The following guide was intended to help consultants at the Baruch College Writing Center support students’ long-term language acquisition, regardless of a writer’s current English fluency. We share it publicly in the hopes it could be useful to other centers and teachers.
We approach our work with English language learners by recognizing the many strengths of multilingual speakers and writers. In addition to the (already impressive) feat of speaking multiple languages, multilingual students are likely to have a number of corollary skills, such as
- metalinguistic awareness—the ability to think about language use and how language works;
- divergent thinking—the ability to develop multiple solutions to a problem or answers to a question; and
- selective attention—the ability to focus and inhibit attention.
Building on these strengths, we developed the following guiding principles and strategies to use during session to support language acquisition.
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Learn about the writer
- Avoid making assumptions. Although the majority of students who visit our Writing Center speak a language other than English as their first or home language, these students come from a wide range of educational and linguistic backgrounds. For example, a student who grew up fully bilingual in New York is unlikely to need the exact same linguistic support as an international student in their first semester on campus.
- Look up the student’s background and prior Writing Center sessions. If you have time before the appointment, look up the writer’s language(s), prior session report, and/or assignment info in the scheduling system.
- Consider how the writer’s first language may contribute to their writing. During down time, take a look at a copy of Learner English (eds. Michael Swan and Bernard Smith), which outlines common transfers to English from a variety of other languages. Sometimes shared structures between a writer’s first (L1) and second (L2) languages can reduce error; for example, a French speaker may have an easier time mastering English verb tense than a Mandarin speaker. At the same time, similar linguistic structures can also produce a lot of “negative” transfer from L1 to L2 if a writer tries to carries over incompatible features.
- Familiarize yourself with the student’s writing before diving into the session. For example, you can tell the student, “I’ll take a few minutes to look over this. While I read to myself, please [write your main idea on a blank sheet/highlight any areas you want help with/draft a section you still need to write/re-read a source]. This will allow you to get a more comprehensive sense of the writer’s fluency.
Situate “error” within a broader spectrum of language learning
- Help writers to recognize their own progress and to set realistic language learning goals. Learning a language is a long process. It takes about 2-3 years to develop conversational language and about 5-7 years to develop academic language. Remember that the writer speaks one or more other languages fluently; their written English does not represent the limits of their thought.
- Focus on helping the writer build confidence and strategies for future learning, rather than downplaying or reinforcing their concerns about error reduction. Remember that language learners might receive negative responses to their perceived fluency from other instructors or students. If we dismiss students’ concerns about accuracy, we’re pushing against a very real, daily stressor. However, at the same time, multilingual writers are often painfully aware of the errors they commonly make, so focusing exclusively on error may exacerbate this self-consciousness.
- Recognize that errors are a natural part of language acquisition. In fact, certain errors are signs of learning (over application of agreement rules, for example).
- Be comfortable with repetition. Feedback will not lead to immediate correction in the next draft, and that’s not a bad thing! Languages are learned from regular, communicative, motivated practice and exposure. Learning happens even as errors persist.
- Recognize that writing conventions vary substantially cross-linguistically. Latin script’s capital/lowercase feature, for example, is unique, and punctuation and formatting rules of writing are prescribed and non-intuitive. Omitting such details is not a sign of a writer’s intelligence or diligence—just a sign they are still learning these features.
Affirm the writer’s priorities
- Say yes to student requests when possible (ex. “I’d be happy to help you work on grammar today!”).
- Try to describe what the student can expect in positive rather than negative terms (ex. “We will spend the first few minutes setting goals” vs. “We don’t proofread”). However, if the writer still seems confused, clarify that you won’t directly edit their paper. Keep in mind that it may be the writer’s first visit to a writing center; they may reasonably expect it to be an editing service and may need help understanding how a writing center differs.
- Understand that students may not always use precise language when asking for help. If a student makes an unclear request (such as to work on “structure”), spend a few minutes clarifying whether they are more interested in global-level argumentative structure or the structure of individual sentences.
