What this handout is about

When you ask students writing in English as an additional language what they would like to work on, they will often say that they’d like you to check their grammar. “Checking the grammar” can feel uncomfortably close to proofreading and editing students’ papers for them—which writing coaches know is strictly out of bounds. Unfortunately, multilingual writers have been unfairly denied access to language feedback because of the very strong prohibition against editing, but the good news is that we can still be very helpful without compromising our principles.

This page provides a bit of important historical context for the discussion and offers strategies for responding to the grammar-checking request in ways that respect the pedagogical philosophies of the writing center and the instructional needs of students writing in a foreign language. The list of strategies is followed by excerpts of coaching sessions, with annotations that illustrate how some of the strategies work in real conversations between writing coaches and multilingual writers.

1984: The Triple Whammy for Multilingual Writers

In 1984, several of the most influential texts in writing center history were published. You will probably recognize the first two because the vocabulary and the philosophy are still driving forces in today’s writing centers:

  1. Reigstad & McAndrew: Division of the writing process into “higher order” and “lower order” concerns, establishing a value-laden sequence of content and organization before grammar and punctuation.
  2. North: Staunch declaration that writing centers were not centers for mechanical remediation and error correction. “In a writing center, the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction…our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (p. 69).
  3. Friedlander: Assertion that writing centers meet the needs of foreign students by focusing on mechanical remediation and error correction. The content of students’ essays should be discussed only as much as necessary for accurate error correction.

The writing process was divided, the writing center’s territory was firmly staked, and the perceived needs of multilingual writers were placed squarely outside the parameters of the writing center’s mission, pedagogical philosophy, and standard procedure. No wonder we’ve struggled so much!

In fairness to the scholars above, they meant to emphasize that writers should concentrate on developing their ideas before they worried about comma splices, and to emphasize that truly good writing involved the long-term development of a complex set of skills. These ideas are still so powerfully present in writing centers today because they are so very true. Unfortunately, they had the unintended effect of marginalizing discussions of sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and grammatical errors until very late in the writing process.

In truth, ideas can not be separated from the language used to express them. Multilingual writers are advanced language learners who are working toward the command of a sophisticated range of vocabulary, sentence structures, discipline-specific expressions, idioms, etc. Multilingual writers are also developing writers, so they do need the same kind of process-oriented and “higher order” feedback that monolingual writers need. Quite often, though, their ability to develop the content of their essays is limited by a lack of vocabulary or by difficulty with complex sentence structures. As coaches, you can support the development of writing skills by talking about language at any point in the writing process where it might be helpful.

It’s good to discourage premature concern with nit-picky editing decisions, but it’s great to encourage exploration of the right language for expressing a great idea. Be flexible and be comfortable with the fluid, back and forth movement between discussing the ideas and the language.

What do you do when students say, “Just check my grammar”?

  1. Respond positively. (“Sure, we can take a look at the language stuff…). Lectures about how we teach proofreading strategies or how we don’t really do grammar in the writing center put students on the defensive when they have a legitimate need for feedback on their language proficiency. Just say yes, and move on to the next step.
  2. Elicit other concerns. (“What else would you like to talk about today? Are you still working on the content?”). Students will often identify quite a range of concerns with simple prompting at the beginning of the session, especially after they’ve been reassured that you’ll help them identify problems with a language they’re still learning.
  3. Ask for an overview. (“Before we get started, could you tell me about what you’re working on and what you’ve included so far?”). Explaining their writing project (the assignment and the text so far) gives students the chance to produce “comprehensible output”—a chance to use the English language to express their thoughts clearly and to make themselves understood. We know that language learners are able to understand a lot more than they are able to spontaneously produce in a foreign language, and it’s really hard work to express complex thoughts sufficiently in a language that’s not your own. By asking questions, by listening carefully, and by asking follow-up questions, you can help students work through the process of communicating clearly in English, and you can give yourself a mental framework of the project that will be helpful when language questions arise in specific parts of the text.
  4. Read the entire draft. You may find grammatical errors on the first or second page, but keep reading. You’ll get a sense of the student’s complete argument, and you’ll have time to recognize more serious errors that may occur later in the paper.
  5. Stop only for extreme issues. Sometimes a sentence may be so malformed that the idea is completely obscured. You can make a note to come back to that point later, but if you do decide to stop, ask a broad question and then listen carefully (“Can you tell me more about this idea?”). Try to be attuned especially to places where the student’s language use is truly interfering with your ability to understand what they’re trying to say. Clarifying these expressions takes priority over minor errors that don’t really interfere with your understanding.
  6. Recast the student’s explanation more grammatically. (“Let me see if I understand you correctly. You’re saying that…”). If you understood and explained correctly, the student can hear the thought expressed in grammatical English and can make note of it—they can add it to their English language repertoire. However, if your recasting (your paraphrased explanation) doesn’t match the student’s intended meaning, or if you can reasonably offer two different interpretations of the text, you can examine the passage more closely to figure out why it was unclear. Then you can work together on correcting whatever is confusing about the student’s original expressions. This back and forth process is called “negotiation of meaning” (“Is this what you mean?” “No, I mean this.” “Oh, okay. We say it like this.” “Oh, okay. Thanks.”)
  7. Provide “linguistic input”—language that students read and hear. This “input” might be bits of English that are new to them (like a new word or idiomatic expression), or it might be familiar bits of English being used in ways they’ve never heard before. You are not usurping control if you make language suggestions that convey the student’s ideas. If you’ve listened carefully enough that you know what they’re trying to express, help them out.
  8. Use resources. Even if you know the grammar, introduce students to language resources they can use independently at other times.
  9. Document the puzzles. If you encounter particularly interesting or confusing samples of language use, keep a copy to share with your colleagues and mentors. It may serve as a useful training sample, so you’re serving the community well.

