to as “mini lessons” that address things multilingual students often struggle with, such as articles.
    I concur with others that this was a timely post as this will continue to be an issue for writing centers into the future!

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