A Tale of Two
Conferences: Comparing Practical Methodologies in
with ESL and NES Students
Although working with these [ESL] students is
radically different from teaching writing to
English speakers’ (Leki xi), some of the
and cultural differences they bring to
classroom pose a unique set of challenges to
-- Paul Kei Matsuda (699)
Over the course of the fall 2007 semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, my duties as a first-year teaching
assistant involved two separate yet somewhat comparable tasks: instructing a class of first-semester composition students
and working as a consultant in the writing center. Both responsibilities involved
roughly ten hours a week, although realistically, hosting one-on-one writing conferences with my composition students often
exceeded the recommended hours for that week. Teaching first-year composition
students in a formal setting differed, naturally, from writing center consultation in as far as the former required much more
than mere consultations. Assigned readings, open discussions, peer reviews,
quizzes, and assignment discussions comprised a significant part of the teaching process.
My composition students were all native English speakers (NES), while the majority of consultations I conducted in
the writing center were with both graduate and undergraduate English as second language (ESL) students. Although students seeking assistance from the writing center represented, as may be expected, a plethora
of departments and writing assignments, undoubtedly each student had read assigned readings and participated – or at
least sat through – classroom discussions. This goes to show that although
my interactions with the two groups of students differed substantially, all of
the students themselves have similar academic experiences in their respective classrooms: all must read, think critically,
and write. Thus, at the point in the writing process where students begin to
brainstorm ideas and compose their first drafts, I have discovered similarities in the process of conducting side-by-side
writing evaluations of both groups that justify a comparison and contrast of methodologies I employed in writing center consultations
and composition conferences.
Going into this endeavor, I was understandably filled with some self-doubts.
Teaching NES students how to write was one thing, but working with ESL students in “tutoring” writing was
another. Although I had much experience in the corporate world training immigrant
employees how to perform their job duties, including the necessity of reading and passing written assessments, assisting ESL
students with formal English writing as a consultant in the writing center was a new experience. “Although there may be some exceptions,” says Paul Kei Matsuda, in Situating ESL Writing in a Cross-Disciplinary Context, “ESL students in many non-ESL writing courses are
generally taught by teachers with limited of no ESL background (100). The same
would be true for me in my duties as a writing center consultant. Thus, through
adopting some of the practices of my peers, engaging in scholarly reading, and trusting my own intuition and meager experience,
I was able to learn much about practical methodologies in conferencing with both ESL and NES students.
On this note, I shall list and discuss four major similarities between individual conferences with ESL and NES students
as well as noting any distinctions between these two groups.
Establishing rapport and setting expectations in the side-by-side consultation.
Addressing higher-order concerns before lower-order concerns in the revision process.
Identifying individual student needs and creating a hierarchy of writing needs.
Jointly preparing a set of tasks which the student needs to address in a second draft.
the similarities in NES and ESL student one-on-one consultations, particular note will be given to the issue/problem in general
and specifics on how and what methodologies were employed to address each concern.
rapport and setting expectations in the side-by-side consultation.
Even though the classroom setting with my
students allowed me to begin building rapport
with them from the first day of class, the
students’ comfort level did not necessarily transfer over equally in one-on-one conferences. The first individual conference with my students, one of four that I held this semester, found them somewhat
hesitant about what to expect. Although I had explained some general things
that would be covered in conferences, few if any of the students had experience in collegiate one-on-one conferencing, and
for most of the freshmen, it was the first individual conference that they had this semester.
For this first conferencing session, I had instructed my students to submit copies of their first drafts to me prior
to our one-on-one meetings. I took the time to read thoroughly and evaluate
each paper for general thematic and grammatical content. When each student arrived
in the conference room, I had them make themselves comfortable while I explained in some detail just what we would be doing
for the next 25 minutes. The greatest trepidation students had during this initial
conference was not knowing what I would say about each of their first drafts. For
most, it was the first feedback they had received on an English assignment, and both fears and expectations – realistic
and unrealistic – acted as filters throughout the conferencing process.
Therefore, anticipating some of these concerns prior to meeting with each student, I felt it was important, for this
first meeting in particular, to make them feel at ease and open to receiving feedback.