- Remember that language is learned through repetition. Don’t worry if you need to repeat the same suggestion, rule, or question multiple times over the course of one or more sessions.
Encourage discussion about contrastive rhetoric
- Talk with the student about the writing they have done in other languages or cultural settings. These discussions allow you to draw comparisons between a student’s previous writing experiences (in English or another language) and expectations in US academic writing. For example, international students may express frustration when instructors prioritize structural “directness”—thesis statement at the end of an introduction, transitions stated outright—and they may share times when they were encouraged to explore multiple avenues of thought before arriving at the main point. Some instructors will present writing advice as if it is universal rather than contextual, and this can be especially frustrating if prior teachers valued very different rhetorical forms. Avoid stereotyping genres or styles as representative of any one particular cultural or linguistic background. Instead, invite meta-reflection about how other writing experiences might inform a student’s current writing.
Reconsider “higher order” vs. “lower order” concerns
- Be flexible in your approach to higher order and lower order concerns. Writing Center pedagogy often asks us to prioritize between revision goals, and falsely implies that structure, argument, research, and idea development should always come before sentence-level revision. All writers—whether monolingual and multilingual—benefit from a more flexible approach to the writing process. When identifying the focus of a session, take into consideration
- the writer’s writing process and priorities;
- the context and purpose of the writing;
- the relationship between rhetoric, argument, clarity, and grammar; and
- whether the writer’s sentence-level concerns interfere with meaning.
- Prioritize revisions that clarify meaning. To balance working on “ideas” and “grammar,” for example, you might start by helping the student revise the sentence-level clarity of their thesis statement or other key claims. Focus on gaining understanding of what the writer hopes to communicate early on, rather than starting with the first noticed pattern of error.
Practice reading strategically
- Don’t default to asking a writer to read their entire draft aloud. Some writers may benefit from reading aloud while others may be overwhelmed by this activity. Instead, you could ask the student to read select segments, you could read the student’s paper aloud yourself, or you could read silently together with specific marking or outlining tasks. Prioritize having students read target text out loud, such as a model text or a revised section of their paper.
- Build in opportunities for re-reading to increase comprehension.
- Choose reading activities that help the writer notice how other writers use language. You might try doing exercises that encourage “grammatical consciousness-raising,” such as having the student notice and imitate the syntax of another’s sentences.
- Check that students understand their academic texts and writing prompts. Writing a paper is even harder for students if they don’t understand the text or prompt they are responding to. To help a student decode and respond to a text or prompt, try the following:
- Isolate difficult vocabulary words to explain or research together.
- Build the student’s knowledge of a text or assignment by providing relevant context or background information that is not made explicit in class.
Common areas of need
- Teach vocabulary as phrases—or lexical units—rather than as single words. Some phrases lose meaning even when direct synonyms replace individual words, while in other cases, words are just commonly paired.
- Help students gain access to common or specialized vocabulary. Giving students access to language is not cheating. As students describe their ideas, they may not realize that there is a specific English word or phrase for the concept, or they may not notice shifts in register. Offer synonyms and related words, explain the shades of meaning, and help the writer choose what best conveys their meaning.
- Encourage vocabulary transfer. When you make suggestions, write the words down, discuss their parts of speech, and consider how these words may be used in other sentences. Invite students to try using the word in another context to check for understanding.
- Provide students with direct instruction on “academic” language. Language learners may be unclear about academic metalanguage like evidence, analysis, sources, or conclusion, making it challenging to respond to instruction or feedback related to these terms. Check for understanding of these terms, explicitly define them, and re-explain them where appropriate.
- Model common academic language structures. Provide students with genre and register-appropriate phrases such as “in this example” or “to illustrate” and common discourse markers such as “conversely” and “moreover.” The appendix of They Say/I Say offers many useful phrases and templates.
Grammar & syntax
- Discuss grammatical issues in the context of the student’s writing, rather than through drills or abstract discussion. Concentrate on issues of form that most contribute to meaning, and create opportunities for students to write new sentences or phrases using the grammatical information you discuss.
