Unique, Not Foreign: A New Paradigm for Tutoring ESL Students

Joanne Lee ’15 illuminates the nuanced factors that come into play when interacting with ESOL students.

[Note: This is still a work in progress, and the author is interested in your response.]

Much of the current discourse on teaching and tutoring ESL students tends to sharply distinguish ESL students from native speakers. Native speakers are held up as a standard against which ESL students are compared, or even worse, as a standard which ESL students can never meet. For instance, such a dichotomy is evident in Muriel Harris and Tony Silva’s advice to Writing Associates: “Tutors need to tell ESL writers that it is unrealistic for them to expect to be able to write like native speakers of English – especially when it comes to the small but persistent problems like articles and prepositions” (510). In this paper, I challenge that binary paradigm through analyses of the current scholarship, my personal experiences, and interviews with five non-native speakers whose experience with academic English range from two to ten years. The first section of the paper provides an alternative to the current binary approach; the subsequent sections offer more specific advice to Writing Associates on ESL students’ grammar, potential, feedback, and comfort levels in peer-advising settings, such as a writing center. A binary approach perpetuates the foreigner status of ESL students, rather than welcoming and equipping them as newcomers to an already established discourse. Instead of treating ESL students differently, Writing Associates should apply the same broad but individualized strategies that they implement for all other writers.

Novices, Not Aliens

ESL writers struggle with the same problem that all fledgling writers struggle with: lack of experience and immersion. No newcomer – whether native speaker or non-native – to a discipline, who has not been fully immersed in the unique conventions of the discourse, can hope to write a paper perfectly suited to that discourse. Vivian Zamel discusses the same phenomenon in her article “Strangers in Academia: the Experiences of Faculty and ESL students Across the Curriculum”; she states that “every discipline, indeed every classroom, may represent a distinct culture and thus needs to make it possible for those new to the context to practice and approximate its ‘ways with words’” (109). All writers must learn an unfamiliar discipline’s ways with words, and it is this unfamiliarity that bogs down new writers.

Thus, ESL students’ most challenging obstacle is inexperience: they are novices. Yet, in writing centers, there is a real temptation to attribute ESL students’ unconventional writing styles to exotic cultural practices: we see them as others/aliens. Harris and Silva state that “Asian preference for indirection” is “often-cited” (505) as a cause for ESL students’ inadequate, discursive writing styles. They raise questions about “how helpful such generalizations really are” (505), and warn against the danger of using “general patterns as givens, expecting all speakers of other languages to fit the models they have learned” (505). I applaud Harris and Silva for acknowledging the problem, but I do not believe they stress its dangers quite enough. For starters, WAs should realize how many different cultures are lumped under the umbrella term “Asian” and how each of those cultures is home to a variety of academic discourses. However well-meaning such lump labeling of cultures may be, it is still fundamentally limiting and misleading.

This problem of generalization is a prevalent and easy one to fall prey to. For instance, when my professor gave our class of Writing Associates a sample paper written by an Asian ESL student, one WA remarked that the writer seemed to struggle with disagreeing with secondary sources, and that her difficulty probably stemmed from her cultural values which discourage dissension from authority figures. This perfectly illustrates the pitfall of cultural value generalization. The WA’s exoticization of ESL students blinded him to the fact that this is a problem common to many developing writers, whether or not they speak English as a first language. Many writers – not just Asian ones – struggle with arguing, disagreeing, and otherwise meaningfully engaging with secondary sources in their papers. Graff and Birkenstein’s book They Say, I Say attests to all developing writers’ need for guidance in effectively discussing quotations: its target audience is all writers, not just non-native ones. Writers internalize the skill of engaging previous academic discourse only after much practice and guidance from teachers and books like They Say, I say. Why should WAs expect any different process for ESL students? Rather than categorizing their inadequate discussion of quotations as a cultural problem and spending one’s energy “correcting” the student’s cultural paradigm, seeing the writer’s struggle as arising from lack of practice would lead to a more helpful session.

This anecdote highlights the ultimately futile and unhelpful nature of puzzling out cultural blinders that are supposedly obstructing the ESL writer. WAs do not have the necessary training to analyze and “correct” students’ cultural paradigms; we neither know what these obstructive cultural precepts are (or for that matter, if they exist), nor how they manifest themselves on paper, nor how to revolutionize a student’s cultural paradigm so that he/she is no longer bogged down by it.

