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Consultations with Multilingual Students: A Working List of Situations and Approaches

This is the beginning of a collection of situations that may appear and strategies to employ when consulting with students whose first language is not English. Or rather, these are some possible approaches to common issues for ESL students. The list is by no means exhaustive and should be constantly reevaluated and supplemented. As the number of international students on campus increases and with so many coming to the writing center, we must be conscious of situations and approaches. Further, these suggestions are by no means limited to ESL students; they might be applied to any students but are focused on situations common to ESL students.


Of course, it is difficult to standardize issues across such a diverse population of students; however, common worries include:

* I am having trouble expressing my ideas in English; or I am worried that I have not expressed myself properly and correctly.
* I do not know how to write my thesis; or I do not think my thesis is adequate.
* I feel as if I do not quite understand what is expected of me in terms of academic writing.
* I want my sentences and grammar to be correct.

In addition, there are places where we see issues of which the students are not aware. Again, it is difficult to standardize, but issues might include:

* The lack of an argumentative thesis or claim, leading to the lack of a critical framework for the assignment.
* An unsuitable structure for the purposes of an argument or claim. This may occur on a paragraph or essay level, or the entire approach, mindset.
* Reliance on the ‘expert’ and not enough analysis—that is, too many quotations without sufficient critical engagement.
* The desire for our input, especially in terms of content, as if we are experts on their topic.

Students are conscious of issues, coming with worries, and are not aware of others; regardless, working on each issue is important for understanding and improving academic writing.


It is important, as a foundation, to form a friendly, comfortable, and constructive relationship. The Writing Partner Program facilitates this, but even in one-off consultations, it is essential to form such an environment. Just think about how nerve-wrecking it can be to present your work to someone else, especially in a non-native language. With this groundwork, progress should be easier.

When handling a students worries—in particular, the tricky ones that are almost like ‘writer’s block’—the stage of the writing process is an important consideration. For it might seem that a student does not have an idea when, in fact, the student has a great, complex idea but is simply unable to properly express the thoughts. For example, students might seem to have no ideas when they are having trouble expressing or are afraid to express them; in this case, they are actually much further in the process than it appears. This is all to say that it is essential to understand—but often difficult to see at first glance—where a student is in the writing process. (For more in-depth discussion see Keith Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks.)

Ideally, we find where the issue lies, talk about it, and ‘unblock’ the student, sending them on their way to success. However, it is always trickier. In particular, some of the most difficult and awkward situations are when students come for grammar correction, or when there are glaringly obvious transgressions of academic standards. There are several approaches, but here are two extremes that each have merits. They should be used according to the situation and student.


Sometimes it is extremely helpful to take a rather hard-line approach. If an error is seen, correct it. This is often what students like; they have come for grammar correction or structural help. This approach can be constructive but also dangerous. Here are some suggestions to keep our constructive mission in mind:

* We work to improve writers, not just their texts.
* Make sure you explain your correction. Further, give some examples of what you are talking about, for concrete examples can be very helpful in explaining academic conventions.
* If you have time, try to get them to write some corrections as a sort of imitation exercise.
* Always keep the larger context in mind: Explain corrections in terms of ‘when you write in the future’ or ‘this is how to it works in Western academic writing.’
* If you have a writing partner, think about keeping a list of corrections you discuss over the semester for reference and to emphasize the broader goal of our mission.

Of course, there are some important considerations when taking this approach. The writer is being changed. We are showing them Western approaches to academic writing and showing them how to conform. Keep this in mind as you work with students: They have different cultures and standards, and our decisions have implications on their writing and thought processes. (For more in-depth discussion of the directive approach see Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns, “A Critique of Pure Tutoring.”)


The minimalist approach assumes that the student is the expert on the subject and that we, as tutors, should ask leading questions to spark their dormant ideas and interest. This approach seems great, especially for non-native English speakers. The writer is expert; the writer is in control; progress is due to the student. This approach is not always possible, as often, the student is not aware of certain conventions or issues. However, the minimalist approach might be much better than the directive in the early stages of the process. That is, students usually have great ideas that they are having trouble expressing in English, or in writing. Putting the student in control and asking leading questions, then, can bring out the great ides as if removing a filter or an obstacle. (For more in-depth discussion see Jeff Brooks, “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.”)

One point should be kept in mind: All these approaches have merit for different stages in the process and different students. Putting the student in command and making the student expert reinforces the Western academic convention that a writer must become expert to write, to critically engage in their academic community. It encourages the student’s opinion, over quotations and the accepted master. As such, it might be useful to use the templates of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: “The author writes ______ , but I would argue _______ ,” or “I agree with conventional wisdom that _______ , but _______ must be considered.” A more directive approach, however, can familiarize students with conventions and rules,, and this approach, with awareness and broader implications in mind, can be useful. Through all this, we must always be conscious of authorship and plagiarism—concepts that are quite different across cultures.