Best Practices for Working with Multilingual Writers

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Best Practices for Working with Multilingual Writers


MG was interviewed as a subject expert because she has significant experience working one-on-one with English learners (ELs) and has a PhD in TESOL. Generally, she emphasized being positive when working with ELs, both in terms of finding something good about their writing to comment on and in the words used (“focus area” instead
of “error,” for instance). Specifically, she strongly suggested that writing tutors should have an understanding of language and how it works and that looking closely at model texts and
workshopping student texts were good ways to achieve this.

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[00:20] MG describes her experience as a master’s student working in English learners (ELs) in
a writing center for an English for Academic Purposes program as a dedicated tutor and an in-
class tutor.
[5:18] MG describes the best practice of always asking a student what he or she wanted her to
look for when working one-on-one. She would limit it to two or three things to avoid requests to
advise them on everything.
[7:01] MG discusses the importance of noting positive aspects of student papers first.
[7:30] MG refers to areas for improvement as “focus areas” and says that she would read for
message/ideas first. If ideas weren’t clear, the focus areas were what was interfering with
understanding, looking for patterns not every problematic instance.
[8:20] MG recalls a practice she really liked that was implemented in a WC that involved having
a printed rubric of the competencies and goals of courses students were in. It gave both student
and tutor an idea of what to look for. (KP: These were courses specifically for ELs, not general
curriculum courses.)]
[8:54] MG says that the more focused and narrow you can be in feedback, the better.
[9:08] MG emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between errors and mistakes.
[10:55] MG says she would spend time on errors v. mistakes.
[11:28] MG describes how she would provide feedback on errors by talking out specific
instances from paper and then summarizing.
[13:55] MG connects structures/rules/conventions in writing and culture. She gets frustrated
when there are unreasonable expectations from instructors or tutors about someone changing
how they think and/or not recognizing that ELs are being asked/required to change how they
[15:25] MG questions the ethics of asking ELs to change the way they think and expresses
frustration with the “deficit view” of EL’s writing.
[16:25] MG says that to help ELs “code switch” between languages/cultures, you have to show
them and really deconstruct texts. She would seek out model texts to use.
[17:30] MG says that tutors who are going to work with ELs really need to know a lot more
about language. She mentions Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) as good for helping people
deconstruct what language is and how that applies to writing, however, it’s too “big” for novice
tutors. But it can be boiled down to asking whether a tutor can look at a model text, at language,
tell the difference between what is an error in vocabulary, grammar, and be able to explain them.
[18:25] MG describes how tutors generalize all errors as grammar when, in fact, they are
vocabulary, for example. When she began looking at writing/language through SFL, she was
surprised at how many errors could be fixed by working on vocabulary v. grammar.
[19:48] MG discusses “hidden skills” in writing that are not made explicit. She gives the
example of the directive to improve “word choice” without instruction that matches how to do
that. What does this really mean?
[20:50] MG describes her own research into “lexical diversity,” that is, when it’s ok and not ok
to repeat words. She can’t find any examples of this being taught. When students get feedback on
vocabulary, it needs to be specific/descriptive.
[21:50] MG says it boils down to knowing more about language. She thinks the field of writing
and composition has gotten away from this a lot and give examples of no one doing sentence
[23:18] MG recommends workshops in language for tutors—not in grammar but getting tutors to
look at model texts and practice finding what needs to be replicated to construct this kind of text.
She also thinks it would be helpful for any writing center to create a repository of writing that
has different types of errors and have hands-on workshops for training about how to provide
feedback to students.
[24.35] MG thinks there should be an awareness among tutors that ELs are not homogenous.
They’re not all international students. There are hidden populations like generation 1.5 that have
come up here through K-12. Different groups have different needs. She goes on to describe the
needs of each of these two groups.
[27:49] MG thinks it should be stressed to tutors to be careful when using words like “wrong,”
“error,” and “mistake.” She likes “improvement” or “focus area” better.
[28:55] MG says that tutors should self reflect on any biases they might have against certain
cultures. She gives the example of African-American vernacular not receiving the status that it
should in academia.
[30.58] MG says if the writing center ever wants her to come and talk about these issues, she’d
be happy to do it.



“Best Practices for Working with Multilingual Writers,” SSU Writers, accessed July 8, 2020,