I understand the good intentions behind this cultural paradigms approach, and I empathize with the well-wishing WAs who want to recognize ESL students’ struggles and identify a cause that does not damn the student’s intellectual capabilities. These well-meaning folks want to say, “Look, these kids can’t write, not because they are stupid, but because they were raised a certain way.” For instance, in their article “Non-Native Speakers of English,” Edlund and Griswold invoke rhetorical practices of different cultures to defend the intelligence of ESL students. They write that “an essay that appears to be illogical or incoherent by American standards may be well crafted by the standards of another culture” and that “calling the paper ‘illogical’ or ‘incoherent’ probably won’t help the student improve” (323). I wholeheartedly agree with them: WAs should never pass judgment on a tutee’s intelligence.

However, this well-intended explanation ultimately fosters unhelpful and condescending practices in peer-advising situations. For instance, this approach may lead a perfectly well-meaning WA to tell his/her tutee, “Well, in your culture you do it this way, but in my culture we do it this way.” This hypothetical interaction is problematic on several fronts. The WA makes a sweeping and dubious generalization that is troublingly reminiscent of “Confucius say” jokes: “Confucius say be indirect and confusing in your writing.” This kind of interaction only exoticizes ESL students and creates a we/they dynamic. It fundamentally others ESL students and colors the way that WAs interact with their peers. I do not see how such an interaction would be more fruitful than one that explains the details of the discourse without labeling the student and making assumptions about his/her culture. Rather than treating ESL students as alien writers whose paradigm must be corrected, treat them as novices who need more practice.

Of course, a deep understanding of a student’s culture may improve the tutoring session, but Writing Associates rarely possess such deep understanding. WAs do not have the necessary training to analyze and “correct” students’ cultural paradigms; we neither know what these obstructive cultural precepts are, nor how they manifest themselves on paper, nor how to revolutionize a student’s cultural paradigm so that he/she is no longer bogged down by it. This may be different in the case of some composition teachers who have studied in-depth specific cultural and rhetorical practices, and who thus can apply their knowledge in a helpful and sensitive manner. For instance, Edlund and Griswold discuss works of composition theorists who have studied Chinese and Japanese essay forms in depth. However, few Writing Associates – and few composition teachers, I suspect – are equipped with such scholarly expertise; most only have superficial and dubious knowledge of other cultures’ rhetorical practices, and few, if any, have the training to apply that knowledge to peer-advising settings.

What WAs are capable of is guiding students into academic discourse. As Zamel states, WAs must “try to read students’ texts to see what is there rather than what isn’t, resisting generalizations” (109). WAs should deal with what is present in a student’s paper – concrete issues such as organization, coherence, logic, and use of secondary sources – rather than generalizing about what may or may not be the cause of the writer’s struggles.

Grammar Issues

I intentionally did not include the very concrete issue of grammar is in the list above. ESL students generally struggle with many “grammatical” issues: should WAs address them? Harris and Silva deal with this question at length, and similarly in class, my fellow Writing Associates and I discussed this contentious topic time and again. In practice, many WAs opt to address grammatical issues. Nolan-Thomas states that many Writing Associates adopt the strategy of “focusing on grammar [rather] than on structure or content” (318) when working with ESL students. This was corroborated by interviews I conducted with ESL students at Oberlin College: all five interviewees noted that their WAs addressed grammatical issues during their visits to the Writing Center.

Why this topic raises so much heat is understandable – the issue of grammar tends to rile us up, as discussed in Joseph William’s “Phenomenology of Error” – but the lack of accord, especially between theory and practice, is somewhat baffling. For working with student writers other than ESL students, WAs are actively discouraged from tackling grammar. We are told to tackle higher order concerns first, and that it doesn’t make much sense to deal with sentence-level problems when, as a result of revising, those problematic sentences “are likely to be changed or deleted anyway” (Sommers 384). Experience suggests that editing discourages revising; a writer may shy away from changing or deleting unsuitable sentences because they have been “corrected,” or become reluctant to add new ideas for the fear that the new sentences would be grammatically incorrect.

