Jennifer Hewerdine, Professor of English at Arizona Western College and blogger at Writing Kairos, discusses methods of tutoring English language learners in their own language, which may lead to an understanding of how valuing learners’ discourse communities and language experiences can increase student learning or, at the very least, engage learners in the process. [PDF full version: ¿Comprende?]

I’ve been a tutor in writing centers, community outreach programs, private programs, and volunteer projects for around two decades. In my role as a volunteer tutor, a majority of the learners with whom I have worked have been English language learners (ELL). Despite classes, practical application, and experience in a university writing center as well as years of experience tutoring in other capacities, the literacy students have taught me the most about how students learn and how I can be a better tutor.

For example, I have worked with many Spanish-speaking students who range from having very little formal education to professional degrees from universities in their home countries. By accident I discovered that teaching them English communication did not always mean teaching them in English. My Spanish is serviceable but not practical for daily use; for example, I was teaching a student the words for body parts while two other Spanish- speaking learners were working on math. I pointed to my wrist.

Me: “What’s this?”
Student 1: “Uh… muñeca… es, um, wrist.”
Me: “Yes, but… muñeca? A doll? [Laughter from all three] What? Did I say it wrong?”
Student 2: “No. You said it right. Muñeca is a doll and is also wrist. Spanish is crazy. Like English!”

This exchange emphasizes many things: the need to acknowledge and use the learner’s own experience and value his or her knowledge; the need for the tutor to also be a learner; and the need for the tutor to acknowledge the often crazy rules of language learning. Exchanges such as this—part in English and part in Spanish—became a staple of my learning and teaching, not just for learning English words, as was the case for that learner, but also for learning math and writing. I used Spanish to reinforce comprehension of the concept. The learners enjoyed watching me learn with them, make mistakes, and lack the appearance of knowing “it all,” whatever it all is. This form of learning and teaching extended beyond just learning words. For example, for the students learning math, I devised metaphors to explain how math operations work. For their writing, we worked on concepts related to their past life in Mexico, with the students inserting Spanish words when the translation was not one they liked. This led to my taking the English words they knew and trying out the Spanish translation myself. At times I encouraged them to speak to me in whatever language came naturally—often a mix of Spanish and English, Spanglish—while I wrote their words and then, together, we translated the entire thing to English.

The above-mentioned student with less proficiency in spoken English would often ask the others to translate when she stumbled upon words she didn’t know. At those times, I struggled to keep up with the conversation, grasping at bits of Spanish in an attempt to understand. One of the other speakers would stop occasionally and say, “¿Comprende?” Did I understand? At these points, I would clarify words I didn’t know in Spanish. This gave the students the opportunity to teach me while also searching for corresponding words in English.

In the writing center community, it is not difficult to come across someone stating that they love tutoring because they love learning. Indeed, this is why I love tutoring and teaching. I love learning from the people I work with. I think, however, that it is rare to articulate clearly what we learn from the people with whom we tutor. And yet we do learn as tutors and teachers, even when it is not clearly defined.

I set about applying what these learners taught me. Of course, many students with whom I worked were more proficient in English than those with whom I worked in the community. Nevertheless, they arrived at the center with their own discourse, experiences, and understanding of the world, often from discourse communities far removed from my own. Though it may have seemed the conversation strayedg off topic with each person, I sought to understand their world: what did they know that would provide a metaphor to help them grasp their writing needs? How could I reverse the roles so the student was teaching me, so my questions were genuine and not that of someone begging the difference or seeking a specific answer?

Recently I worked with a Middle Eastern postdoctoral professor on an article for publication in the software engineering field. The paper was well written, but the content was heavy and far beyond my knowledge base. The author wanted to know if a layperson could understand the article. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: When you talk about transmitting data, are you referring to the person accessing the wireless system, or…?

Professor: No! Is that how you understood it? It goes back to the previous section on data transmission.

Me: Oh! I see. I didn’t understand the process you previously spoke of was ongoing. I thought, when we changed sections, we also moved away from that process. Is that something that a person in your field would understand?

Professor: Not really because there are other processes that could be applied. I need to make that clear.


Me: When you say “multimedia sensor networks,” you mean the same type of configuration a person might have in their home? So this process applies to the system I use everyday?

Professor: Yes! So it’s understandable to you?

That “you” to which the professor refers indicates something beyond me as the tutor sitting in the chair beside the student. In this case, “you” meant the non-software engineer reading a foreign topic in a foreign discourse.

In these cases, when it is not a foreign language but it is still not my domain, I treat it the same as I would another language: it is a foreign topic from a discourse community I must learn to navigate in order to tutor this learner. Returning to the first anecdote, treating students’ knowledge as second to my own would not lead me to an understanding of who they are, how they learn, and the innate knowledge that every person brings to the table—or to the writing center. It does not honor the students’ experience, language, or discourse community skills, and all of the other attributes they bring with them to the classroom or tutoring session. While I am not tutoring at this time, I have learned that these same skills transfer to the classroom and eliminate the role of the teacher as dispenser of knowledge.

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