Writing with English Language Learners: Advice for Training Writing Center Tutors

Monica Vuksanovich, North Central College, Naperville, IL
Karin Duncker-Hoffmann, Loyola University, Chicago, IL

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Academic writing at the university level is a challenge for many students, particularly English Language Learners (ELLs). As international and immigrant student enrollments continue to grow at post-secondary institutions across the United States, the need for support of academic writing in English continues to rise. The Institute of International Education (2012) reports over 760,000 international students attending U.S. colleges and universities in 2011-12, a record high number. College and university Writing Centers can provide effective support for ELL students in need of assistance with their academic writing. How and when Writing Center tutors are trained can make the difference between success and frustration for ELL students.

Although tutors at university-level writing centers may be carefully trained in, and skilled at, assisting native speakers of English with their compositions and other writing assignments, they may not have the tools they need to effectively meet the unique needs of English Language Learners. Working with ELLs requires specialized training in order to ensure an effective tutoring session and to promote a beneficial, on-going tutor-tutee relationship. ELL students who are frustrated early on in the tutoring process will not likely return to the Writing Center, and may struggle in their academic coursework as a result. Some common misconceptions made by untrained Writing Center tutors include:

  • Being a native English speaker and a good writer means you will be a highly effective tutor of international students.
  • All international students make the same mistakes.
  • International students must pass an English proficiency test to  be in the university, and therefore are effective writers.
  • The 5-point thesis essay is a global concept.
  • The concept of plagiarism is the same world-wide.

In an effort to provide the most effective academic writing support to ELL/international students in the Writing Center, the following recommendations and resources for Writing Center tutor training may be helpful. Recommended topics to address during ELL tutor training include: the background of ELL/international student populations on campus; the impact of culture on writing style and the writing process; common language transfer issues from the primary languages; global (higher level, argument, organization) vs. local (grammatical) errors; and appropriate types of feedback. During the training process, Writing Center trainers (ideally faculty ELL specialists and the Writing Center director) should:

  • Provide ample "hands on" exercises using original (names erased!) ELL student writing samples.
  • Create scenarios to role play as ELLs from a variety of backgrounds and at different writing proficiency levels.
  • Offer a brief introduction to the TOEFL. Although Writing Center tutors will likely not have access to the TOEFL scores of their tutees, learning about the exam (especially the writing section) may be helpful in understanding the possible range of academic writing proficiency tutors may encounter during tutoring sessions.
  • Facilitate communication between tutors and professors during the writing process, perhaps by providing a system for tracking and reporting the progress of each ELL student on each assignment. A Writing Center Blackboard site, for example, would allow for shared access of student assignments and student progress by tutor, student, professor, International Programs Director, and Writing Center Director.
  • Encourage tutors to visit ESL/ELL (or other) classes (with instructor permission) to gain a deeper understanding of class topics and assignments. Even if that only happens on the day a major assignment is introduced, it would be helpful for the tutor to know exactly what is expected for that assignment.
  • Ensure that tutors know where to find additional resources (see below).

Getting an early start on Writing Center tutor training, ideally before the beginning of the term/school year, will give tutors time to digest the material and be ready. It could be beneficial to invite current and prospective tutors to international program events early on in the term in order to get to know ELL/international students, establish connections and make students aware of the Writing Center and its services.

There are abundant resources available for Writing Center tutors of ELLs.  Top internet resources for Writing Center tutors and ELL students include:



Bates, Linda, Janet Lane and Ellen Lange (1993). Writing Clearly: Responding to ESL Compositions. Heinle and Heinle: Boston, MA.

Dalle, Teresa S. and Laurel L. Young (2003). PACE Yourself: A Handbook for ESL Tutors. TESOL: Alexandria, VA.

Lane, Janet and Ellen Lange (1999). Writing Clearly: An Editing Guide.  Heinle ELT:Boston, MA.

Institute of International Education (2012).  Press release available at:


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The ITBE Link - Summer 2013

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