So why should WAs shift their pedagogical gears and suddenly focus on grammar when working with ESL students? It seems patronizing to deal with ESL students as if they are alien writers with fundamentally alien problems. ESL writers – like all writers – struggle the most with shaping their arguments in a clear, critical manner; we should address such overarching concerns first before addressing local issues, just as we do with any other writer.

At this point, I would like to revisit an old classic in WC literature: Stephen M. North’s groundbreaking article, “The Idea of a Writing Center,” which has come to mold much of Writing Center practices today. He envisioned a writing center whose goal is to “produce better writers, not better writing” (438); a writing center is not a fix-it shop that focuses on grammar, but a place for writers to talk about their ideas and develop their arguments. I believe this is still a worthy vision that should be shared by writing centers across the nation, and applied to all student writers, whether they are native or non-native speakers of English.

This is of course a difficult task, especially when students are so often expressly concerned with issues of “grammar.” I understand that, contrary to North’s grand visions, visitors to a writing center are mostly concerned with improving the papers at hand; many come to the writing center specifically asking for grammar help. This is especially true for ESL students, many of whom adamantly ask that the WAs fix their grammatical mistakes. For instance, all of my five interviewees told me that they want and expect their WAs to address grammatical errors. Understandably, WAs respond to their tutees’ desire by “fixing” the paper. To combat this impulse, I want to make it clear to WAs that addressing higher order concerns does not mean compromising short-term benefits. By helping students think about the logic, cohesiveness, and flow of their argument rather than mere grammar issues, WAs can offer excellent help that will benefit the students much more, both in the short term and the long term.

In the short term, addressing higher-order concerns will effectively enhance the quality of the particular paper and help students earn a better grade, for professors generally value soundness of argument more than style. I asked my interviewees whether their professors had ever docked points off their papers for bad grammar: none of them have. Dmitri Lee noted that his professors almost always comment on how to expand his argument, but rarely on his grammatical mistakes. Jin Im echoed this sentiment and stated that although professors sometimes comment on his style (which is a related but different creature than grammar), his professors focus mostly on his argument. While such grading practices may not be shared by all professors, it still holds true that most professors care much more about argument than mechanics.

The long term benefits also clearly support addressing higher-order concerns before lower-order ones. When I asked my interviewees whether they have been applying the grammatical concepts they were taught during their WC sessions, all of them replied in the negative. Two of my interviewees (who were interviewed separately), EJ Lee and Somyung Ryu similarly expressed that grammatical corrections are too context-specific and cannot easily be applied to future instances. Another student, Randall Camacho recounted how his WA had corrected preposition errors during his session and chuckled, “I still don’t know how to use prepositions.” When asked what they have been able to apply to other papers, three interviewees said how to develop a thesis statement, and one said how to make an outline. These comments highlight the long term benefits of addressing higher-order concerns: students can more easily learn to apply higher-order principles (such as how to organize one’s paper and how to write a thesis) than to learn to apply specific grammatical corrections to future papers. The short and long term benefits clearly indicate that WAs should focus on global issues before local ones.

ESL Students’ Potential

On the topic of grammar, Harris and Silva similarly advise WAs to resist the “pressure to correct every error” (509). However, they recommend that, rather than explaining the logic of higher vs. lower order concerns, tutors should “tell ESL writers that it is unrealistic for them to expect to be able to write like native speakers of English – especially when it comes to the small but persistent problems like articles and prepositions” (510). I opened my essay with this same passage because I find it particularly troubling; it suggests that ESL students never will be able to write as well as native speakers can. Moreover, the authors do not simply state that writing fluency may be unrealistic for the moment, but imply that it can never be achieved. Harris and Silva go on to argue that “even non-native speakers of English who live in an English-speaking area for many years and write regularly in English maintain a written accent” (510). This argument precludes the possibility of an ESL student’s achieving full writing fluency: once ESL, forever ESL.

I can personally attest to the falseness of that claim. English is my second language; my family immigrated to Canada from Korea when I was in grade six. Yet, although English is my second language (and in that way I am ESL), I no longer consider myself ESL – for that term, once neutral, is now laced with insinuations of paralyzing inarticulacy and perpetual foreignness. I am not implying that foreignness is inherently bad; I merely argue that foreignness is very much stigmatized in this society, and that this stigma is often a crippling one. Harris and Silva’s notion of a “written accent” only furthers that foreigner stigma attached to ESL students.

