Tips for English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) ConferencesWriter's Web
(printable version here)

Conference & Commentary

  • Remember that humor is often culturally determined. Some of your favorite jokes, even sarcastic asides such as "yeah, right!" might not work with a second-language student.
  • Avoid going through any piece of writing in a sentence-by-sentence manner. This may take more time than you anticipate, and it could lead to unethical proofreading (Harris & Silva 531).
  • Do not overwhelm. Remind writers that it may be best to focus on a few key issues instead of trying to cover everything in one tutorial.
  • ESL writers often need a bit more directive help. Try to point out and correct a representative error, then explain why and have the writer correct another example.
  • Make critical questions as "leading" as you need to in order to get the writer involved.
  • Don't fear silence. Students from other cultures may regard you as an authority figure and thus treat you like a professor (Mosher 4). In Japan, for example, most students never talk in class. A Japanese student might be reluctant, at first, to engage in idle banter about the writing.
  • Get the writers talking about their home countries, when appropriate. Too many international students report that American-born students show little interest in their homelands. Some "ice-breaking" can make the writer more comfortable and resolve the problem of your seeming like a professor. Don’t be too patronizing, however, in doing this!
  • Some ESL writers will not benefit from reading their work aloud or having it read to them. Try the technique sparingly to see if it works before plunging in.

Broader Cultural Issues

  • Remember that not all students come from educational backgrounds that teach writing or learning in the same manner. Some students will never have written a paper with a traditional "thesis." These students may not even know what we, in the United States, mean by "analysis."
  • Do not assume that all students from a region will be the same. Some early scholarship on second-language learning did this by, for instance, lumping all "Asian writers" together. Note that Asia has over 50 languages, nations, and cultures (Severino 46).
  • Remind writers of what you can and cannot do. U.S. grammar instruction is not formal, as it can be in other nations. You may have to field questions about structural issues in the writing that you do not feel competent to answer. Keep a good grammar handbook nearby, or use Writer's Web for commonly asked questions.
  • You have the role of a "cultural teller" for these students. You might be asked questions about how college works here, for example. (Harris & Silva 533)

Additional Reading/Works Cited

Harris, M. & Silva, T. "Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options." College Composition and Communication, 44.4 (Dec. 1993): 525-537.

Mosher, B., et. al. "Creating a Common Ground with ESL Writers." Writing Lab Newsletter 24.7 (March 2000): 1-7.

Severino, C. "The ‘Doodles’ in Context: Qualifying Claims about Contrastive Rhetoric." Writing Center Journal 14.1 (Fall 1993): 44-57.

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