The thesis

I lost track of writing about the thesis submission journey, which I now regret. It was a roller coaster. Mine has not been accepted yet but in the spirit of completion, here’s what I submitted (there was more to the portfolio but this capstone project portion).

Angela Whyland

Dr. Marlen Harrison

LIT 690

2 January, 2017

Stepping Outside the Box:

Improving Literacy, Competency and Agency for

English Language Learning Students in College Writing Centers


If writing centers are going to finally be accepted, surely they must be accepted… as places whose primary responsibility, whose only reason for being, is to talk to writers. That is their heritage, and it stretches… back, in fact, to Athens where in a busy marketplace a tutor called Socrates set up the same kind of shop: open to all comers, no fees charged, offering, on whatever subject a visitor might propose, a continuous dialectic that is, finally, its own end (North 46 quoted by Jaeger 1)[1].


Modern college Writing Centers[2], and the student populations they serve, have an identity problem. While modern writing centers were developed to serve an underprepared American English speaking undergraduate population, the nature of their student visitors seeking writing assistance has been rapidly changing. During the last thirty years, the immigrant population of the U.S. has tripled. More than 14 million immigrants moved to this country during the 1990s, and another 14 million were expected between 2000 and 2010 (Greer & etal.). Between 1990 and 2000, the number of children ages 18 and under, living with immigrant parents in the U.S., grew 60 percent, from 8.2 million to 13.1 million. Between 2000 and 2014, the number grew from 13.1 million to 17.5 million. Currently, these children and young adults make up nearly 25% of the total American population for that age group (Zong & Batalova). The number of these multilingual students who go on to college is not tracked but colloquial discussions with local college staff (Appendixes B-E), and research on English Language Learners (ELL) at the college level, indicate that the numbers of these students are dramatically increasing. In addition, in 2015-16, U.S. colleges enrolled “more than one million international students, a record number, (who) came to America to pursue higher education (also) pumping $32.8 billion into the U.S. economy” (Ali)[3].

While the need for research on teaching English language learners is generally recognized at the k-12 grade levels, that need does not stop at that level[4].  The NCTE brief points to a growing need for instructors at all levels of the American educational system to receive more training on the complex needs of the ELL student population (Greer, etal. 5). According to the brief, ELLs are the fastest growing segment of students at the K-12 levels. In grades 7-12, this population increased by approximately 70% between 1992 and 2002. By 2013-14, the percentage of public secondary school students who were English language learners reached 9.3 percent of total enrollment, or an estimated 4.5 million ELLs nationwide (National Center for Educational Statistics). Studies of the numbers of these ELLs, also known as the L 1.5 generation, are especially scarce at the university level because they are not required to take the HEOP exam as a part of their application process (Hanifan Appendix , Naydan 1-2). But common sense suggests that administrators, teachers and writing center directors can expect to see this unique group of ELLs on their college campuses in rapidly increasing numbers. Finally, that picture becomes further complicated. A 2016 study by Bound, Braga, Khana and Turner concludes that an average 10% decrease in state government funding to public colleges over the last 15 years has generated a 12-17% increase in international undergraduate student enrollment at U.S. public universities, students who speak English as a non-native language (quoted by Redden). Redden suggests that the gloomy financial picture is likely to continue in 2017, and that both public and private universities should consider how becoming more attractive to international students might improve their situation (also noted by Dufort Appendix C, Glynn Appendix D) .

Another challenge noted by the NCTE brief is that ELLs are a diverse group.  In terms of the statistics, 57% of ELLs in secondary school are second generation immigrants and 43% are first generation. Another complication is that ELLs have many different levels of language competency, but in general fall far below the national averages for other high school students (Greer & etal, 6). Many of those that are able to go to 2 or 4 year colleges will likely need support in writing at the college level. The brief suggests that ELL instructors need to better: “Recognize the difference between ELLs and (other) under-prepared students in higher education. Because first-year (college) composition usually serves as a ‘gateway’ course, it poses challenges for some college ESL students, including some who have attended U.S. high schools. ESL students who are new to the U.S. face the additional challenge of acclimating to a new culture and status at the same time they are learning English. Conditions for their learning, especially in first-year (college) composition, should include no more than 15 students per class, and college instructors… need to recognize students’ prior literacy experiences, provide connections to new learning, and give explicit instructions regarding expectations for work” (Greer & etal. 6.)

In terms of teacher preparation, which might be equally applicable to the training of Writing Center tutors, the NCTE recommends that institutions should: Provide research-based professional development for teachers of ELLs. According to the brief, less than 13 percent of U.S. teachers have received professional development on teaching ELLs, and despite the growing numbers of ELLs, only three states have policies that require all teachers to have some expertise in teaching ELLs effectively. As a result, most ELLs find themselves in mainstream classrooms taught by teachers with little or no formal preparation for working with a linguistically diverse student population. Well-meaning teachers with inadequate training can sabotage their own efforts to create positive learning environments through hypercriticism of errors; not seeing native language usage as an appropriate scaffold; ignoring language errors (Greer & etal. 7-8.) Given that many ELLs are either recommended to, or find their way to, writing centers it seems important that writing center directors consider how best they will be able to serve the evolving population that will be visiting their market square.

From my own experience as a tutor/mentor, the NCTE recommendation seems potentially challenging to implement for writing centers. In my sessions, the tutees spoke Taiwanese, Shone (old African dialect) and Arabic, all very different languages. All of these languages are also much older and structurally different than English, which is, itself, a recognized hybrid child. I speak some German, and a little Icelandic (Old Norse, a grandmother of modern High German). I suspect, based on my own earlier experience as an L2, immersed in Iceland for a year, that the above note applies more to the process of enabling working in a second language. For me that was, first, translating into German and then Icelandic. So, while I don’t know that supplying WC ELL students with L1 partners is practical, or even for most university writing centers, possible, I can say that, from personal experience, there are ways to creatively improve the ability to write in another language, if we are willing to think outside the box and draw in what we know about teaching a second language and writing center theory. That is a huge plate and this invitation will not attempt to cover all of it.

The primary research question this paper explores is what could be learned through attempting to marry relevant research regarding the currently estranged disciplines of Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL), Writing Center scholarship and modern narrative theory, towards the goal of how university writing centers may assist English Language Learners (ELL[5]) to be successful writing in the American academic genre. The issue is significant because American universities are continuing to enroll ELL students in dramatically increasing numbers[6], and yet most support those students with writing centers whose philosophies are still largely based on the 1980s theories of process-centered learning, which were designed for English as first language learner college students (Collins 56, Dufort & O’Sullivan “Interview”, Glynn “Interview”, Min 11, 1, Moussu 56, Schulman “Interview”). The universities which recruit and enroll multilingual students must be concerned with successfully supporting these students in the academic world in which student’s work is generated, and assessed, in the English written language (Glynn “Interview”, La Clare & Franz 9, Leclare 8, Wang and Machado 1144). The argument that American universities are viable sites for recruitment of international students rests on the demonstrated proof that these students become successful as academics, and go forward to continue that success as scholars and professionals, in a world increasingly dominated by publishing in English (Jeffrey, Kieffer & Matsuda; LaClare & France; Matsuda, Lu & Horner).

