Improving Your Online Writing Center for International Students

Woman using a laptop

As international student enrollment rises at many institutions, it’s going to be increasingly important to provide academic support for a growing population of students who may have diverse levels of fluency with academic writing in English. While there is a long tradition of providing ESL writing labs and other support for these “second language students” on campus, providing writing support for international students in an online writing center involves unique challenges and requires some specific expertise in the writing center staff in order to be effective.

For advice, we turned to Beth Hewett, an educational consultant in online writing instruction and an adjunct associate professor with the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and St. Mary’s University and Seminary. A college instructor for 30 years, Hewett is the author of The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors (Heinemann, 2010) and one of the most knowledgeable practitioners in this area.

We asked Hewett to offer some key considerations for institutions looking to launch or improve an online writing center or online tutoring service intended to support second-language students.

Staffing the Online Writing Center Effectively

“If you anticipate serving many second-language students via an online writer center or online tutoring service, you have to recognize that this effort will be much more challenging for peer tutors than it will be for experienced tutors and writing instructors.”
Beth Hewett

Hewett offers these suggested criteria for selecting your staff:

  • Instructors or tutors who are demonstrably comfortable working with non-native speakers (“Even some experienced teachers are sometimes nervous,” Hewett notes. “You need to find a good fit in terms of both competency and comfort level”)
  • Tutors who can demonstrate “that they can use writing to talk about writing”

In other words, those providing the writing instruction or tutoring need to have the vocabulary and the intuitive and analytical ability to identify and describe (in writing) the issues in a written piece beyond just sentence-level and syntax issues. “Unskilled tutors often fall back on just editing a student’s paper,” Hewett cautions. “Yet often when there is a lot of problematic grammar, it means the student hasn’t yet sorted out what they are trying to do or say in the paper. Those sentence fragments are symptoms of a higher-order problem. Your tutors need to be focused on the higher-order concern of the student’s argument. With an ESL student, this is as true as with a native speaker.”

Hewett notes that in an asynchronous setting, this ability become especially critical — because your tutors may need to make skilled guesses about the nature of the issues in the student’s paper and then provide tutorial in the absence of a real-time discussion with the student. For Hewett, this is a strong argument for staffing an online writing center with writing instructors and experienced writing tutors.

Checklist: Advice for Online Writing Center Staff

Based on a study guide she created for her book The Online Writing Conference, Hewett offers this partial checklist of seven tips that you can provide to your online writing tutors, or that you can use to focus training for those staff:

Show respect for the student’s knowledge. “International students have different knowledge, not just deficient knowledge,” Hewett remarks. “Some may be exemplary students and scholars. They can write in more than one language and are now looking to develop proficiency in academic writing in English. When we transition between languages, we lose fluency, not intellect. It’s critical that writing center staff don’t dismiss or under-rate the ESL student as a learner. Indicate to the student respect for their fluency in their own language, then demonstrate what’s different in English.”

Sell yourself as an instructor. Tutors can build credibility by the way they frame the conversation — “I realize this is done differently in your native language, but English handles it this way…” — and by using the student’s own writing to provide demonstrations and examples, rather than turning to hypothetical sentences or arguments. “Providing examples from the student’s own writing may be counterintuitive to those trained in the world of the traditional, on-campus writing center,” Hewett notes, “but in an online setting, this is nearly always the stronger, more practical approach.”

Make an art of clockwatching. Hewett advises: “Make sure your staff develop a strategic sense for how to allocate the time they have with the student. You want to ensure there’s time to address major ideas, content, the argument, while also making sure that if you and the student are going to discuss later-order concerns such as sentence structure, that there’s time allotted for that.

Identify the student’s needs. Related to the last point, the tutor needs to be adept at managing and responding to the student’s expectations, so that you can balance giving the support students believe they need and the support they most need. Hewett suggests that a good practice is to begin by inviting the student to self-identify their needs and their areas of concern, whether via a conversation or a submission form in an asynchronous context.

Be careful to speak at the student’s level. This requires some degree of sensitivity, as some international students may have a limited grasp of English. “A tutor has to be able to problem-solve with the student in terms that help the student get it, without insulting their intelligence. You don’t want to talk either over their head or under it.” On a related point, avoid any language that might mislead the student — such as rhetorical questions that international students may take literally.

Contextualize the tutorial. International students may face particular challenges understanding the expectations of academic writing in English. The nature of the assignment itself may be at issue. For example, some second-language students may be adept at writing exposition papers, but may lack any experience in writing an argument. It will be important for the tutor to provide this context, to the extent that the tutor is aware of the student’s assignment. “While expository writing requires you to explain A, B, and C,” the tutor might advise the student, “an argument requires you to do X and then Y.”

Teach by doing. “Show the student how to address the problem.” Hewett recommends that instructors walk international students through a four-step process, using examples from the students’ own writing. The process is: what, why, how, and do:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • How do I fix it?
  • Now do.

Hewett notes that international students often thrive when presented with this approach, as it allows them to take ownership of the process and helps them see not only how to solve an issue once you’ve identified it together, but how to replicate or adapt that solution later.

See Other Topics in Student Success