We spent the first few minutes chatting about class, what they liked, and what their concerns were, before moving into
an explanation of what would take place during our meeting. I took extra care
pointing out things that I found to be strengths in their text and giving them a few minutes to gain a bit of self-confidence.
I was keen to notice that many of the students soon appeared to relax visibly, whether sitting back more comfortably
in their chair or leaning forward to show involvement in the conference process. I
smiled liberally and made a conscious effort to put them at ease while I shifted gradually into the subject of areas for opportunity
in their writing. However, not all of my first-year composition students seemed
to relax during this or subsequent sessions, as much a product of their nervousness during side-by-side conferences as it
was part of their personality; a couple of my students, however, never seemed to appear at ease during any of our meetings,
whether in subsequent conferences or in the classroom.
Yet by the end of the semester, I found myself relegating more of the control of the writing process to my students,
choosing, upon the recommendation of Dr. Nora Bacon, to not prescreen my NES students’ papers but rather listen and
respond after hearing them read the paper for the first time. In this fashion,
I let the students feel that they had more say so in the side-by-side session so that, while addressing their compositional
concerns, they could also feel respected throughout the conference. Although
I am not alleging a correlation, I did notice that there was a rise in writing assignment scores as the semester progressed,
and I would like to think that conferencing one-on-one with them did play a role in my students’ overall upward trend
in scores when compared to their first, allegedly “easier” assignment.
The chart below clearly delineates this improvement in assignment grades versus the first week:
In fact, in the chart above, Paper #3 average scores
would have nearly equaled Week 2 had one student who scored 32 points on each of his first two papers have actually attended
the side-by-side conference for the third paper.
confidence is sometimes a key element in the success of any composition student, and building rapport can be an important
aspect of that equation. Combined with my increased proficiency and comfort
level in writing assignment prompts and setting clear expectations for my students, rapport building was an essential part
of successful side-by-side conferences with these NES students.
At the same time, I began meeting with students from various departments while I served as a writing consultant in
the writing center. It was important, as Michele M. Chan noted in What We Already Know about Teaching ESL Writers, “that ESL writers should neither be treated as completely
different from native speakers nor as completely the same,” so I strove to achieve a “middle ground” so
as not to make too many assumptions – as one may with fellow native English speakers – about their writing needs
(84). Some of these initial consultations
were with international students whose first language was not English, and as the semester progressed, I found that increasingly
more ESL students frequented my consultation services. Of these ESL students,
more than half become repeat clientele of mine, and their cultural backgrounds varied as widely as did their actual skills
in writing English. Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, Korea, and Vietnam were the
primary nationalities of my ESL students. All possessed varying skill levels
of reading, writing, and speaking English, some actually more proficient with speaking than writing, while most had speaking
and reading skills that exceeded their capacity for writing in English. I was surprised initially by some ESL students’ apparent
ability to write better than they spoke English, yet in Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack’s Teaching Multilingual Learners Across the Curriculum: Beyond the ESOL Classroom and Back Again, “others
will demonstrate greater facility in writing than their spoken language would suggest” (127). All ESL students did, however, share at least one item in common: none of them were my own students.
Because there was no prior opportunity, therefore, to lay a foundation of familiarity and trust with these ESL writing
center consultees, I knew it was important to establish some kind of rapport necessary to have a productive session. Graduate students could, and often did, schedule for two one-hour sessions each week,
while undergraduates could only sign up for two 30-minute sessions. However, repeated
consultations with these ESL students did allow me to, instead, build further rapport over time, and by the end of the semester,
a couple of my consultees actually recommended me to others on her floor in the international students’ dormitory. Recommendations like these, though I lacked the ability to compare students’
behavior in the classroom to compare it to our interaction in side-by-side consultations, are offered as evidence of such
Similar to the process of conferencing with my own NES composition students, ESL consultations in the writing center
offered me the opportunity to set expectations with the students. Although some
differences remain in this process – I was, after all, not their instructor,
and I had no authority to dictate any rubrics for their assignment – letting the ESL writer know in advance what I can
and cannot do for them assists greatly in rapport building.
higher-order concerns before lower-order concerns in the revision process.