ELL students arrive to American universities in many different fields, with widely varying capabilities in English, and even more so, in written academic discourse (Hall 1, Hanifan “Interview”, Rafoth 28-34). Faculty in the primary discourse areas in which the ELL students enroll are not, even in the case of freshman composition and rhetoric, often trained in TESOL, nor is writing assistance the primary focus of their teaching obligations (Glynn “Interview”, Matsuda, Saenkhum & Accardi 68). ELL students, like many other students whose writing skills fall below expectation for academic course work, are often funneled to schools’ Writing Centers which are most commonly staffed by volunteer English literature students, who have little, or no training in TESOL, nor the academic cultures from where these students come, which are often very different from the American independent, process-based systems (Moussu 55, Robinson 74). Further complicating these problems are faculty and ELL student expectations that the purpose of the writing center is to focus on structure and grammar, or in other words, simply fix the students’ English.  Nor do most university faculty understand the peer approach to the writing process, nor the hybrid identities of WC tutors themselves, existing midway between student and faculty (Parisi & Graziano-King 29-31).[7]

The resulting problems, and frustrations on the parts of students and tutors, and the gap between ESL student needs, have not gone unnoticed by researchers. Although, there is a large amount of critical research undertaken regarding post-secondary ESL students that research has a distinct separating line between TESOL studies and Writing Center process oriented theory. The Jaeger article, which begins with the quote that opens this thesis, is a case in point. The essay argues for further exploration of North’s philosophy along the dialogic method but returns to the goal of getting the student dialogue partner to see the academic essay formula in exclusion of the student’s needs, or motivations for writing.[8] The highly developed TESOL research could be helpful in exploring practice in the writing center, or other discourses, but currently, there seems to be no, or little, dialogue between the different disciplines.[9]

Instead, a fair amount of recent research seems aimed at studies of isolated theories could be used in application, or how the whole American education/writing center systems could be changed in ways that don’t seem to acknowledge the situation for most writing centers in terms of their resources. For example, Wang & Machado (2015) call for writing center partners to be paired according to countries of origin. This solution would seem an optimal situation for some ELL students. The critical literature on this type of pairing is inconclusive in demonstrating replication of results, many of which are contradictory. What is, also, unclear is how that could be achieved at a small college that has, for example, three students from Korea and only one from Somalia or a college that has students from 27 different countries and no ability to select students that apply to tutor. That was my experience in the writing center of a small university, and these students seemed to like, based on their returns to the center, working with an American student (see also, Rafoth 44-5). Matsuda, Lu, and Horner call for, and I agree, a reconceptualization of how academia conceptualizes cultural language use in academia (needs page cite). This is a truly wonderful concept for scholarly consideration. But this paper is more concerned with what we know now, what could we use now, to improve the very real issues of WCs and their visitors, today.

My methodology is aligned to the autoethnographic work of Deborah Journet, Jayne Pitard (2016), and Patrick Camangian (2010) in feeding this work back into the classroom, or in this case, writing center. Pedagogically, I align with David Bartholomae, Peter Elbow’s humanizing pedagogy, Janet Emig’s writing as a way of being and Richard Straub. As a postmodernist, I believe in Francois Lyotard’s disbelief in metanarratives and the value of the narrative petit (the importance of the small, or individual story), the early work of Jean Baudrillard in the role of the media in dissolving the real, Kerwin Klein’s exploration of narrative in identity formation and Linda Hutcheon’s recognition of the role of parody and pastiche in architecture and postmodern meaning making. The focus of this research is also impelled by recent publications that synthesize writing center research like Babcock & Thonus (2012) and the WC director/tutor/student interview as an important subject for research of this topic, Rafoth (2015).

This research will fill a gap within existing critical research directly relevant to improving the performance and sustainability of college writing centers. Writing centers are entities that are not common everywhere, and even in the US, where they are now much more common, their existence is often challenged, as traditional academic institutions become more fiscally conservative (Robinson 87).  For example on of the universities consulted in this study recently cut the ESL tutor position for funding reasons (Appendix E). The year after I graduated college, the Director position at my alma mater’s writing center (where I also worked) was eliminated for financial reasons.  Yet, I never had a night when I did not have ELL students come to see me in the writing center, so there is an important need for this type of research to bring divided points of view together, and continue to open up new perspectives on the challenges, and opportunities, in reimagining student-focused writing centers.

The paper will take a postmodern approach to writing centers by questioning why they exist, how or if they fulfill that mission by examining the current research focused on ELL students in the university writing center. The paper will include autoethnographic reflections on my own experiences as a writing center tutor in light of my graduate education in English; I will include my own stories and conclusions about partnerships with undergraduate students in the college writing center. I will support this with interviews with current Writing Center staff of four local universities in order to allow their stories to be heard. This will lead to a discussion of how modern narrative theory could provide the centering space for new dialogue that includes TESOL, writing center scholarship and personal experience, in order to create a revised paradigm to better scaffold a variety of learners in the development of their own academic success. I expect to conclude this discussion with suggestions for practical changes that can be implemented now in writing centers, and directions for future exploration.


The College Writing Center and Multilingual Students Today

…In a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing. Any given project-a class assignment, a law school application letter, an encyclopedia entry, a dissertation proposal-is for the writer the prime, often the exclusive concern. That particular text, its success or failure, is what brings them to talk to us in the first place. In the center, though, we look beyond or through that particular project, that particular text, and see it as an occasion for addressing our primary concern, the process by which it is produced (North 438).

The essay quoted above explores an issue that writing centers still struggle with today in working with multilingual writers, which is how best to provide writing support to writers that may need help with both higher orders concerns, like argument development and lower order concerns like grammar (Moussou 55-6). Robinson notes that, historically, writing centers were developed primarily to assist L1 English speaking, underprepared college students and the service was primarily directed toward improving grammar and vocabulary to bring these students up to the expected level for college writing (72). In 1984, North, however, argued for writing centers to be “philosophically driven, to be independent from student requests, and not to be seen as an editing service” (Eckstein 362). North’s ground breaking, and now famous, essay created a huge shift in how writing center’s envisioned their mission and the types of services offered which should no longer focus on line level correction. Eckstein also points out that “in addition, tutor-training manuals, written primarily by compositionists with little training in second language writing, seem to reinforce the notion that language issues should be ignored or delayed to prioritize larger-issue concerns such as organization or content, even if this contradicts the tutee’s purposes in attending a tutorial” (362).

Babcock’s synthesis of current WC research connects this potential problem to writing center tutors’ heavy investment in traditional writing center practice which promotes tools like “reflective listening” (Dufort & O’Sullivan Appendix C). Tutors may at some level recognize the student as individual yet may deny the unique needs of individual international students, who may not require higher order writing process training. This aligns with my own experience as a tutor with students who mainly required assistance at the paragraph and sentence level, something traditional tutors are forbidden to provide (Hanifan Appendix E, Schuman Appendix B, Moussu 61-2, Wang “Interview”). Further, as Babcock continues, “Recent research in writing centers supports that… Bokser’s question ‘how can we better train tutors to tutor imaginatively and effectively?’ is particularly nontrivial when tutees are second-language learners” (96). The problem seems to support Thonus’s conclusions (1999, 2003) that tutors rarely recognize the unique linguistic needs of ELL students (Schuman “Interview”, Moussu 56, Wang & Machado 147, Pitard 11, Hall 1, Matsuda, Saenkhum & Accardi). As Babcock continues, “This covert denial is akin to the proverbial elephant in the room—understood by all but rarely acknowledged. The notion that ‘all tutoring is good tutoring’ falls particularly flat with L2 writers, and tutors prepared to work only with monolingual English speakers (hereafter termed L1 writers) will find that many conventional practices do not work well with multilingual writers” (96). The question becomes, for multi-lingual tutees working with tutors, who lack their multilingual capacity, how these tutors can best enable these students.

