The Importance of Comfort When Tutoring ESL Students

by Nick Borner

Muriel Harris’ study, presented in her essay “Cultural Conflicts in the Writing Center: Expectations and Assumptions of ESL Students,” helped shed light for me on some of the miscommunication conflicts I had been having with some ESL students I am currently tutoring. In particular, what Harris said about asking ESL students whether or not they “want to spend a few minutes in friendly conversation with a tutor before beginning to work together” (213) struck me most.

Upon reading this article, it occurred to me that it took me several weeks of tutoring before I had finally decided to strike up a conversation with one student who hadn’t already taken the initiative to instigate a friendly conversation with me, but not all.

It took me several weeks to strike up a friendly conversation with one ESL student I teach. Through this conversation I gained a great deal of insight on her learning tactics in the context of her growing up in a conservative, Indian culture. This conversation helped me to understand the trouble she found in connecting different ideas together and the anxiety she developed when I asked her to do so on her own. She has a more fact-based and concise way of learning based on memorization from what she said was cultural pressure to excel in the sciences. This way of learning does not translate well to writing, seeing as her tactics are based on concrete facts and not on critical thinking. After this first conversation, I understood that in order to get her to stress less during our sessions, a brief, friendly conversation was in order for each session. Like Harris said, “As [ESL students] relax, they will feel freer to ask questions.” (213) Once we started communicating less formally and out of the context of expository writing each session, the student became less anxious and upset when she found trouble after my asking her to connect ideas and quotes on her own. She feels more comfortable to ask me for help after I assign her a task, but doesn’t wait for me to answer my own questions for her. Through creating a more interactive and informal environment for this ESL student, she has become a more “active learner that tutors want to develop,” (211) and I have begun acting like less of a teacher and more of a tutor because of it.

In a different session, I tutor an American guy and a girl of Asian descent who, by the way she speaks and writes I can only assume is an ESL student. Each week, the American student strikes up a brief, friendly conversation during which we discuss such things as classes, our weekends, and study habits, while the ESL student sits idly, laughing with us while we laugh but never contributing to the friendly conversation. Harris’ study has cleared up for me some possibilities as to why this happens.

As Harris said, “ESL students […] occasionally seem very businesslike when we begin a tutorial.” (213) Communication between this ESL student and I is extremely one-sided, with my presenting her with miniscule tasks to apply to particular sentences and paragraphs and her performing them, but I have to pull the ideas and connections out of her, and now I understand this may be in part because I have not made myself personable enough, and I intend to work on this as I did with the ESL student I referenced prior. As said by a writing tutor Harris quoted in her essay, “That five to ten minutes of a true exchange of ideas was better than the alternative: me talking at an uninvolved audience for thirty minutes.”

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