“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.


Today’s post’s soundtrack: “Flight” by Lifehouse

She picks up the pencil. Her brain bursts with a thousand ideas that eagerly crowd their way to the surface of her thoughts. She breathes in deeply, her body tensing. The pencil descends onto the paper. Then, every so slowly, the first gray words slide forth, quietly stepping out on the whiteness. She reads them quietly to herself. . .

. . . and erases them.

Does this story sound at all familiar to you? If so, you are far from alone.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing, for me, is fear of failure. I deeply enjoy writing, but nearly every time I sit down at a laptop or pick up a pen, a pesky inner voice starts to drone. “Be careful.” “You’re about to mess up.” “Oooh, that was a bad sentence.” “You’d better take a break . . . a long break.” Honestly, I suspect that the fear of writing poorly has kept some of my best work from ever escaping my head.

When we treat writing as a sport, sweating over our score (and watching our umpire-instructor nervously out of the corners of our eyes), the natural joy of self-expression siphons out of us faster than a pop fly. But what if writing actually resembles a baby bird stretching its wings?

Think about it. If a fledgling refuses to flap until it feels ready to fly, it will never leave the nest. However painful the process, a baby bird must fail over– and over– and over– in order to achieve flight. And even though it’s painful, a writer must fail, too, as she struggles to find her voice.

In the Writing Center, the fear of failure rears its ugly head daily. How many of our visitors come in the hope that a merciful tutor will “fix” their sub-par writing? How many students tell us, “Oh, I’m not a good writer” (adding in the same breath, “And I hate writing!”). How many procrastinate on writing their papers because they “just don’t think they can do it” and end up sitting in the Writing Center, paralyzed, as the hours tick by until their paper is due?

It’s easy to empathize with the students who ask for our help “just getting started,” their faces panicked in the glow of a blank white screen. While I definitely know some writers need practical advice before they begin writing, I wonder if many just need permission: permission to write, to type and scribble furiously, to make blunders, and yes, to screw up and fall flat on their faces in the attempt to scratch out something beautiful.

The wonder of reading one’s own lovingly-written work satisfies the heart in a way nothing else can, and so many students haven’t experienced that joy. I hope to show writers that their words can improve, but their voice only needs to be discovered and honed. Perhaps we can teach students to work to improve their writing because it is already beautiful, instead of trying to make their writing beautiful. I hope we nudge writers to take risks and write fearlessly.

If you’re wondering whether a student suffers from a genuine inability to form words or if he struggles with fear of failure, here’s a simple test. Ask the student, “In essence, what do you want to say here?” If the student can answer you clearly and in detail but still says he cannot figure out how to write, he likely suffers from fear.

In that case, you know what to do: nudge the student out onto a limb. Tell him it doesn’t have to be perfect. Tell him good first drafts should have errors galore. Encourage her to write whatever the heck enters her head, or have her speak out loud and transcribe her speech yourself. Remind the writer that revising, the “how” to say it, will come, but the “what” must leave the writer’s head and hit the page before the “how” comes.

Confession: I struggled mightily with my rarely-silent inner critic as I scratched out these thoughts. I had to tell myself to just write and leave it as that, instead of trying to revise before I started. I have a feeling you may feel that way too, at times. Maybe we could all benefit from this advice (from Ray Bradbury):

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.

It’s a little scary, but flying is worth it.