As a tutor, I never knew where the WC theories came from, or why we used them, until researching this paper. Not only did I find, in my experience, that the theories are not understood by students, but I felt that when students were directed to the WC the faculty expect that tutors will assist with both higher and lower level concerns, as did the students that worked with me (Eckstein 367, Glynn Appendix D, Hall 6-8; Moussu 58). Writing centers are not doing what most others expect, outside of the WC trained staff. People don’t know what writing centers have become good at doing, which is what they were, more than 30 years ago re-designed to do and are still doing, even though student needs have changed and the incoming student population has changed (Schuman Appendix B, Dufort & O’Sullivan Appendix C, Glynn Appendix D and Hanifan Appendix E). Likewise, as also noted by Eckstein, most tutees of all language levels expect, and receive examination of all levels of concern in writing, despite the metanarratives about what a writing center does (367-9). Further, students are more likely to successfully revise their work if they receive the type of assistance they initially sought (371). Eckstein’s research supports my own experience that successful writing center work needs to be focused on the tutee’s individual experiences and needs[10].


In the Writing Center: Fatima, Nell, Shushen and Sami

My experience as a partner in the college writing center is that the overwhelming percentage of the students who participated in the center were ELL students, with a predominance taking freshman composition. These students, overwhelming, had rich ideas and a variety of lived experiences that they wanted to utilize in fulfilling course requirements but also in creating their own emerging, academic identity. As a postmodern theorist, I now question if the cookie cutter perception of teaching ELL students, as noted by the Greer, etal. in 2010, doesn’t continue, today, at the collegiate level.  As I had no special training for assisting ELL students as a mentor, the paper will, I hope, suggest possibilities for future training of writing center tutors, and future critical research to better facilitate the success of this growing population of students. No paper is an island but has the potential to reach beyond the limits of its single writing, to reach other environments, and other students and learning professionals.

Long before I studied postmodernism, I learned from my writing center partners the value of the small stories in creating writing that has depth, powerful impact and demonstrates unique critical analysis. This is writing that also allows the individual to uniquely establish their own identity within the English language. In recognizing this, I found that unquestioning belief in the metanarratives of writing center philosophy did not always serve me best in my lived experience with writing center partners. Like Glynn, a local writing center director, I found that there are advantages in being small, in the ability to be “agile and flexible” to consider new ways of being a writing center or tutor (Appendix D). A single individual if proactive, flexible, student focused and willing to step outside of the proscribed WC box might find unique ways to improve outcomes for students.

This might include but isn’t limited to, TESOL training or inclusion of modern narrative theories. This step might include assistance with grammar, or modes of discourse and expression, as what the individual student most needs to be able to express her refined ideas and be heard by an academic audience. In my experience, in trying to meet students in their place of preferred discourse, this step might include working in dorms, group writing sessions, or the willingness to conceptualize the writing session to include new modalities like email, a shared online work space or skype. Whatever individual response to the individual needs required, that I could try if I was willing, the reward for me was in being part of helping a student achieve success. Their empowerment gave meaning to my work as a tutor. Learning together what worked, learning from the students, gave lived meaning to the expression one-to-one so integral to WC theory.

In my sessions, the best work and the best motivation for continued work, was finding ways to connect what is important to the individual ELL student with their larger goals. Like Alex in the discussion on Thompson and Vasquez’s study of motivations for language learning which follows, for Fatima, from Iran, this goal was work related, to become more verbally adept to better fit in with her colleagues. For Fatima, what worked best in gaining improvement, and given her other obligations, was telephone discussion combined with email[11]. Nell preferred to meet in person at the meeting space in her dorm. Nell’s expressed need was to bring the form, substance and language of her writing up to the level of the academic community, to better express her unique life experiences, and more than anything, realize her dream of being the first person in her family to achieve a college degree.[12] Nell requested assistance with all aspects of her writing from organization, research and argument development to rhythm, grammar and word choice. Nell also seemed to seek validation of her work, which is something that I found with most ELLs. I believed at the time, and still do, that by focusing on both higher and lower order concerns, Nell saw that I did value her ideas and wanted to help her achieve her desire, a polished presentation of those ideas.

For Shushen, a Korean nursing student, it was to fit her experiments and findings into the formal genre of the scientific researcher, so she could attain her degree and take her expertise back home. Students like Shusen, represent one of the unique challenges of modern writing centers. Writing center tutors, unless they work in a very large robust environment which allows development of specialization, can be faced with partners who are writing to academic genres in which most tutors are not trained, like the hard sciences. I personally got lucky with these sessions as Shushen was accompanied by two other students from Korea in the same program who could assist me with acceptable format and also enabled the session to occur in a multilingual environment of both L1 and L2. This session was especially useful to me as a tutor because it allowed me to see, like the sessions with Nell, that English itself has variations, and these also vary within academic writing because of discipline. In retrospect, this may be the session where I most felt my lack as a tutor, a tutor who not only couldn’t speak Korean, or scientific English but didn’t even have TESOL training. I wondered if the outcomes would have been useful to Shushen if she and her tutor had met just one-to-one.

My most inspirational student was Sami. Sami already had very rich and sophisticated ideas.  Although she self-identified as having a goal similar to Shushen (Sami’s family sent her to the U.S. to get a business degree and return home to run the family business), it was clear that in writing to the freshman composition module, Sami’s desire was to be able to illustrate how to apply the culturally new and exciting ideas of personal agency, and social action, to her recognition of the severe experiences of many women back home, in Africa. For me, personally, this set of writing center work had the most meaning because it validated the possibilities of assisting students to gain competency and agency in English that could help them be heard in their current academic environment, and I think potentially, have far reaching implications which will be discussed later. But, my feelings were based in recognizing that by assisting Sami, the emerging scholar to become a more effective writer in developing a paper that has personal meaning for her, I was participating in a process, which I did not fully understand at the time, was extremely important.


The Importance of Narrative Theory in Studying L2 Learning

Understanding of the importance of being able to develop meaning and identity, and give voice to that effectively, is critically important to what WC facilitators traditionally hope to enable all their students to do. It is also closely linked to a narrative theory focus, more generally, and research that is being currently being done from narrative survey approach with multilingual students to try to better understand what differentiates the any extremely successful second language learner from those who are less successful in utilizing a second language.  In other words, in order to re-conceptualize what WC centers could do it might be helpful to step outside of a box that is solely focused on ELL in U.S. Universities and consider what enables U.S. English L1 to be successful in L2 environments. Thompson and Vasquez position this success within a student’s ability to re-envision their identity as a successful second language producer, engaging with personal motivation, supported by success encounters with significant successful role models in language acquisition, who become ad hoc teachers (164).

I was personally drawn to this research because it explores the flip side of the coin most U.S researchers are working with, and that is what are the experiences and motivations of individuals who are U.S. English L1, who then chose to immerse themselves in another language experience? I was also intrigued by their theoretical consideration of exploring the student’s personal negotiation between “I” and the “other” as a part of second language studies, and that the article uses language learning narratives. This study emphasizes that “these omissions (in critical research) underemphasize the importance of the interaction between the self and the context in forming language learning motivation” (159). In this research, the students are envisioning a new identity, the “ought-to L2 self “(160), which means the ideal self that we each envision as a part of our potential future narratives (see also, Beach, Ch. 3 “Forecasting”). The study looks at the variance between three different English as first language students who study three other languages (German, Italian and Chinese).  The researchers conclude that, “Consistent with recent claims about the types of contributions that language learning biographies/narratives can make to SLA research, this study offers additional insights into how individual differences interact with contextual variables in language learning” (159, Pitard 2016). This research reinforces the importance of writing centers developing understanding of the individual ELL, determining what the students see as their idealized “I” L2 self, and thereby increase student motivation which is fundamental to successful additional language learning. For Alex:

His drive to get good at Chinese is sustained by his understanding of a specific sociopolitical situation in his context (“a strategic weakness”), and is also linked to his ought-to L2 self. In spite of several obstacles described in his narrative (the majority of which have to do with others’ preconceptions and questions about his ability to speak Chinese), Alex is able to sustain his motivation and ultimately realize his goal through a series of concrete, specific, and effective learning strategies (165.)

