In most language classes, teachers focus on conversation skills like pronunciation, grammar, and conjugation before the writing process begins. Students aren’t challenged to start stringing words and sentences together until some sort of fluency is reached and I think that this is a huge problem because it doesn’t challenge the learner to mold his native language into the language being learned. When ESL learners come here, they learn quickly because they have to!
We all think in our native languages, or at least in some language that we are most comfortable processing the world around us in, so it is crucial to realize that ESL students do much more than we do when writing in English.
We need to give ESL learners the freedom to use their native language to help them fill in the “gaps” of what they don’t know yet—whether it be a verb, a noun, or some sort of vocabulary word, their native language will help them move from their style of grammar and writing into the new realm of English. My main concern is many teachers’ focus on “immersion” when it comes to writing. While it is excellent to be immersed in a completely English-speaking environment for conversational purposes, writing is more formal, and as a result needs to be more interactive for a learner who doesn’t have a full vocabulary of English words yet.
I say this because one of the first students I ever tutored was a freshman from South Korea and the first thing that he did was tell me in a perfectly understandable accent that he didn’t speak English. His process of writing was that he would write his essay in his native tongue, translate it to the best of his ability in English, and leave certain gaps for me to help him with and fill in. In this way it was a very interactive process.
He told me he had been studying English for about four years and at that point I realized that because he had had some instruction, I could help him succeed in his basic composition skills class by using the technique of scaffolding. Scaffolding essentially helps students grasp concepts that they cannot reach independently; a teacher (or tutor) helps only with the skills that are out of reach of the student’s capability.
For example, when the student I was tutoring came into our second session with a paper marked-up with grammatical mistakes, I made a list of all of his different errors and helped model correct forms for him. I would write down an incorrect sentence similar to the one he had written and then I’d write down another one correctly. After giving him the explanation for why his particular sentence was incorrect, I’d ask him to read through the model sentences and choose which one was correct. He was very bright and this type of scaffolding was helpful because of the sentences I’d modeled. By being given certain clues, he could figure out the process on his own and use it in his writing.
I agree with Harris that one of the most important things to keep in mind while tutoring ESL students is to take a few minutes for “friendly chatter” before the session starts. I did this on my own while I was tutoring the same freshman from South Korea simply because I was genuinely interested in his culture and story. He really appreciated this and I could tell it made him happy to see that I cared. What’s more, by simply speaking to their tutors, ESL learners will realize that they can speak English and that they can communicate. This simple conversation gives them the confidence to take on the challenge of writing.
For the most part, it’s important to keep ESL tutoring as an active process between the tutor and the tutee, almost like a conversation. Giving them little bits of advice and asking them simple questions helps too, like “who are you trying to convince?” or “who is listening?” When I work with ESL students, I often get them to their main point by asking probing questions, like “do you mean that x is influencing y, or that y is altering x?”
While it’s true that “teachers teach and tutors help”, I believe that the helping aspect of tutoring is especially crucial to ESL learners because of the interchange involved. Most ESL writers are highly successful writers in their native languages, so it is important to show them that they can be writers of English too.