Whether conferencing with my NES composition students or consulting with ESL students in the writing center, the process
of identifying common grammatical errors is relatively the same. A comma error
is a comma error, whether the writer of English is from Omaha, Nebraska or from Osaka, Japan.
The skill in assisting writers with syntactic and grammatical errors is in identifying the most egregious errors, those
which are repeated and may affect the reader’s understanding of the text. Yet before even the obvious grammatical errors should be addressed, it is important
to first identify those factors in the composition that affect much more than simple sentence-level understanding, namely
thematic unity, focused paragraph development around a central theme, organization of those ideas and paragraphs, and expressing
these elements clearly so that, from beginning to end, the target audience understands what the introduction, the close, and
the body of the text is about.
While holding one-on-one conferences with my NES composition students, I sought to identify elements in their papers
that both supported and detracted from their thesis statement. Since we already
share similar language and culture, explaining elements of theme, focus, development, organization, and so on proceeded smoothly,
and I usually needed only provide an example or two before students had an understanding.
In cases where the papers were rifled with higher-order errors, I would resort to scratching out on a blank piece of
paper exactly what a well-developed paper should look like, peering back and forth from paper to student to recognize signs
of understanding, both verbal and non-verbal. In some cases, I urged my NES
students to submit a second draft to me when warranted.
Sentence-level grammatical errors and errors of word choice were similarly easy to address with my composition students,
although I noticed either an inability or an unwillingness on the part of some of these students to actually make adjustments
for many of these errors. Oftentimes, by the end of the semester, some students
who had problems with, for example, semi-colon usage did not improve significantly in this area. Even though this was not the general rule among my students, the same problem was not necessarily true,
though, with my ESL writing center students.
Early on in side-by-side writing center consultations with ESL students, I found these students eager to make corrections
in their sentence-level errors. Although most of their sentences were replete
with errors early in the semester, I noticed a marked improvement. Generally,
I would only have to point out two or three similar errors, such as comma usage with appositives, before the student would
begin recognizing similar errors as we read the paper together. It was encouraging
to see these ESL students pick up so quickly on their mistakes, and I was cautious to focus only on three or four major grammatical
errors in their papers so as not to overwhelm them. Additionally, subsequent
drafts for these repeat students were considerably more polished, much like my own composition students’ papers.
Still, the major concern with assisting ESL students was in addressing higher-order errors, particularly in papers
where argument and rhetoric were required in the assignments. In this effort,
I chose to focus first on the development of a thesis so that the topic of the paper and what the student planned to address
was clearly delineated. Then, I evoked a couple of different strategies for
ensuring that subsequent paragraphs in their paper centered around their thesis. One
such strategy was to ask them to reread each paragraph, comparing the text sentence-by-sentence to their thesis statement. In cases where the subject matter was dissimilar, we worked together on techniques
to rework the text so that it somehow related to their thesis. But, when the
deviation was such that little could be done to integrate these new ideas into the paper, I advised them to cut these sentences
from the paragraphs and brainstormed ways in which they could locate and include more information that would indeed support
their thesis. Such major revisions often entailed several subsequent appointments
in the writing center to accomplish.
Another way I
suggested that ESL students examine whether or not their paragraphs were developed and organized in a logical fashion that
supported their thesis was to literally print out a copy of the draft and cut each paragraph out of the text, practicing arranging
and rearranging the paragraphs until they were satisfied with the order of their argument.
Then, the student would edit their electronic copy similarly and print out a new copy for us to look at together. Several of my ESL clientele said that this helped them look at their paper in a new
way, thinking of their paragraphs as individual pieces of a text rather than attempting to grasp the entire picture of their
paper as they wrote. By breaking down their argument into compartmentalized
parts centered on one claim or thesis, many seemed better able to grasp the importance of organization and logic necessary
to compose and revise successful papers.
This process of
revisioning is critical for ESL students. Chan supports that idea: “Perhaps
revision should be the focus of instruction for ESL writers . . . through teacher-student conferences” (85). Yet this process is, I assert, no less beneficial for NES students, too, who benefit from one-on-one
individual student needs and creating a hierarchy of writing needs.