Alex’s self-perceived challenge is that as an English L1 learner, others, including his students later in the narrative, doubt his capacity to be effective as a L2 learner and teacher. This challenge is also noted by Naydan, a L1.5 writing center director who self-revealed her language experiences to her WC staff who presumed that all WC were English L1 (3). Both Naydan and Alex are motivated by overcoming challenges to their goals of establishing personal and, in Naydan’s case, WC multi-literacy.  Both narrators become active agents of their own journeys, blending a variety of WC, Narrative theory and established TESOL training in achievement of recreating successful L2 identity. Naydan’s work suggests further, that lessons learned from individual ELL studies has broader implications for development of WCs as true multi-lingual entities, shifting the perception of the idealized “I” to an entire center. In both cases, the individual’s self-directed agency, along invested lines that are personally important, enables them achieve goals that initially seem unreachable (Collins 2009; Glynn Appendix D; Harrison, Uusipaikka, Karinen, Rasanen, Ellonen, Huumonen & Tuomela 2013).

Sometimes, the discovery of the important motivational factor happens during the pre-learning, or in the course of narrative writing. Another of the personal narratives the authors explore is that of Vera, a second generation Italian American L1.5 student who initially pursued graduate education in Spanish. Vera met a woman who had returned from an immersion year in Spain, and was taken with the idea of herself gaining mastery of Spanish in the same way. On the way to Spain, Vera stopped in Italy and there she stayed for the following three years. Vera states that it wasn’t the immersion in the cultural that gave her a magical ability to become successful at this new language but rather it was the enormous amount of work that she was inspired to do, plus her developed relationships with the Florentine natives, her ad hoc tutors. Vera’s self-identified desire revision her identity as a bilingual-ist, as the authors note, is important as a motivating factor, but equally important is why she decided to stay in Italy which was because Vera realized, “Why Spain?” (165). Spain had no personal meaning for Vera in her creation of her own narrative identity story but Italy did as she navigated her own ideal identity to incorporate her family history. I found this to be true of the ELL writers in the writing center. The best results occurred in recognizing both higher and lower concerns but the exceptional results occurred when the student’s work was linked to their own reconceptualization of their identities in areas that were personally meaningful, and in consideration of their relationship to the world around them.


Narrative Theory and “I”

In conceptualizing the new identity of the future writing center, I believe that at the center of a more ELL student focused model, is the recognition that writing, any writing, is intimately connected to human identity creation, which is an ongoing process.  The “narrative identity is a person’s internalized and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future  to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose. In recent studies on narrative identity, researchers have paid a great deal of attention to psychological adaptation and (further) development” of personal identity, and the role that writing plays in this process (McAdams & McLean 233). The authors note, that research “into the connection between developed personal narratives and adaptive identity creation (writers) find personal meaning in reconstructing their relationship to negative experiences, if they then connect these to individual agency and exploration of future possibilities” (233), as illustrated in the experiences of Alex, Naydan, Vera and my students, noted above

Writing is, I believe, is about how we create personal meaning, and that is something we all share.  Writing is also a very personal act, one in which we constantly re-explore what we consider to be true about ourselves, our knowledge and the world around us in an active engagement through our narratives. I suggest this is true in all forms of writing to some extent, even exploring a new price point or scientific theory, as we reify or question previous understanding. As such, writing center sessions have an incredibly important role to play in this process for our ELL students. At the same time, with the increase of ELL students on college campuses across the U.S., we have reached a point of tremendous opportunity, when writing centers could become new marketplaces wherein differing philosophies come together in  a new environment that is multi-literate, multi-lingual, multi modal if we are willing re-conceptualize the identity of the postmodern writing center in the new global, interconnected, world

But its (postmodernism’s) deliberate refusal to do so (recognize universal experience of history) is not a naïve one: what postmodernism does is to contest the very possibility of there ever being ‘ultimate objects.’ It teaches and enacts the recognition of the fact that social, historical and existential ‘reality’ is discursive reality when it is used as the referent of art, and so, the only ‘genuine historicity’ becomes that which would openly recognize its own discursive, contingent identity” (Hutcheon 182).

Postmodernism also emphasizes the importance of the personal story in creating change. The question I began with, what guided my line of inquiry, was what is the purpose of writing in my own life is? I see writing as how we make sense, or meaning, of who we are in the world. Communication is so important, humans are language/narrative based, and communication is critical to recovering/expressing our identity in the world. We write (and rewrite) ourselves into being.  I remember that two of the seminal essays I read in SNHU Composition and Rhetoric discussed the importance of active listening in teacher’s helping students with writing, and   work on how we write ourselves into the University. Both my classes as a graduate student, Multicultural and Global Literature, emphasized the importance of navigating the hybrid identity, of recovering historio-cultural identities as how all of us create our evolving sense of self. This theme appears in literary works as diverse as Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Christina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao. The connection is in the power of narrative to promote individual identity creation, in a society where each of us is displaced in some way, and who could potentially, speak more powerfully to that than English Language Learning Students, who comprised the vast majority of my partners in writing.

…the listener matters. In experimental designs in which listener behavior is manipulated, Pasupathi and colleagues have shown that attentive and responsive listeners cause tellers to narrate more personally elaborated stories compared with distracted listeners (e.g., Pasupathi & Hoyt, 2010). In this sense, attentive listening helps to promote the development of narrative identity (McAdams & McClean 236).

I’ve discovered that what I was doing intuitively in the Writing Center is, according McAdams and Mclean (236), supported by research on the impact of conversational work in developing narrative identity, and meaning making through personal story telling. According to the authors, meaning making is most developed through telling stories that describe one’s self (thoughts and experiences) to another (Mclean (2005)). I suggest that developing personal “meaning” is also directly related to what we know as developing a thesis (of ourselves and the world, and a supporting argument based in personal experience. Also, active listeners (attentive and responsive) create an environment in which students “narrate more personally elaborate stories” (Pasupathi & Hoyt 2010).

Finally, the relationship between writer and listener/reader is critical in that development of meaning and identity. Reflecting back becomes a powerful tool in students’ development of their academic identity, especially when that comes from someone viewed as important: a friend, colleague or teacher (Mclean and Pasupathi (2011)). Much of what I was doing in the writing center wasn’t taught to me but intuitive. To paraphrase one of my favorite interviews, being a good tutor requires the ability to learn theory but in practice be creative, “flexible and agile” (Glynn Appendix D). Being a good tutor requires being student focused but also understanding that you are always going to be yourself a student, the learning is never done, as I found out while working on the research. What follows are my own thoughts on what could be implemented now in writing centers, my conclusions and an invitation to the reader.


