Bridging the Gap Between Today’s Tutors and ESL Students

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“Cultural Conflicts in the Writing Center: Expectations and Assumptions of ESL Students” by Muriel Harris is my favorite essay we’ve read so far for this internship. Not only is it straightforward and easy to understand, but the concept is so basic that it forces students to think outside of the box. Much of what I read made me think “duh,” to be honest, but upon finishing the reading I had nothing to say besides, “Yes, I agree.” It’s these types of readings that result in students expressing more of their opinion since they know they can’t just respond by agreeing with the author. So on that note, I’ll proceed to share more of my thoughts on the topic of tutoring sessions with ESL students, or students from other cultures.

In attempting to find the appropriate role of a tutor, I think it varies with the students. Each student has their individual needs, as well as individual goals that tutors should respect. When dealing with students from America, which so far has been all of the students I’ve been assigned in tutoring here, I think ours goals have been mutual, which is why I feel we are on the same page and see improvement. However, if given an ESL student, I think I would agree more with most of those students that grammar and the more technical issues should be focused on first. Writing is a way of expressing oneself, which generally comes after understanding a language. A student who is struggling to write in English will probably be overwhelmed trying to deal with the bigger issues, such as “who the audience is” “why” or “how” questions, etc. It seems like common sense to me that you start small and work your way up, from vocabulary to grammar to sentence structure, organization, and then overall questions and ideas. However, it’s possible that’s just my opinion. While I am not claiming to understand how an ESL student feels in one of these tutoring sessions, I believe I can relate in my language class. I recently picked German up in college (one semester last year and now), because I took it in high school and loved it. Further, I use to be good at it, especially after a class trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. But in those two years I took off, I felt like I was starting over. It’s been a frustrating feeling. Surprisingly, many of the grammar rules stuck but my vocabulary really took a hit, forgetting what feels like 95% of what I knew in such a short time-period. My point is that re-learning the language now, as well as my experience in Germany, has taught me what it feels like to struggle to learn another language. In these situations, I too would prefer to start with grammar. I can completely understand why it’s logical to begin here, and would have no problem doing that. After all, I think writing comes with time, and it’s a more complex process then people realize (although speaking is usually harder). It would definitely overwhelm me to attempt to learn what Germans feel is good writing before I can effectively demonstrate a more basic form of writing that simply shows an understanding and successful communication of the language.

One idea for helping to see where ESL students are with their writing is to implement a simple survey into the sign-up process. If English is a student’s second language, they should answer a list of questions similar to the survey that this article asked, including what they expect the sessions to be like as well as their goals. Plangere already gives out paperwork, it would just be adding another minor step to the process. Further, it could also depend on the learning style of the student or teaching style of the tutor, since everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Grasping an understanding for these types of personality and teaching/learning differences may also help to pair people up in the most successful way.

The idea of starting a session by getting to know one another is a definite yes in my mind, for both people. I would expect, just like in the results of the study, that most students would benefit from this type of interaction. When students feel comfortable, they definitely learn better. (Helps tutors assess strengths/weaknesses as well, and by expressing enthusiasm or simply smiling decreases cross-cultural comfort gap) Also, since tutors can’t read minds, this encourages the student to express what he or she is used to as well as attempt to understand these differences by talking about them. However, the big issue of American’s interacting in the learning process and other cultures playing more formal roles (taking notes, listening, observing), is a long-term process in my mind. A tutor can express this to a student, but to really grasp this concept is like relearning something that is so natural to you, such as the way you tie your shoe or brush your teeth. It can be learned but it’s really easy to forget because it’s not natural. So tutors cannot expect ESL students to just jump right into this process. On the other hand, students cannot expect tutors to understand perfectly what is right, wrong, respectable, proper, etc in their culture since they have never lived there. The example where the tutor complimented the student’s jacket is one example I don’t think the tutor should be held accountable for. That’s so basic to American culture, it is something the student needs to learn, since we are in America and it would be impossible for tutors to learn what’s appropriate in all other countries. But any education on either end can help improve this comfort gap, and the more that the tutor and student feel comfortable with each other the less offended either will be if one makes a cross-cultural mistake.

I was surprised but intrigued by the two of the specific examples mentioned regarding cross-cultural learning differences. First, the ability of students to ask questions should be not only allowed but also encouraged. Teachers are paid to effectively communicate their ideas, so if students are not allowed to ask questions there is no way to test the validity of what they’re teaching. If a teacher is successfully doing there job, there won’t be many questions if any at all, in which case allotting students the freedom to ask simply serves as a check, or reinforcement for the teacher. A quote in the middle of page 11 illustrates the second point quite well. In refernce to plagiarism, “As Cai explains, in Asian cultures there is a strong sense of putting the group first, as opposed to the American sense of self that leads to a strong sense of ownership of ideas.” This quote really rung a bell in my mind because it fits right in with the capitalistic mindset of America. In this country, people are so focused on getting themselves ahead, acquiring the most money, or obtaining the most fame and success, that it forces people to become paralyzed by the concept of “who owns what.” It makes sense that people would like to receive credit for their work, but it has become so obsessive, that often times students get in trouble for incorrect citing. Further, it makes it impossible to use general information people have simply acquired throughout their lifetime. Asians don’t worry about avoiding plagiarism the same way Americans do, and I think it’s their selflessness as a culture that allows them to share their knowledge and expertise. After all, it’s knowledge we’re talking about, not some major invention. So I definitely feel it would be beneficial for Americans to move a little in this general direction.

(For a quick final note, the request for tutors to be more understanding, patient, and motivational should be a no-brainer. It frustrated me to hear students asking for that because all teachers, students, etc should show that basic level of respect. Patience it part of the job, so if a tutor doesn’t have it, that person definitely needs to switch fields.)

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About lamendel

Hi my name is Lauren, and I'm a junior at Rutgers University! I'm very excited to start blogging on wordpress.com for the plangere internship! I'm an Environmental Policy, Institutions, and Behaviors major (EPIB international) with a minor in German! In addition to my love for animals and the environment, I'm secretary of Queens Chorale, the oldest all-female, student-run choir on campus. In my spare time I love to run and play soccer and write!! Again, I'm excited to be a part of this internship and develop new life skills, make new friends, and keep up with my writing!
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One Response to Bridging the Gap Between Today’s Tutors and ESL Students

  1. This was so insightful. I especially agree with your point about how Americans with a capitalist mindset condemn plagiarism to the point where it gets “obsessive.” Still, I’m not sure we will ever move in the direction of selflessness that Asians exhibit.

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