Just as important, though, as addressing higher-order concerns before lower-order concerns for both NES and ESL students
is understanding the individual, specific needs of each student, regardless of subject matter (English, business, health sciences,
etc) or status (undergraduate or graduate). Regardless of the need to find generalized,
methodological categories in which to divide students, individuals themselves and their varied cultural, political, and personal
backgrounds necessitate flexibility and subjectivity in identifying what their particular writing needs may be.
This identification, however, could only be accomplished by repeated one-on-one meetings with students, both NES and
ESL. Primarily, the process of noting needs particular to each student involved
identifying repeated patterns of errors or underdeveloped reasoning, as when a student uses faulty logic or fails to address
concerns peculiar to their assignment. And according to the CCCC, differences
in linguistic skill level between NES and ESL writers “are often a matter of degree” although “not all second-language
writers face the same set of difficulties” (670). The CCCC continues by
noting that “those [difficulties] experienced by second-language writers are often more intense” (670). I found, then, that ESL and NES students did indeed have needs that, though similar in kind, often did
very in degree.
For students in my composition class, I developed a methodology during the last half of the semester that focused more
on critical thinking skills rather than mere regurgitation of facts. In this
effort, I began writing quizzes that required these NES students to answer questions in essay form, comparing, contrasting,
arguing, or even summarizing each reading assignment. Even though this lies
outside the scope of one-on-one conferences, it nonetheless relates because I was able to get the students to write after
each reading assignment and could compare these mini essays to subsequent drafts of their papers. This allowed me to get a
general feel for the particular needs of each student so that I knew better what to listen for when they would read their
first drafts for me in conferences. Through this, I was better prepared to both
understand each student’s writing needs and offer student-specific feedback.
Of course, offering student-specific feedback among my writing center consultations proved more challenging. In Learning to teach writing through tutoring and journal writing, Sarah J. Shin advises
teachers to “examine the specific needs of individual students and consider the student’s perceptions of what
he/she considers his/her strengths and weaknesses as a writer” (326). Although
similar advice could be offered for teachers of NES students, Shin’s words proved to be more relevant with my ESL student
consultations, and it was often not until repeated consultations with two or more assignments before I was able to identify
specific writing needs for my ESL clientele. Since I did not have the advantage,
as I did with my own composition students, of reading an ongoing series of essays that would help me identify student-specific
writing needs, I had to rely on sheer repetition of side-by-side consultations to gain a better perspective. One thing I did note that distinguished most international ESL students from NES students born in the
United States was cultural assumptions and socio-political traditions.
For instance, in assignments that required a modicum of knowledge concerning the U.S. legal system or consumerism,
many of my international consultees struggled with concepts native-born students took for granted. I first noticed evidence of this when, while reading one ESL student’s paper, there was an obviously
contradictory stance that seemed absurd at first glance. Upon probing the student
for details on how they arrived at the conclusion they did, I soon learned that the student had no cultural frame of reference
upon which to understand the meaning of the assigned argument, in this particular case, the need to argue whether they would
go to court or pursue settling out of court. I found from
talking with my ESL students about this problem when it arose that sometimes they felt confused when reading challenging text. Where possible, I took Shin’s advice and “let the learner explain the
content” of their paper when their assignments needed further clarification prior to my help (336). In a few cases, though, I found the student’s lack of comprehension of the assignment a noticeable
blockade to the writing process.
I wondered, too,
whether their course’s instructor could have done more to ensure their ESL students had an adequate understanding of
culturally assumed information or if some instructors were even aware of the difficulty.
Zamel and Spack noted in their study of ESL learners that “it is a very frustrating thing to read these kinds
of texts, because one feels incredibly ignorant and stupid (130). Moreover,
lack of access to the ESL students’ textbooks made consultations with these students more problematic since I had little
to no basis of comparison for types of writing examples their respective instructors offered them in class. I could not, then, readily identify any culturally-based information to which they may have been exposed. This undoubtedly led to problems in individual consultations, even when the consultation
involved assisting ESL learners in composition classes. Matsuda agrees: “some
of the culturally coded assumptions implicit in many writing textbooks, essay prompts, and writing curricula may work against
ESL students (100). Sensitive to this issue of cultural assumptions made in
instructors’ assignments that foreign-born ESL students may not fully comprehend, I learned to help identify problems
and assist students in comprehending these and many other culturally-specific terms and concepts. In fact, The CCCC Statement on Second-Language Writing and Writers
notes that ESL students “may have special needs because the nature and function of discourse, audience, and persuasive
appeals often differ across linguistic, cultural and educational contexts” (670). Once
the student understood the context of the term or phrase in their host country’s cultural context, they were usually
able to immediately identify errors in their own logic and even suggest corrections without any prompt from me.
preparing a set of tasks which the student needs to address in a second draft.