Harris and Silva’s message of ESL students’ permanent inferiority is untrue and counterproductive. Harris and Silva suggest to students that they will never be able to attain what they are working so hard to achieve. This pedagogy transforms writing into another stamp of inadequacy, rather than a liberating vehicle of self-expression. Writing has always been my refuge from discrimination; here, on paper, I can express myself without the fear of being judged prematurely because of my color or accent. No one can tell my minority status from my writing – or so I thought, until I read Harris and Silva’s article. As a writer, I find it appalling and crippling to think that even my writing could drip with foreignness.

Moreover, Harris and Silva’s argument not only colors ESL writers’ perception of themselves, but also shakes teachers’ belief in their students’ potential for writing fluency. This belief fundamentally goes against the central tenet of “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing”: “Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.” Why are ESL students excluded from this tenet? If even seasoned writing teachers/associates do not believe that ESL students can learn to write fluently, ESL students cannot be expected to believe in their potential and strive to realize it. The result will be that ESL students do not achieve their potential. The notion of a “written accent” acts as a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy that dooms ESL students to failure – a failure which is then attributed to students’ background rather than to bad pedagogy.

Conversely, by assuming that non-native speakers can never write well, Harris and Silva imply that all native speakers can write well. This is simply not true. Native speakers are not born writing perfectly but must learn how to write well. ESL students too can learn how to write, and yes, eventually to write without an accent. However, Harris and Silva’s argument portrays native speakers as blessed with a special gift that non-natives can never obtain. This concept is as dangerous as portraying writing as possible only when struck by the muses. It turns writing into a privileged exercise – something available only to a select group of the population.

Of course, sadly enough, that is the reality: writing is indeed a privileged exercise. Academic discourse is more accessible and available to privileged segments of our population, as Lisa Delpit discusses in her essay “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” WAs, however, should not perpetuate this skewed dynamic by disenfranchising ESL students from the potential of writing fluency. Rather, WAs should challenge the elite bastion of academic discourse by tutoring students with a firm belief that everyone can learn to write well and by initiating novices into a previously exclusive discourse,  thus turning writing into a truly democratic exercise.

To do so, I encourage WAs to explain the logic of higher vs. lower order concerns rather than following Harris and Silva’s recommendation of explaining the written accent. When I explained higher vs. lower order concerns to my interviewees, they came to agree with me that WAs should focus more on global concerns than on sentence-level ones. I have had numerous similar experiences with my ESL visitors to the writing center. WAs should also recognize ESL students’ progress (with statements of acknowledgement such as, “I can see you’ve put in a lot of effort into this”), and communicate that he/she has the ability to exceed what is expected of him/her. We must set our expectations high, and equip our tutees to succeed; when our expectations are low, these writers can only go so far. Above all, we must not let these students believe that because of their different cultural upbringing, they are fated to fail.

Encouraging and Constructive Feedback

One way to combat such fatalism is encouraging our tutees. One of my interviewees, Randall, advised WAs to “make people who are not confident with their English feel more confident” with encouraging words. Encouragement in the WC, however, sometimes seems to take the form of empty platitudes. Repeatedly, my interviewees described how, after reading their papers, WAs simply stated, “This is great.” The interviewees found such remarks endlessly frustrating. Dmitri Lee described his frustration, “I know my papers aren’t great; that is why I go to the WC. I want help, not empty compliments.” EJ Lee similarly expressed, “When my WA told me that my paper is good, I felt like the WA wanted to get rid of me instead of helping me.”

I am sure that the WAs meant the best; they were trying to encourage these students. But because the WAs’ compliments lacked specificity, they produced frustration rather than confidence. The WAs did not say exactly what was so great about the papers but instead offered what were perceived to be lazy and insincere banalities. ESL students are acutely aware that their papers need revision; they understandably get frustrated when a WA offers them a vague compliment. My interviewees would have appreciated specific comments such as, “Your use of this quotation here is great because it clearly supports your thesis,” or “Your transition between these two ideas is very smooth and elegant.” Such constructive comments would ease the ESL students’ anxieties about their writing abilities and encourage the students to emulate their strong points in future papers.