- Encourage students to develop complex structures and vocabularies. Don’t ask students to limit their expression to the simplest syntax or vocab they already know. Instead, help them to expand their options for communicating complex ideas.
- Be strategic about focusing on patterns of error. Some writing center scholars advocate for focusing on patterns of errors in order to avoid overwhelming a writer by addressing everything in one conference. But be thoughtful about when noting such “patterns” is useful; Sharon Myers and others have suggested that we move away from “recognizing patterns of error” towards providing more exposure to new language. One alternative to merely identifying patterns is providing a variety of possible solutions to a recurring error, and letting the writer chose between them.
- Avoid asking rhetorical questions that you already know the answer to. Questions like “What is the past tense of learn?” are frustrating for everyone. If you need to provide explicit grammatical information, do so outright—provide the correction and explain why this is the right choice. Practice asking genuine questions about grammar, such as, “I think you meant ___ here. Did I understand you correctly?”
- Compile and share notes and resources for ongoing learning. At the end of the session, provide copies of any notes, reference sheets, templates, or other resources that the student might use on their own later.
- Have the student create a running list of the vocabulary words, phrases, and/or model language you discuss. You can return to the list at the end to practice the vocabulary with new example sentences. Students need repeated exposure and practice with English vocabulary before it becomes part of their productive language use.
- Spend time creating a detailed session record. This reflection is tremendously useful in providing the writers with next steps, additional resources, and a copy of the notes you created together.
- Introduce and demonstrate how to use a range of resources. Below are some excellent resources for language development:
- Dictionary—Encourage students to use an English-English dictionary in addition to or instead of a bilingual dictionary (Chinese-English, Bengali-English). This will give them exposure to more precise definitions and secondary meanings of words.
- Corpus—By looking at a corpus—a collection of texts used in everyday language—multilingual writers can see how commonly a phrase appears or how a phrase fits into a larger sentence. You can refer students to an online corpus tool like https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/ or have them do a simple Google search for the phrase in quotation marks. If there are many search results for a phrase, it’s more likely that the phrase is grammatically correct. Multilingual writers can see how a word or phrase fits into a sentence, in relation to other possible surrounding phrases.
- Concordance dictionary—A concordance dictionary (such as http://www.lextutor.ca/conc/eng/) gives a list of words, phrases, or structures alongside their immediate contexts from a corpus or other collection of texts assembled for language study. They’re useful for identifying lexical units.
- Visual chart—A visual dictionary (such as visuwords.com) creates a visual representation of the connections between different words and concepts.
- Language forum—Language forums (such as www.wordreference.com) can also be a useful place for multilingual writers to learn what English phrases mean, as explained by L1 speakers.
Speak clearly & supportively
- Slow down your rate of speech and repeat or reformulate key ideas. Pause between sentences. If the writer seems confused by colloquial or metaphorical language, explain it.
- Use supportive prompts to help build rapport and prioritize clarity. Try using prompts like, “I like the way you ___,” or “I would love to know more about ___,” or “When you do ___, it helps me to understand ___.”
- Build in a range of opportunities for writers to demonstrate understanding. Rather than simply asking, “Does that make sense?” allow students to show their comprehension by drafting sentences or implementing the changes you discussed.
- Gauge whether the writer has stronger oral/aural competency or written competency. If so, encourage them to explain their ideas verbally while you take notes.
Offer direct & concrete feedback
- Engage with students who request more “objective” or concrete suggestions. For example, a writer may request that you define the number of paragraphs in an essay, or explain the “best” way to phrase an idea. While it’s important to help writers understand that they can make choices, it may still be beneficial to work together to find possible answers.
- Provide multiple modes of access to the skill or strategy you are teaching. In addition to explaining ideas out loud, try to write down or physically demonstrate the changes you suggest (and vice versa).
- Narrate your readerly expectations. For example, “I expected an explanation here of how this quote from Beloved supports your argument before you move on to discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God. Can you explain that connection to me?”