What if students really mean, “Just check my grammar”?

There does come a time writers are ready to concentrate strictly on their grammar. They’re satisfied with everything else, and as writers, you know that’s a happy place to be. Normally we teach proofreading strategies to native speakers at this stage. We can do this with multilingual writers too, but we also have to adjust our strategies to accommodate their status as language learners. These suggestions are meant to help you with that adjustment.

There’s a strong misconception that there will be “patterns of error”—certain types of errors that occur repeatedly in the text. Sometimes that does happen, but more frequently, there will only be one or two instances of twenty five different kinds of error. That’s okay. You can still exploit the educational value of an error, having confidence that students will try to apply what they learn to their subsequent writing.

Two things to note: First, even though the strategies listed below concentrate more on straight proofreading and grammar checking, remember that you can also use all of the strategies listed above for correcting the grammar by clarifying the intended meaning. Second, when you do find an error, you can ask, “How do you normally proofread for this kind of mistake?” or say to the student, “Let’s try to find a few more examples of this structure, just to double-check them.” Look for correct and incorrect examples because we need our successes reinforced too! It’s a great opportunity to assess the student’s proofreading skills and do some strategy building.

Think of these strategies as being listed in the order they should be used in, but feel comfortable to experiment with the order, depending on the student, the writing project, and your own judgment. Play with them to see how each strategy helps enhance the students’ learning experience.

  1. Ask students to identify specific feedback targets (“Show me what you’re not sure about.”). You can ask a variety of questions: why they’re not sure about that sentence, if they can think of other ways to express the thought, what rules they know about the particular grammar structure, if they checked a reference book, if they can show you the page so you can look at the rules together, etc. In other words, you can learn a lot about the students’ thought processes that will be helpful in working with each of them. One caution: be sensitive to how much time you’re spending on these questions. It can be frustrating to students if every single error is interrogated at length, as you can imagine. Idioms and prepositions are great candidates for a coach’s quick corrections because they’re so idiosyncratic. Structures that follow a set of rules more systematically, like verb tense or gerunds vs. participles, are good candidates for more questioning. (Locate the grammar references in the Writing Center if you didn’t understand “gerunds vs. participles”:)
  2. Ask where they struggled to make language choices. Sometimes they really do believe they’ve written everything in correct English, so they can’t point to a sentence they think might be incorrect. If you ask them to show you where they had to work at it, you have a chance to interrogate their decision-making process (“Why was this a hard choice? How else were you thinking of saying it? What made you choose this way?”) and to either congratulate them and reinforce a correct choice, or to correct them and perhaps teach them a trick for making the right choice next time (a mnemonic device, a great page in your favorite reference book, etc.).
  3. Identify “high gravity” errors–errors that truly interfered with your comprehension. Work with the student to figure out why the sentence structure or word choice is obscuring their intended meaning. When they’ve explained their idea enough that you understand it, offer them the language they need to express their idea grammatically.
  4. Move on to repeated errors. Ask questions about their choices or their general knowledge (e.g., “Why did you choose this verb tense?” or “What do you know about verb tenses?”). Ask the student if they have a favorite grammar resource and/or share your own favorite grammar resource. Work through correcting the error together, helping the student understand and apply the rules. Find a couple more examples of the same kind of mistake and let the student use the resource to try correcting the mistakes. When they feel confident that they can find and correct that type of error, move on to another.
  5. Give prepositions away like candy. Introduce students to “learners’ dictionaries,” which include information about word + preposition combinations, but feel comfortable freely offering up these important little words. Learning to use “up” correctly in one sentence will not ensure that students will use it correctly in another sentence in the same way that learning about other structures will, and this little act of kindness can help students stay more engaged with the rest of the process.

The Strategies in Action

These transcripts are excerpted from sessions with second language writers. They have been annotated to explain a bit about what was happening, what the students were trying to accomplish, what the coaches were trying to accomplish, and to illustrate a few of the concepts and strategies listed above. Read each excerpt without reading the comments, just to get the flow of the conversation. Read them again, looking at each of the marginal comments as you reflect on the information on this page.

Resources

You can find very clear explanations of grammar structures and an EXCELLENT collection of idioms and phrasal verbs, which ESL students usually struggle with, at UsingEnglish.com.

See what the students are learning on our English Language Resources page.

References

Friedlander, A. (1984). Meeting the needs of foreign students in the writing center. In G. A. Olson (Ed.) Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp. 206-214). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46, 433-446.

Reigstad, T. J., & McAndrew, D. A. (1984). Training tutors for writing conferences. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


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