Writing Center Suggestions

Consider ways to make academic writing meaningful to increase student interest, validate individuality, personal interests and culture. Collins found that incorporating “life histories in the college writing classroom can address student language needs, honor families and cultures, and provide generation 1.5 (both immigrant and refugee) students with a way to connect the college experience to their family experience. It creates a writing context in which the students use their expertise as multilingual and multicultural specialists, and it moves away from a deficit view of second language writing. Students also interact with academic texts and create writing that uses multiple sources” ((58) See also Camangian (2010), Harrison & etal (2013) and Pitard (2016) for other examples of similar approaches).

Reconsider One-to-One as the only model for writing center sessions: “The most surprising finding, to Nelson, was that working in groups was motivating to the basic writers, perhaps more motivating than working one on one: “I was wrong to assume that a one-to-one ratio would be ideal. Almost immediately. . . tutors began complaining that single students were harder to motivate than groups of two or three. Enthusiasm grew fastest in groups of four” (Babcock 91, Dufort & O’Sullivan Appendix C). This is supported by my own experience. In the dorms, my writing office was open to all visitors, even if three arrived at the same time. These were some of the most lively and productive sessions. At their best, similar to some of the small discussion groups that occur in college at both the undergraduate and graduate level. It is also my experience that not all student work best, or need a face-to-face sessions. There should be an option to work via email, if that best supports a student’s needs.

Consider incorporating online media like skype, discussion websites, email, etc. as an option for WC Sessions. Babcock, etal. notes “Jones, Garralda, Li, and Lock (2006) compared face-to-face and synchronous online tutorials with L2 writers, looking at dominance, control, and content focus of the tutoring session. In the face-to-face tutorials, tutors talked on the average twice as much as students did. But in the online environment, students talked (typed) more, and initiated more topics. Their results showed that online conference relationships were more egalitarian and participants more likely to focus on global issues (quoted by Babcock & Thonus 2012). Most of my classes at both the undergraduate, and graduate, level are conducted in the online forum. In my experience, online discussion groups allow for more equal student participation, at the same time, discussion boards allow more time for thought and development as students work in a media (written text) that is similar to the larger textual works they are then asked to produce, and assessed on.

Writing centers should consider assessing their tutors L1, L1.5 or L2 levels and recruiting tutors from a variety of L experiences.  Naydan found that WCs are not necessarily best served by being solely monolingual. My experience supports this finding.  Some ELLs work better when they work with both L1 and L2 tutors and other students. Other of my ELLs actively sought out L1 tutors. Although I am an L1 English speaker, because I have experience in L2 and L3 learning, I found that to be an advantage in working with ELLs because I had some personal experience of scaffolding, which can include multiple languages. Tutors should receive a variety of training in WC philosophy, narrative theory, TESOL and the multiplicities of possible communication modalities so that tutors have a variety of tools to pull from their tool kits, combine or envision new ones. Tutors have valuable insight to the realities of the individual sessions and these valuable experiences should be incorporated into a team design of evaluating and questioning the WCs work. WCs should consider scaffolding their resources by developing and supporting relationships, building a team that includes students, tutors, WC directors, faculty/staff (including TESOL and support services) and administrators to develop together the new identity for the writing center of today, and the future.

In renewing a more student-centered focus, both narrative theory, and TESOL, training indicate that the most important aspect of WC is understanding the background, needs and motivations of the individual ELL students. Questions could be asked about the methodology of ELL students past training. For example for Fanyu Wang, nearly all of her ELL learning in China was in written format in classes where the teacher spoke only Chinese and the L2 education was primarily directed towards passing the TEOFEL exam (Appendix F). Fanyu (Fan) prefers written consultation and so, never worked with a trained writing center tutor but rather with friends. Students with similar backgrounds require special consideration in writing centers. For example, the common technique of reading aloud has little value for Fan who cannot distinguish what sounds right to and American English listener.  Likewise, verbal discourse requires special handling as that is Fan’s weakest competency in English and comprehension, plus mutual negotiation of meaning must be navigated to effectively assistance. Written aids are much more easily utilized by Fan, and Fan benefits from time to take detailed notes during consultation. In addition, Fan has extremely high competency in economics, good understanding of economics paper assignments and structures but needs a higher than usual assistance with grammar, sentence composition and vocabulary. With other students, concerns of content or structure may be too closely intermingled to allow easy separation. Finally, Fan is highly technology oriented, and tutors may find that acquiring high level use of technology is part of building tutor credibility in demonstrating language competency.

Other questions in learning about ELL students could explore cultural and social aspects that are reflected in a students’ educational, cultural and social systems. To what extend are their prior experiences in systems that are more authoritarian or less focused on the individual? These students may expect a more directive tutor, and tutor credibility may be hard to establish with these students without explanation of the value of peer-to peer consultation. Sessions may require flexibility on the part of the tutor to best meet the ELL students’ needs. Some students may come from cultures that emphasize the value of group collaboration over individual expression and achievement. These students may benefit from group work, and may need more assistance in conceptualizing the need for perfect citations or expression of personal ideas, analysis and conclusions.  Other students, like Sami, may find in U.S. education and culture a unique freedom of voice and reinforcement of her personal ethos. In our sessions, Sami expressed nothing less than delight at studying in the U.S., which for her had so much more relatively more respect for individuals of all colors and genders, and respect for the unique identity and thoughts of each individual. My willingness to address grammar issues was accepted by her as a sign of respect for another scholar’s level of thinking, analysis and argument.

Finally, it is important to remember that in working with an ELL student’s writing, we are not just advancing a paper, or even an academic education but being allowed to participate in a process as old as rhetoric, the creation and re-creation of an individual’s identity through narrative. This is an honor, and a responsibility. The results of success potentially extends beyond the writing center, the university and the US to influence the future of our world.


Conclusion, Compass and an Invitation

In this paper, I question if changing our ideas about Writing Center identity, writing center student needs and writing center tutor training could improve literacy and agency for English Language learners (ELL). I share that this topic became important me because, as a college writing tutor, I felt frustrated with my lack of ELL training and the nagging feeling that there was even more, missing. Recently discovering that U.S. universities are experiencing exponential increases of ELL students, from a variety of backgrounds, who are often sent to writing centers for assistance and this trend shows no sign of declining, I became concerned about how writing centers could better respond to this change in the population they serve. My research examines the needs of modern writing centers and discusses some ways that TESOL, narrative theory and WC philosophies could be combined, so that centers become more student focused and effective.  This is important to students, tutors and teachers who are all concerned with improving students’ abilities to write in the academic genre, the primary form of demonstrated success in collegiate academics. This research will also be valuable for writing center directors. A writing center’s continued existence depends on demonstrated success, and to University administrators whose increased recruitment of ELL students also rests on the ability to demonstrate the students’ success.

After a review of critical literatures on writing centers and ELL needs, postmodern theory was applied regarding metanarratives about why writing centers exist, their purpose and theoretical assumptions, from an auto-ethnographic perspective.  This paper provides an analysis of critical literature, my own experiences, the experience of English L1 learners in an alternate language and interviews with directors, tutors and students of local writing centers to integrate their own stories. The research also explores the importance of narrative theory in understanding becoming multi-lingual, along with the importance of writing in creating identity. This research builds off the work of scholars like Carolyn Ellis, Therese Thonus, and Paul Kei Matsuda, and is aligned with the research and methodology presented recently by Ben Rafoth in Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers (2015). Like my own study, Rafoth’s work was prompted by concerns regarding the dramatic rise in the ELL college level student population, a body of critical research that shows problems in working with this population and the knowledge that there are robust bodies of research on TESOL and writing centers that are not communicating with each other. The gap in postmodern WC theory and practice is the possibility of what these separate lines of research, or diverse disciplines might have to contribute to each other if they could become a discourse community.