Model your own writing & thinking
- Try modeling the writing process by engaging in brief shared writing with the student. For example, you might jointly construct an effective concluding sentence by building the sentence piece-by-piece.
- Model your thought processes as you read or write. For example, you might say, “Here, I’m wondering how I can relate this point back to the main idea.” This builds students’ awareness of how they might think through the logical connections in their own writing.
Responses that facilitate language acquisition
We find that tutors and consultants, after reading scholarship on supporting ELL students, often want to know how this approach appears conversationally. Below, you’ll find a list of the kinds of responses that we’ve found promote language learning.
Point out an uncommon usage
- I don’t normally see the words ___ and ___ used together.
- When I read this phrase, I was confused because ___.
- I am not familiar with ___.
Relate a word or phrase to a larger context
- This word reminds me of ___.
- I have seen this word used in ___ context, but not in the context you’re talking about here.
- Usually we use this word when talking about ___.
Identify an issue of register
- This word seems a little informal.
- You might say it when speaking, but since this is a more formal written work, I might use _ here instead.
Give the student a choice of words and phrases
- You could say___, or you might even say ___.
- Here are a couple of other ways you can phrase this.
Provide models of vocabulary
- These two words [highly significant/closely linked] often appear together.
- Here’s some useful language for writing [a summary].
- You could say the author explains, the author discusses, or the author claims.
Prompt a student to articulate reasoning for word choice
- Can you talk more about ___?
- Can you explain what you mean by ___ in this sentence?
- How would you say ___ in [Spanish]?
Prompt students to elaborate on their own priorities
- Are there any specific areas you’ve been working to improve this semester?
- Looking at grammar, are there places where you’re most concerned that your meaning isn’t coming through?
- What do you mean by ___?
- Did you mean you are doing this now, or has it already happened in the past?
- How does this structure compare with what you use in your first language? Do you use [articles] in the same way?
Give an example instead of explaining abstract rules
- Let me show you some examples to help you revise your [article use]. For example, I could say, “I bought a hat yesterday. The hat is great, but I’m afraid to wear it.”
- You would use [the prepositions on and in] in different contexts. For example, I would say, “I get on the train but I get in the car.”
Present grammar as fixed expressions or chunks
- This word is usually/always followed by [a noun].
- We usually see these two words [listen to, care for, think about] appearing togetherWith the word [differentiate], we usually see the structure ___.
- For example, I could say, “differentiate between ___ and ___.”
Provide a readerly response to grammar usage
- I stopped because I was in the present tense and now I’m in the past tense.
- When I see the word [the] here, it makes me think you are talking about the specific [woman] you already mentioned.
- When I see [specific verb], I expect that it will be followed by [specific preposition].
Raising writers’ awareness of models
- When you said ___ aloud, I had a clearer sense of your meaning. Let’s write that down and see if you can use it in your essay.
- You’re doing ___ really effectively in this sentence. Let’s record how it’s working here so you can use it again.
- The choices you made in this paragraph made it especially easy for me to follow your argument.
- [Your shorter sentence subjects] helped me understand ___.
- Let’s look at how these phrases appear in your assigned reading. Do you see any [reporting verbs/prepositional phrases/sentence structures/conjunctions/etc.] that you could borrow?
Structure and organization
Provide a readerly response based on location
- I understood up to here, but when I got to this part, I was a little confused.
- When I got here, I started thinking about ___, and I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to.
Provide frames or organizing language
- Here’s some language that will help you frame your idea/your paragraph:
- ex. Arguments against phenomenon ___ depend on four assumptions.
- ex. Next, I would like to discuss two alternatives and their implications.
- ex: One interpretation of ___ is ___.
Articulate the expectations of an experienced reader in a US college setting
- I expected to see [a thesis statement/some supporting evidence] by this point in the essay.
- The thing that would usually happen at this place in memo is ___. In academic writing, US professors often expect ___.