Comfort Level

Encouragement is a great way to ease ESL students’ anxiety, but sometimes encouragement alone is not enough to assuage their fears and make them feel comfortable. Addressing this issue of this fear factor is important because Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research makes clear that lowering a student’s anxiety level is crucial to successful learning. Stephen D. Krashen, a prominent scholar in the field, explains that a student’s discomfort becomes a mental block – termed an affective filter – that obstructs the student from learning new information; the student is too preoccupied with anxiety to absorb anything new (31). Simply put, students learn better when they feel comfortable. Thus, for learning to take place, this affective filter must be lowered by putting the student at ease. High affective filters could be a problem at the writing center, where some students – including non-native students – feel anxious about having their imperfect papers scrutinized by their peers.

So what can WAs do to lower students’ affective filters? My interviewees told me that the standard WC practice of having students read papers out loud is an especially stressful task. Randall told me, “I was a little bit ashamed because they made me read. I was like, ‘Do I really have to do this?’” He did state, however, that he benefited from reading out loud. Randall’s comments make clear that reading aloud is not a clear-cut issue: it is neither completely beneficial nor harmful. Perhaps a cost-benefit analysis is in order: is reading-out-loud useful enough for the writer to trump the discomfort and anxiety generated by this activity?

Ultimately, WAs should let the writers decide the answer to that question. WAs can let those they work with know that reading out loud is a choice in the true sense of the word (i.e. it is not a polite command) and that they have full agency in deciding whether or not to read out loud. WAs can start by telling students why reading aloud is beneficial – you can catch mistakes more easily and experience what your paper sounds like in your readers’ heads – and then ask them whether or not they would like to try that, but that the choice is truly up to the student.

Above all, keep in mind that WAs can reduce ESL students’ anxieties by treating them as novices rather than as foreigners, as discussed in the first section of this paper. Treat them as intelligent but inexperienced writers, rather than as exotic “others.” Stereotypes are much more anxiety-provoking than poor writing skills or reading out loud.


Rather than encouraging a binary view that pits ESL students against native speakers and focuses on their differences, WAs should be encouraged to focus on the two groups’ common status as learners of writing. Whether native or non-native, we all need to learn how to write well, and this point should be stressed to combat fatalistic notions of permanent inadequacy. I am not arguing that ESL students are not any different from native speakers; of course they are. I am not proposing that we should bulldoze over their unique struggles. Rather, I argue that all writers are unique, with different concerns, different levels of expertise in a subject area, different levels of grasp on grammar, and different levels of writing fluency. To address a writer’s individual concerns, the field of composition has come up with broad principles such as addressing higher-order concerns first, and tools such as They Say, I Say. WAs should utilize such strategies to help ESL students, rather than reserving them only for native speakers. Harris and Silva state, “The goal of tutors who work in the center is to attend to the individual concerns of every writer who walks in the door” (503-504, emphasis added). Instead of lumping ESL students under one homogenizing label, WAs should address each ESL student as they would any other student – as an individual with unique concerns, who can benefit from the custom-designed attention of a Writing Associate.

Works Cited

Delpit, Lisa. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: the New Press, 1995.

Edlund, John R. and Olga Griswold. “Non-Native Speakers of English.” Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Ed. Irene L.Clark. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “They say, I Say:The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.” 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

Harris, Muriel and Tony Silva. “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options.” Teaching Composition: Background Readings. Ed. T.R. Johnson. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1982.

Nolan-Thomas, Emma. “Theory and Practice: Integrating ESL Scholarship and Peer Tutoring Pedagogy,” in Working with Student Writers: Essays on Tutoring and Teaching, ed. JoAnne and Len Podis (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 311-320.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, Vol. 46, No. 5. (Sep., 1984), pp. 433-446. National Council of Teachers of English. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047. 7 May 2013.

Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 32, No. 2, Language Studies and Composing (May, 1981), pp. 152-168.

Writing Study Group of the NCTE Executive Committee. “NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing.” NCTE Guideline: a guideline found to be consistent with NCTE positions on education issues. National Council of Teachers of English. November 2004. http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/writingbeliefs. 7 May 2013.

Zamel, Vivian. “Strangers in Academia: The Experiences of Faculty and ESL Students across the Curriculum.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Dec., 1995), pp. 506-521. National Council of Teachers of English. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/358325. 7 May 2013.


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