What I found is that I am not alone in my concerns and theories, assisting ELLs in college WCs successfully is an important, current issue, one which some extremely proactive directors are already actively addressing.  I was greeted with open arms by local writing center directors to either reinforce their own conclusions and actions, or commiserate with their lack of resources in times of vastly increased demands.  Not just are ELLs on campus in increasing numbers but these students are now no longer at just the undergraduate level. A bit ironically, I found the most advanced WCs were at small private colleges that are well endowed and have active, vocal WC Directors. My own research was limited by time and geographical considerations.  There needs to be more done in the field working with students, tutors, researchers and other writing center directors, more sharing of the results and more working together as we move forward. Now is the time for directors, and others, to not just be consumers of research but to become writers.

No research is exhaustive, could cover all possibilities yet to be discovered, nor can any paper, book or theory be fixed as a definitive answer. Much like the origins of the Writing Center in the Socratic market place, freely open to all comers on any topic, this paper is simply a part of the larger discourse, which changes as we each add our own experiences, to find new meanings and methodologies, together. What we do know is that the environments of universities, writing centers and student populations are changing around us, even as this paper is being written. This change presents a challenge and, yet, also an opportunity, which writing centers might be uniquely situated to explore, if we are willing to come together in discourse from divergent, yet potentially interconnected areas of knowledge and experience.

How might modern literary, philosophical, neuro-biological, language acquisition, speech pathology or other discourse communities add to WC tutoring in a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected, and multicultural? How might experiences  of newly re-imagined Writing Centers then contribute to not just enabling ELL students to be better writers in the American academic genre but all students better enabled as multi-literate individuals, and further, enabled creative thinkers and writers, in the world they will inherit? Perhaps, the task is too large. Perhaps, the disciplines are too isolated. Perhaps, the question is too big. Perhaps, the potential benefit is too great to ignore, if our research, and conversations, can come together, and continue the dialogue.



Appendix A – Recruiting of International Students to local colleges

Website for attracting international students to selected member New York Colleges.


The mission of the Study New York consortium is to work collaboratively with its member colleges, universities and partners through special programs and global outreach to promote New York State internationally as the premier education destination for students, researchers, visiting professors and other exchange visitors. Study New York, Inc. was founded in 2009 and is the largest consortium of colleges and universities in the U.S… The organization is governed by a Board of Directors elected from its membership and its work is done through three main committees. Non-voting liaisons to the Board include representatives from the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (cIcu), SUNY, CUNY, New York State Department of Economic Development, and the U.S. Department of Commerce (“About”).

The local State University currently enrolls 1,739 international students (2015 need to confirm, and cite, this figure which is 10% of total enrollment). ESL/WC’s staff declined comment but their website shows that the University does offer both a class on “Intensive English Language Preparation” and a (4-8) week intensive International student camp, for a fee.  Unlike New York residents, international students are not eligible for any financial aid. Study NY’s upcoming event announcement reveals another economic aspect to international recruitment:

2016 ICEF North America Workshop

by Super Admin | | 0

  • Date: December 5 – 7, 2016

Categories: members, Prospective Members, Prospective Partners

Doug Langhans, Chair-Elect, from SUNY Cortland will represent Study New York at the ICEF North America Workshop in Miami, FL.  This workshop provides an opportunity to promote the consortium to a variety of screened agents and other international education representatives.  ICEF is a Partner Organization of Study NY and continues to provide the consortium with support for promoting New York as a destination for international students (“Event”).

The ICEF North America Conference, which is supported by the US Department of Commerce and a prominent ESL undergrad study company with destination locations in such places as NYC, Las Vegas, Miami and West Palm Beach, clarifies further the nature of this “pay to play” educational marketplace, which brings together US colleges and recruiters from other countries:

In addition to providing both detailed information about their business and references from current educator partners, agents must demonstrate an established focus on sending students to North America. Prior to the event, educators are able to schedule up to 38 one-to-one business appointments with agents from all over the world online. The ICEF version of the eSchedule PRO meeting booking system allows educators to view comprehensive agent profiles, including the number of students sent to the US and Canada per education sector in the last 12 months. This information helps you identify and meet with the agents most relevant to you (“ICEF”).




Appendix B – Interview with ESL Services Director- Small, Private College

Sara Schuman, Director (this is only one of Sara’s three jobs)

25 November, 2016

Fast Facts about the College (2015). Total Undergrad population = 1,464; Total international student = 50; Percentage International: 3.4%; TOEFL Minimum 79; Countries represented: Afghanistan, China, Dubai, Greece, Ghana, Haiti, India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa


  1. What kind of services do you offer ESL students?  I offer one on one tutorials.  I also teach a 1 credit per semester writing lab as an academic support course to support writers in WLD 101/201(first year gen ed/English comp).  This course is provided to those who need it either because they are referred to it by a WLD 101 professor, or they are placed in the course upon review of their high school record or writing sample that they complete during first year orientation.
  2. Describe one or two of your ESL students (students you have worked with more than once). My student is hard working and motivated.  She asks a lot of good questions.
  3. In what ways do ESL students respond differently than native English speakers to instruction? It’s hard to generalize, but I’d say that typically, the ESL student does not speak up much in class for fear of being “wrong.”  I have seen ESL students take full advantage of services offered, and I have seen others avoid the services and go to friends for help.
  4. How does the writing center foster ESL students’ writing ability? I’m not sure that our writing center does anything in particular for ESL students.  We train them (tutors) to ask all students to read their papers aloud.  We ask students not to write on papers, but to give suggestions or ask questions to clarify meaning, etc.
  5. What do you think ESL students most desire from the writing center? I have seen ESL students ask tutors to “check my grammar” more than anything else.  However, I think vocabulary and avoiding plagiarism/correctly sourcing research is just as important.
  6. What kind of training is available to meet ESL students’ needs? I am a resource to ESL students as well as any professor who works with them.
  7. What kind of training do tutors need to help ESL students?  Most importantly, they need to resist the urge to correct the papers.  I encourage tutors to look for patterns in the student’s paper.   Then model the correction, then point to examples that need corrected, and eventually move to having the student recognize where the error is without the tutor pointing to it.




[13]Appendix C – Interview with Writing Center Director- Small, Private College

Shirlee Dufort, Director

Amanda O’Sullivan, Graduate WC Tutor, certified in ELL

1 December, 2016

Fast Facts about the College (2015). Total population = 3,185; Total international student = 231; Percentage International: 7.5%; TOEFL Minimum: 80 (accepts students below minimum based on other criteria); Countries represented: 46 total but majority of multilingual international students are from: India, South America and China.

Shirlee is proactive director of a writing center, who is very conscious of the increasing number of multilingual students on campus and also of the importance of the writing center to students. She’s developed a traditional WC model that is impressive and yet, remained sensitive and flexible to the emerging needs of the international students whose fuller needs also include finding a safe space and community building. Shirlee is a strong advocate with administration, encouraging growth of college designated resources, increased to (6) WC graduate assistants and an ESL teacher (10 hours/week), in addition to a number of senior undergraduate students. All tutors are WC trained and staff meetings occur weekly to discuss WC sessions. Notes from Shirlee and Amanda:

The goal of the WC is to present a safe space where students can come voluntarily to work peer-to-peer in an atmosphere that is community building and student centered, as opposed to the more authoritarian atmosphere of the classroom.

WC tools:

  • Review assignments and determine student goals for the session
  • Reflective Reading and read aloud
  • Model success
  • Listening skills
  • Personal Rapport is more important than skill (Amanda)
  • In person One on One only: reinforces student as individual
  • Use “I” messages like “I understand this to mean ABC. Is that what you mean?” or “I need more help understanding XYZ, can you explain a little more?”

