A Theoretical Perspective on Writing Centers in the Secondary Schools

Who: you and fellow educators. . .
What: a writing center. . .
Where: Well, in your school would be a good start!
When: The sooner, the better. . .
Why: Well, that's why you're here. . .
Want to learn more? Here's a list of topics to get you started. . .

The theory behind writing centers

Theoretical background on tutoring sessions

What a tutorial generally looks like

Works Cited Page

Other Information

The perspective of a beginning tutor

Where to go for more information

Theoretical Background

To fully understand the purpose of writing centers and current tutoring approaches requires a general familiarity with the paradigms of writing instruction. Three models have dominated the writing world since the initial establishment of writing centers in the 1930's: current traditional rhetoric, expressivism, and social constructionism (Murphy and Sherwood, 1995). A writing center in which current traditional rhetoric is the predominant theory would focus on grammatical problems and providing students with remedial help. This type of tutoring focuses mainly on the text rather than improving the writer so that these errors are eventually no longer made. A method that attempts to combat the problem of ignoring the student in favor of the text is expressivism, which perceives writing as a "means of self-discovery" (Murphy and Sherwood, 1995). This philosophy highly values the development of a writer's individual, unique voice and views writing as a solitary activity, emphasizing the pre-writing and drafting stages of writing so that students can best communicate their ideas. Some critics feel that the scope of expressivism is too limited: since the tutors communicate with each student by asking lead-in questions, they may be leading the student toward conclusions rather than allowing the students to draw their own (Lunsford, 1995). Many who are wary of expressivism lean toward the ideas espoused by social constructionism, which emphasizes the search for knowledge as a collaborative effort within each discipline.

Which method is best? The answer is different for each tutorial. Tutors must "mix and match" these ideas to meet the needs of each student. For example, a student who is learning English as a second language may need more remedial help than a proficient writer who merely wants feedback on a research paper. Effectively working with the first student might require the tutor to act more as a teacher and less as a peer, whereas a session with the second student might simply consist of a peer response. If you want a university tutor's perspective on when and when not to take control, click here. One thing is certain: a 1979 study showed that students who used writing centers improved more than those who did not (Kelley and Monkowski, 1979). Why? Commentary is much more effective when it doesn't come with a grade. Students realize that listening to these comments and incorporating them into their writing may help their grades both now and in the future.


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Theoretical Background on Tutoring Sessions

Murphy and Sherwood identify three stages in a tutorial: pretextual, textual, and posttextual (1995). During the pretextual stage, a relationship is established between the tutor and the student. This is essential to the dynamic that will carry throughout the session: this is a time to establish trust and mutual respect. Sherwood suggests that humor is effective in the writing center (1995); I encourage tutors to be tactful and sensitive when using humor. The most important idea is to make the student feel safe enough and comfortable enough to be able to talk about their paper. Talking is crucial to the tutorial (North, 1995), so make sure the lines of communication are opened in this pretextual stage. Murphy and Sherwood list several things that this part of the session can do:

- The tutor can help reduce the student's anxieties, self-doubts, and insecurities that lead to writer's block, a sense of failure, and poor self-esteem.

- The tutor can help the student to break a writing project of intimidating size and scope into smaller pieces (or stages) that the student can more easily manage.

- The student can get his or her ideas out in the open where they can be reacted to, examined, discussed, clarified, tested, and, if necessary, revised.

- The student has an opportunity to practice collaborative problem solving with an experienced writer who has the student's best interest in mind.

- The student can observe, reflect upon, and perhaps internalize the invention processes of the tutor (1995).

This time will set the tone for the rest of the session: be supportive.

The textual stage occurs when the student and the tutor begin to approach the text. Actually editing a student's text is a questionable area; it may be against the honor code of some schools. Again, I encourage you to let the control of the paper remain in the hands of the student as much as humanly possible. Keeping in mind that the goal of the writing center is to change the writer's writing not just on one assignment, but throughout their life, editing is probably something that should be completely avoided. Look for patterns of error, teach students rules: but don't put your words into their mouths.


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What a Tutorial Looks Like

A tutorial generally consists of two students sitting down to talk about a paper that one of them has written. (Note: some schools choose to use adult volunteers as tutors rather than peers.) This isn't a time for one student to correct the other's paper; instead, this is a time when the tutor and student talk about the paper and any problems or concerns the student might have about it. This strategy is based on Carl Roger's theory of client-centered therapy in which the therapist reflects what the client has said without judgment or advice, allowing the client to come to their own conclusions. Stephen North refers to this process of discussion as "the essence of the writing center method" (1995). In short, tutors aren't there to write: they are there to help students become better writers, which will never occur if the tutor merely corrects errors and does nothing else. One of the most important and most difficult things for a tutor to learn is that the control of the paper must remain in the writer's hands: Jeff Brooks (1995) elaborates on this point in his article on minimalist tutoring. (Incidentally, this insures that tutoring sessions won't be breaking the honor code of most schools since the writer is still the one who writes the paper, not the tutor.)


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Works Cited

Brooks, Jeff. Minimalist tutoring: making the student do all the work. In Christina Murphy & Steve Sherwood (Eds. ), The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors (pp. 83-87). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Kelley, Marie E. and Monkowski, Paul G. (1979). The Lincoln Writing Laboratory: A systems-based model for individual instruction. (Report No. CS205042) . Detroit, MI: Annual Meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 175 007) .

Lunsford, Andrea. Collaboration, control, and the idea of a writing center. In Christina Murphy & Steve Sherwood (Eds. ), The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors (pp. 36-42). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Murphy, Christina, & Sherwood, Steve (Eds.) . (1995). The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors . New York: St. Martin's Press.

North, Stephen. The idea of a writing center. The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Comp. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 22-35.


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