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Working with International Students

Tips and Strategies for Demystifying the Process

International students represent one of the largest groups of students who consistently and repeatedly come to the Writing Center for assistance on assignments. Their unique positions as multilingual speakers can pose significant challenges to writing fellows, challenges that may seem particularly intimidating to those unaccustomed to working with such students. Below is a list of recommended strategies and actions to take when conducting a consultation with an international student. It is by no means comprehensive and should instead be considered a building block for the creation of a much more robust approach to dealing with the concerns of this particular Writing Center tutee demographic.

As the student walks in…

Make sure to greet the student with a friendly smile and kind words, doing everything possible to put him/her at ease. As you do so, carry on a brief conversation with the student unrelated to the assignment at hand. The purposes for such small talk are two-fold. Firstly, it will help you gauge the student’s English speaking ability and thus provide you with a rough indicator of the level of his/her writing ability. Secondly, and even more importantly, these few lines of conversation can help create rapport with the student and make them feel comfortable in the Writing Center space. Many international students may feel embarrassed and even ashamed that they must seek academic help; most must pass a bevy of exams and other measurements of academic skill before being able to study abroad in a US university, meaning that in their home country, they were likely at the top of their class. Feeling forced to admit deficiencies in academic skill may cause many international students to feel defensive or helpless; therefore, understanding their mindset and putting them at ease is of paramount importance to engaging in a productive, open, and interactive consultation.

When the student gives you the assignment…

Ask the student to paraphrase the prompt and then read it over yourself to see if there are any discrepancies between the professor’s words and the student’s interpretations. Walk through the essay prompt with the student line by line and, if necessary, word by word. It is crucial not to overlook this step because multilingual students may be especially prone to misunderstanding an essay prompt, which could prove disastrous if not caught early on in the consultation.

As you and the student read through the prompt together, if at any point both of you are confused about what the professor means, direct the student to seek out the professor during office hours. This is constructive for two reasons: it allows you to steer clear of making any guesses and potentially steering the student down the wrong path, and it also encourages the student to begin building a meaningful relationship with his/her professor. Without this outside encouragement to do so, some international students may intentionally avoid their professors because of their more limited English abilities. But they are in fact the students who might benefit most from building relationships with their professors, not only because they might need to clarify a prompt but also because they are more likely to misunderstand crucial parts of lectures or other classroom materials, and heading to the professor is the most productive way to begin bridging those gaps in knowledge.

While you begin to discuss the student’s paper…

Take care to balance both higher order concerns of structure and argument with sentence-level issues of grammar. International students may very well need assistance in understanding conventions of American academic writing, which we as writing fellows are well-equipped to remedy. At the same time, however, you should not feel constrained by traditional maxims of the Writing Center, such as “Thou shalt not be a fix-it shop for grammar errors.” In reality, international students may require assistance with grammar problems before they can even begin constructing more complicated arguments. These sentence-level matters are essentially the building blocks that international students may need before they can even think about more complicated concerns of structure and argument. As a result, do not feel pressured to keep the discussion solely on higher order concerns, but balance between the two as you feel best benefits the student.

As you do so, consider reading the paper aloud to the student in order to help them identify grammar or sentence fluency problems. Typically, writing fellows are trained to ask the student to read his/her own paper aloud, the assumption being that his/her native ear would catch any errors. With international students, however, asking them to read their papers aloud will prove considerably less productive. For one thing, their ears are not as trained to pick up nuances in the language. For another, if forced to read something aloud, they may become preoccupied with the more pressing concerns of correct English pronunciation, leaving them less focused on actually hearing any errors. By reading their paper aloud to them, they will be free to concentrate solely on hearing errors that should be magnified by disruptions in our natural cadences and speech patterns.

Finally, the space of one hour is typically not enough time to go over every single grammar error in depth, explaining exactly why something is incorrect and providing additional examples. In these situations, one possible course of action is to advise the student to ask a friend who grew up in the US to check over the paper specifically for grammar mistakes. The friend should be able to do such work very quickly, allowing the international student to present an error-free paper to their professor even though you did not have time to help them with all grammar errors. They can even orchestrate some sort of trade: help with grammar in exchange for help with math homework, for example.

At the close of the consultation…

Consider asking the student whether or not he/she would like to participate in the Writing Partners program. Because many grammar errors and other problems can only be improved through consistent repetition and time, often the best approach is assigning them to one writing fellow. This writing fellow can then track the student’s progress and tailor their recommendations as the student’s writing evolves, able to provide consistent support and assistance.