Shirlee notes, in terms of the TESOL teacher, that a challenge has been encouraging the teacher to follow WC practices when her training is authoritarian and corrective, which led in at least one case to an international student becoming resistant to tutoring. I, then, mentioned my experiences in student dorms where appointments were unscheduled, and often more than one student would come at the same time. I asked if there were an examples she could think of that paralleled a different model successfully, or were otherwise innovative.

  • Amanda mentioned that she has become more aware of cultural differences, such as assumptions about what different cultures consider polite behavior and discourse. She sees personal interaction as fundamental to success of each session, even to the point of allowing a substantial amount of time at the beginning to build the peer-to-peer relationship to bring the student into “writing space” (also noted by Babcock & Thonus 99)
  • Shirlee mentioned that awareness has changed her classroom teaching. During the course of the semester, she shifts from allowing students to choose their own small groups to shifting members around each session. She believes this has assisted the classroom to become more integrated and more community based. She begins each class with a “who am I?” exercise designed to encourage students to think about their own identity and how that contributes to their goals for the class
  • The WC also has tried “conversation corners”, bringing students together to talk more generally and explore cultural differences; peer review workshops; bringing first year classes into the writing center as an introduction to the WC and exploring use of technology like IM and online tutoring



Appendix D – Interview with Writing Center Director- Small, Private College

Anne Glynn, Director

6 December, 2016

Fast Facts about the College (2015). Total Undergrad population = 3,000; Total international student = 63; Percentage International: 2.1%; TOEFL Minimum 65 (Students who score 65-78 are automatically enrolled in ESOL composition freshman year); 19 countries represented.  The college was founded by the Franciscan order and is philosophically rooted in social justice and community service.

Recently, Albany has become a site for relocation of Karen refugees, and Siena has become a hub for post-secondary studies for these students, who now are the majority of Sienna’s small L2 population. However, Siena is, also, currently establishing a new nursing program and the Director anticipates that this program will be drawing a larger number of international students from a variety of countries. This is in line with recent articles that not the majority of international students come to study in research based areas, and that more colleges are seeking to expand enrollment of international students by offering programs of study designed to attract those students (Redden 2016). In light of the college’s philosophy of service, including service to students, and in anticipation of ELL needs, the Director advocated strongly for new partnerships within the Sienna community, and is in the process of redesigning Sienna’s Writing 240 class, also known as the tutor training course. Notes from the interview:

The writing center which is in the process of being philosophically transitioned already includes a very strong work within the community component for tutors.  Based in the idea that Nancy Grimm proposes that postmodern WCs need to move out of their comfort zones to best enable ELL students, and best enable the tutors themselves, Sienna has partnered with a local charter school whose primary population is the educationally at risk (Glynn quoting Grimm). Over 80% of the students come from families at or below the poverty level. The charter school has a large component of immigrant refugee children, most from the Middle East who are grouped together in their own classrooms. Anne says that the Sienna students see this as a very valuable experience because they are able to experience the challenges faced by students, which extend beyond academia and also the challenges experienced by the teachers. One ESL classroom had no less than (4) different teachers in a single year. Even TESOL trained teachers are often daunted by the many issues of these students like education interrupted by interment, migration and cultural change.

In addition to that, Anne is looking to have all her tutors trained in some TESOL as a part of their Writing 240 class. She is partnering with other departments at Sienna to strengthen her program in joint effort with student services and ESL faculty. She also recognizes fulfilling part of the WC mission requires work with faculty. Some faculty, Anne believes, misconstrue student challenges with the use of academic English, and with the student’s intelligence. Anne was interested in the possibilities of autoethography, for students and also tutors. For me as a researcher, this was a reaffirmation point, recognizing that another gap in the literature, is recognizing all these individual stories, together, are important.




Appendix E – Interview with Writing Center Director – Large, Public University

Jil Hanifan, Director

9 December, 2016

Fast Facts about the University (2016). Total population, Undergraduate and Graduate = 17,000 with about 6% international and 49% non-white (L1.5 numbers are not tracked but almost 28.8% list their background as a mix of Hispanic, Asian, native American and other according to the 2016 annual college survey by The National College board ) This university also accepts international students on a non-matriculated basis, if they enroll in either a summer English learning preparation camp ($6000) and/or the 1-2 semester Intensive English Language Program (IELP) designed to assist students to raise their TOEFL or IELTS to the minimum level required by the institution for matriculation (70/6.0 band). In 2016-17, two semester International student tuition, room, board and fees equals $10,000/8 week session (“Student Costs”). If matriculated, the international student costs, not counting personal expenses, are $39,000 annually, about 20% higher than NYS students. At one point Jill says to me, “If international students cannot speak and understand spoken English, which is a basic requirement for learning at the University level, they should go home.”

This was certainly an ear catching pronouncement.  Jill says that the State University (SU) in an attempt to increase enrollment, 4-5 years ago, started recruiting heavily overseas. There are now over 1,000 international students from 26 different countries. Of all the interviews, this larger school demonstrated some of the overwhelming struggles faced by modern writing centers who are still, 32 years after North (1984), expected to expand their work into areas outside their traditional genre, often while resources are either unconsidered, or cut for reasons outside their control. In 2016, the WC ESL Graduate Assistant position funding was cut due to disagreement about whether this position should be funded by the School of Education or the School International Academics. Total cost of the positon is $3,000/annually.

When asked what they do differently for ELL students, like the smallest school in the survey, the answer was “nothing.” Like the smaller college, this could be partially due to lack of resources but in Jil’s case the decision is, also, thoughtful. Faced with attempting to do many things, or what they consider they already do well, she has consciously decided to keep the focus tight, centered in traditional writing center philosophy, and practice. In any given week, tutors work with a range of students from freshman composition through PhD programs writing across many disciplines, including assisting with writing grant proposals and TED talk presentations.

Jil notes that the SU also has a diverse faculty population, which is less and less likely to lower grades because of language “accents” or small grammatical errors. Her tutors are trained not to focus on editing grammar even if, as most do, students select “to write correctly” on their incoming survey as their reason for visiting the center. Instead, Jill believes that these students misconstrue the reason for less than perfect grades, which her experience indicates is a lack of building a strong argument, analysis, research or writing responsively to the assigned paper prompts. Incoming surveys, she notes, support this lack of student understanding about developing academic papers and she also mentions that students leaving their sessions report overwhelmingly that they feel more confident as writers after a tutorial.

The primary issue that Jil wished that others could understand is what she calls the “biggest misunderstanding about who ELL students are”. I hope that I captured this thought correctly. I think what Jil most wanted people to know is that that ELLs are a lot more diverse than people realize. Many students that are still ELL are American L1.5 or L1 who are less prepared. The lowering of admissions standards in New York during the 1980s, Jil believes created this issue (Robinson 72-3), although, it is fair to note that writing in academic English is a way in which all students are ELLs.


Appendix F – Interview with Fanyu Wang (Fan). International Student from a large, industrial city in Northern China, after her graduation with a Master’s in Economics (2014) with a thesis on international real estate issues from the large, public University mentioned in Appendix E.

Fanyu has only just (12/2016) found a permanent position in the U.S. which, while it does not allow her to use her degree, is at a professional level. Fanyu started studying English in 5th grade, and states that currently student studies of English in China begin the first year of school. She describes herself as not really good at learning English compared to her older sister. My perception is that Fan is very intelligent in her field, and adept at writing in academic English.

