Explain the goals, procedures, and participant roles for a tutorial. Many students may not be familiar with the peer tutoring model. They may expect explicit instruction from you, the authority on writing. A brief, but careful explanation of how we work together can eliminate a lot of potential frustration.
Emphasize the assignment. Even if you read the assignment sheet together, ask students to explain it in their own words to make sure they have identified the critical instructions and tasks.
Emphasize the planning. Ask for an overview (e.g., “Before we start reading, could you tell me about your paper. What’s it about? What are the major sections of the paper? What are the main points you’re making? How have you sequenced those points?” etc.) You are activating a mental overview, which will help students envision the larger project and help them identify where they are having difficulty at that level.
Emphasize the content and organization. During the goal-setting phase, students will often say they’d like to make sure their English is okay. This is a legitimate concern, but it could be a waste of time to correct sentences that may disappear during revision. If students ask you to “just check the grammar,” validate that you’ll be happy to help them identify language problems, ask what other concerns they have, and then work together to prioritize their concerns. This can be a difficult negotiation, but much more detailed advice can be found on our “Just Check My Grammar” handout.
Ask if students would prefer to read or to listen. Some students may find it helpful to read their own work aloud, but others may find it to be an extra processing burden. In other words, students may be so focused on correct pronunciation or reading proficiency that they are not able to concentrate on (or notice) anything about the draft. If you read, you allow the student to attend to various aspects of the draft while they listen.
Concentrate on the macro-structure—the entire piece of writing. Is it focused, developed, and organized? Can you follow the major structure? You may be distracted by a number of errors, but keep in mind that ESL writers, like native English writers, benefit from thoughtful questions and genuine reader response. Pay sincere attention.
Read through mistakes that do not interfere with your understanding. The text may have a lot of minor errors that are noticable but not confusing. Read the text as it’s written, but read naturally through the minor errors, without stopping over every little thing. If you stumble a bit with a slightly confusing error, the writer will probably notice your hesitation. If you can move forward, do so and return to that error later if necessary.
If some language related issue seriously interferes with your understanding, either stop reading and try to identify the problem or mark that place in the text for your attention when you finish reading. If you stop, ask the writer for clarification (“I’m not sure what you mean here. / I don’t understand this sentence / this phrasing. Can you explain this to me a little bit more?”). Once the issue is resolved, continue reading.
Emphasize vocabulary development. Encourage students to pay attention to groups of words that often occur together (“lexical chunks” or “collocations”). If you find vocabulary errors, ask students for alternatives and give them time to think of a few before you make suggestions. If necessary, provide several choices for rephrasing instead of a single alternative. However, if there really is only one way to say it, by all means, provide the correction. Encourage students to use their native language as a resource. They (and you) can work with translation when they are truly at a loss.
Emphasize proofreading strategies. When students are ready to focus on language, ask several questions: What do you normally have trouble with? How do you normally proofread for that? What are you specifically concerned about in this draft? What did you have trouble with when you were writing? etc. Learn as much as you can about the writer’s own difficulties and strategies, and then work with them very much as you would with a native English speaker. Explain that you will concentrate on the errors that are most confusing first and then work on the less confusing, but perhaps more frequent, errors. If the correction is rule-based, work with the rule and proofreading strategies. If it is item-based, like an idiom, try to elicit the correction, but provide it if necessary. Again, see our “Just Check My Grammar” handout for a more detailed discussion of addressing language concerns.