In her article, Muriel Harris, describes the attitudes of ESL students when they come in for tutoring help and how there is a discrepancy between their expectations and those of the tutors. This discrepancy can prevent the tutoring session from being awkward, and so, as Muriel argues, there are certain little things tutors can do to start their session on the right track.
When reading this article, however, I was surprised that it was limited to ESL students when I found much of it to be true of also American students. Often students will come in, tell me that their professor said they have a problem with grammar, and ask me to correct it. They are sometimes disappointed when I hand the paper back to them and tell them, “watch out for sentence fragments; make sure you have a subject, verb, and object, and ask me if you have any questions.” But perhaps the tough love tactic isn’t the best way to go about it. Perhaps there are things I can do so that students never hand me the paper to begin with, and instead ask questions on first instinct.
The article mentions one part of the questionnaire where some ESL students expressed irritation with the casual atmosphere in some American classrooms and the fact that some teachers asked to be referred to by their first names. However, responses to a later question showed how the students very much wanted to engage in casual conversation before a tutoring session and said that informal conversation calmed them down. Even if some ESL students may be used to a certain formal environment and may be taken aback when teachers tell them to, “Call me Jim”, teachers and tutors must recognize that humans are social creatures, and that a few minutes of casual conversation can help make students more comfortable and set it up so that the session is based off of collaboration. Perhaps, then, those students who exhibited anger and frustration with the informality of the classroom would ease into it, grow to like it, and be more willing to collaborate.
I do not exactly have enough time in an eighty minute session to spend twenty minutes on casual conversation, like Harris suggests in her article. However, I do take a few minutes to ask my students how their weekend was and how they are doing in general. A lot of tutors seem to agree with this and practice it themselves, however after the few minutes of casual conversation, they tend to fall back into a formal, uncooperative setting. Instead of automatically handing the session over to the students and allowing them to give YOU an assignment such as correcting their grammar or correcting their thesis, you should continue the conversation but apply it to their paper. Often, before seeing a student’s first draft, I will ask them to express to me what their essay is about and how they are supporting it. Often students do not get a chance to really talk about their essay out loud, so doing so to a tutor can often clarify ideas in their head, or bring to light problems with the essay. Even when presented with a second draft I often ask them to remind me what they wrote about so the ideas are refreshed in my head as well as their heads. Also, by doing this, the focus is not as much on the problems of their essay and the negative that needs to be taken out but instead their ideas that can be put in. Tutoring sessions and learning in general should be about ideas and producing ideas rather than problems. Even when teaching grammar, the focus should be on creating a persuasive sentence, and finding an interesting or aesthetically pleasing way of saying something, rather than correcting subject/verb disagreements. Often when I focus on student’s grammar or their sentence structure, I find myself focusing on perhaps finding better ways of saying something and organizing sentences that are not grammatically incorrect but do not flow well and are disorganized therefore do not express what the student is trying to say. I believe it is the students responsibility to correct typos and sentence fragments. I will explain why something is grammatically incorrect if the student asks, but I will not go through their paper with a red pen and dot their “i”s and cross their “t”s.