Fan, also, notes that despite what is generally understood about international students, her ELL learning in China was taught by L1 Chinese instructors in Chinese and focuses on reading and writing British English (needs cite). Additional English preparation is provided by public and privately funded tutors, who generally, Fanyu, states do not have either English or ELL teacher certification/training. She believes they are hired simply because they can speak English. Her struggles now lie with spoken English and in not knowing how to translate that prior written academic knowledge into the business writing genre, an issue that working with a WC tutor, trained in writing as a process, might have helped her with.

Despite many years of study, Fanyu felt that her major challenge in producing good papers was in academic vocabulary and grammar. She enrolled in a full year of IEL to become accepted to the University and believes this was very important to her in completing her program of study successfully. Fanyu was unaware that the University had a Writing Center and states she relied on friends, either other Chinese multilingual students or American L1 students to assist her in refining the presentation of her arguments. As such Fan’s experiences parallel my own as a tutor, in that, the primary need for students from other countries was not conceptual (idea creation and organization/development of argument) but rather expressive, creating works that would be read as they are recognized to use acceptable patterns of academic discourse and also, in chosing words and phrasing that accurately and persuasively reflects her intended meaning. Fan’s concern reflects another larger problem, a growing section of the WC student population, graduate students, including ELL graduate students, who are already emerging experts in their own field (Matsuda (2012) quoted by Rafoth 7).



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[1] I would like to acknowledge, with gratitude, the support of local college/university writing center directors, who were willing to engage in honest conversation about this subject, even though the research occurred during the 2016 fall semester exam period, when they are most busy. They are Sherilee Dufort, Anne Glynne, Jil Hanifan, Amanda O’Sullivan and Sara Schuman. The arguments expressed in this paper are my own but the paper, as it exists, would not have been possible without their generous dialogue, offered freely.

[2] A college writing center may also be called a writing studio or writing lab. There is no universally accepted definition to clarify the distinction between these terms. Here, I use writing center, meaning a place where college students come for assistance with writing, outside of classes, and work peer-to-peer with other students who are trained as tutors.

[3] Ali continues, “The largest contingents: China, India and Saudi Arabia, made up a whopping 53 percent of all international students — not to mention billions in revenue. Higher education is our biggest export. That money is the lifeblood of many universities, said Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Center for Law, Economics, and Finance at The George Washington University Law School. ‘Foreign students don’t get financial aid, they pay out of pocket tuition as well as state and international fees, which is why a lot of universities have been marketing to international students,’ he said. That revenue also subsidizes tuition for native-born students, who would see an increase in education costs if there was a dip in foreign counterparts” (Ruiz quoted by Ali).

[4] There is no central body for the collegiate level publishing overall data for ELLs studying in college in the US.  Colloquial testimony from college teachers and writing centers, supports that these numbers are being seen at the college level also, or will be seen soon (Glynn “Interview”).  US News and World Reports states that colleges with the highest levels of ESL enrollment ranges from 5-9% of total student population (Haynie). Appendixes B-E of this paper include data that shows that the variance between schools locally, is wide but in possibly two of the larger universities, actually exceeds the highest values stated in the US News. Beyond the scope of this paper but it seems clear that there exists a need for better data about enrollment, and the students sent to or visiting the writing centers.

[5] A bit ironically, even the naming of multilingual students, who are writing to the American English speaking academy in a language that is not their first, is contested in critical research. I struggle with the usage of acronyms which seem to both diminish, and assume by their use, that these individuals are part of some large, uniform group. In terms of naming, these students are referred to as: English as Second Language users (ESL); English Language Learners (ELL), Language 2 (L2) or multilingual students. Those who grew up in American immigrant families, or emigrated here as refugees, and came up through US secondary schools, are termed the 1.5 generation (Naydan 1). I personally prefer multilingual which, potentially, better recognizes the international students’ language capability. For the purpose of this paper, ELL is generally used to cover all English language learners, a term that I hope is inclusive of all students served by Writing Centers, no matter where born, partnered together in the exciting journey of becoming writers.

[6] See Appendix A for further information about how international recruitment is becoming part of the economic plan of NY State, in which American education is advertised as a product, and international students could be considered buyers.

[7] Beyond the scope of this paper but a potentially fascinating area that has yet to be explored is that tutors are connected to international students by being positioned into an undefined space between professional identities, in which identity must be negotiated, and renegotiated.

[8] Two other essays in this Spring 2016 issue of Praxis (Naydan “Generation 1.5” and Min “When ‘Editing’ becomes ‘Educating)’ are directed towards ESL students unique needs and support the timeliness of this project. A further indicator is the upcoming special issue on ESL in the writing center, due December 2016 from WLN: The Journal of Writing Center Scholarship.

[9] Dufort & O’Sullivan note that the solution is not as simple as employing an ESL specialist in the Writing Center, which their college does. ESL teachers are trained to an academic model that still views teaching in an authoritarian model that conflicts with the peer-to-peer model of writing centers. This presents challenges for students, as Dufort says, some become resistant to the switch from mutually enabled negotiation of meaning to top down correction. This ESL teacher became more enabled when she was encouraged to use WC coaching tools. Likewise, one of the college’s most effective graduate assistants is trained in Writing Center philosophy and methodology, and also certified in ELL. In practice, this small college writing center is already modelling a marrying of divergent approaches.

[10] Even on the topic of correcting grammar, there is no clear proof that assistance with line level corrections don’t happen in the reality of writing studio sessions for English language learners,  L1, L1.5 and L2 (Eckstein 371.) Eckstein’s work replicates the findings of a previous literature review by Moussu, which concludes that focus on grammar has no clear “right or wrong answer” (61). This suggests that whether, or not, grammar becomes a focal point, or an additional function, of the writing center session might depend more on the individual needs of the student and less on belief in what writing centers should do, or only do. Moussu continues by discussing the work of Cullen, “Teaching Grammar as a Liberating Force” (2008), which argues that grammar correction is a part of the student’s successful renegotiation of academic identity to the level the student themselves choose. By enabling the student to differentiate between complexities of meaning, the student gains greater control over their own presentation and the meaning establishes by their text.

[11] Fatima was much more advanced than myself at technology, and new modalities of expressive narrative. She introduced me to the values of skype as a modality.

[12] At the time, I speculated that Nell as a part of her emerging academic identity, preferred the dorm because it allowed her to not be seen going to the writing center. My perception is that for many L1 learners, being send to the writing center still carries the stigma of being a remedial learner. Nell was part of what I consider to be the larger ELL community that has become less discussed, except perhaps by researchers like Horner, Naydan, Matsuda and Thonus who are beginning to make connection with how lessons learned with ELL students might make WCs more effective generally. Nell was technically an L1 student but because of her family and academic background, spoke and wrote a variant of English that was distant from academic English. As such, Nell shared attributes with some L 1.5 and L2 students, who can pass due to their verbal skills or may be trained to pass a TOEFFL but have little experience in the writing to the expectations of the average U.S. college. I also wondered what Nell would have done if the only option had been scheduling a day time meeting in the WC.

[13] After the first interview, I shifted from a survey method to a more conversational mode. This makes the results less like each other but I felt, in reflecting on the first interview, that the conversation was too directed, that the experience would be better for all of us if we could just come together to talk and let the discussion unfold. This is in the spirit of the Socratic dialogue, and the philosophy of writing centers serving ELL students, wherein meaning, purpose or direction is often negotiated in conversation, together (Rafoth (2015)). I hope the results, greater amount and depth of commentary, speak for themselves.




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