“You’re right”: ESL learning and directive tutoring

When Belesti came into the Writing Center hoping for help with a persuasive speech, he felt unsure about the meaning of his assignment guidelines. He knew he needed a “credibility statement,” but as an ESL student, he felt confused by the word “credibility.” I attempted to help him understand his assignment and, in doing so, discovered more about the strengths and weaknesses of directive versus non-directive tutoring.

First, I gauged Belesti’s understanding of the credibility statement by asking him about his understanding of the credibility statement. He showed me the dictionary definition of “credibility” he had found in an attempt to understand the assignment, but he didn’t seem to understand the word in context.

When Belesti showed me the dictionary definition, my instinct told me, “He doesn’t understand the definition; he probably needs some real-life examples to understand the concept of credibility,” and I proceeded to give examples of credibility. As I watched the video, though, I felt that Belesti struggled not so much with the idea of credibility as with the English. If I could repeat the session, I’d start by praising him for searching for the definition. Then, I’d give him the definition of credibility in the simplest words possible and ask him to parrot it back to me. He may have indeed struggled with the concept of credibility, I’m sure the examples helped him, but I think he needed simple definitions the most.

I directed the session well as a whole: I refused to leave the topic until I felt that Belesti truly understood the definition of credibility. I also pointed a few errors without hesitation. Watching the video, though, I see I felt more directive than I acted; I hedged so many directives with “might,” “maybe” and other qualifiers that many of my explanations came across as suggestions. Qualifiers don’t always hinder a tutor’s ability to communicate with the writer. However, in this session, I feel that qualifying so many words may have hindered communication.

Frustratingly, Belesti seemed very interested in telling me, “You’re right.” “Oh, yes, you’re right.” (His cultural background may have contributed to this tendency, although his personality undoubtedly played a role, too.) I wanted him to simply listen and to ask for clarification on the points he did not understand.

I think my instinct proved correct: after I gave a few examples of credibility and asked Belesti to give me a sample credibility statement, he seemed to still misunderstand the concept. So I tried other strategies. I asked him questions to involve him more: “What’s your idea for your credibility statement?” and “What’s a way I could write that down so that you’ll remember it?” Questioning him helped me gauge his understanding and forced him to process the information, and I think it helped him.

As I reflected on this session, I realized I faced more than just the difficulty of balancing directive and non-directive strategies. My use of language also impacted the session. First of all, while my use of qualifiers (an attempt to demonstrate that Belesti held control of his own paper) may have helped him, I also may have hindered his understanding of the topic by choosing less-than-the-simplest words. If I’d said, “Write this word” instead of “You might want to think about putting this word in there,” I would have been more directive, and I would have communicated more clearly. Also, I could have paused more (interestingly, this not usually hard for me) to give him time to think. Finally, I repeatedly asked, “Does that make sense?” When asked this question, many internationals feel pressured to answer, “Oh, yes.” (Belesti seemed to feel this pressure; a few times, he responded in the affirmative even though he clearly didn’t grasp the concept yet.) Instead of asking this unhelpful question, I could have said, “Tell me what your questions are,” asked him specific questions about my explanations, or prompted him to paraphrase what I’d said.

I do think Belesti understood credibility statements in the end, although it took some time to make sure he fully comprehended the concept. I’ve definitely grown in my use of directive tutoring strategies. While this tutoring session confirmed that, it also showed me that I still need to grow.

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