Ultimately, for any rewrite of a first draft to be successful, students must be given a direction in which to take
their next draft. This involves, obviously, a concise list of things to develop
in their paper composed by the student but with the assistance of their teacher. Yet
more importantly, the key here is not just giving the student direction but getting the student to become an equal partner in choosing the direction their paper
should take. Still, this may have been one of the most difficult tasks for me
during the entire semester-long process of conducting side-by-side conferences and consultations with NES and ESL students.
Part of the reason some people like myself choose to become teachers stems from a desire to help others grow and learn,
in this case, English. Often, it can seem easy to recognize a problem, analyze
how to address it, and decide the next step to take to solve the issue. However,
this “seek out and destroy” methodology of helping students decide what needs to be added or changed in subsequent
drafts serves, in effect, to undermine the student’s ability to control their own writing process and, therefore, to
take accountability for their writing.
During the first one-on-one conferences I held with my NES composition students, I found myself dictating what direction
students should take their paper. It was not until the second set of conferences
for paper #2 that I realized the necessity of allowing the student more control over the editing and rewriting process. This not only freed up my own time but also allowed each student to take personal
responsibility for their own text, and this added sense of collaboration rather than dictation seemingly gave them a greater
sense of ownership and participation. In evidence of this, I offer their own
Over the course of the semester, NES composition student final grades increased with each successive assignment. Although Dr.
Bacon noted in a teaching assistant seminar that, typically, student grades were higher on their first assignment concerning
“identity,” this was actually my classes’ lowest grade. Although
many factors may have worked to account for this anomaly, it is just as possible that the style of one-on-one conferencing
may have actually inhibited my students from doing better. Once I adopted Bacon’s
suggestions, my students performed better on the second and third assignment. I
believe that this methodology of allowing the student to take primary control over the writing process translated into greater
confidence and, therefore, higher grades. With this observation, I decided to
allow my ESL writing center students to have a greater control over the consultation process, too.
Given the short amount of time allowed in each side-by-side consultation, it seemed critical that the ESL student be
allowed to choose the direction they need to take their subsequent drafts with minimal assistance or advice from me. There were undoubtedly times where the student lacked either the confidence or the
experience necessary to know, intuitively, where to go with their paper, however, in times such as these, I tried to apply
the lessons I had been learning with my own composition students to these writing center consultation as well. Falling back upon previous meetings with any given ESL student and the identification of a hierarch of
writing needs for the student, I would point out consistent patterns of errors, both higher-order and lower-order, and ask
the student what they feel has been their historical weakness. Once identified,
I encouraged the ESL student to decide, based upon our consultation that day, what direction they think their paper should
go. Thereafter, I would assist by giving suggestions whenever the ESL student
faltered for answers until he or she felt confident that they knew what they had to do in their next draft. This process of providing feedback commensurate with the ESL student’s understanding and writing
ability was very important. Along these lines, Shin notes how “successful
teacher feedback results in substantive and authentic improvements in students’ perceptions and practice of writing”
(326). Thus, with a meaningful list in hand, the student’s subsequent
draft when they appeared for follow-up consultations on the same assignment appeared improved in many respects.
As I have shown, nuances in the process of side-by-side consultations and conferences with both NES and ESL students
certainly do exist, and no formal, consistent set of conferencing methodology may apply equally to both groups. Yet similarities do exist that allowed me, as a first-semester teaching assistant, to define a practical
methodology where my abilities and post-graduate experiences with writing would apply, with some allowance for individual
differences among ESL and NES learners, to both groups. Thus, when brainstorming
ideas for an initial writing assignment – even those across multiple disciplines – and deciding how to compose
their first drafts, students from a wide array of cultural and linguistic backgrounds and abilities share needs that can be
readily identified and quantified so as to render them assistance by employing universal methodologies in side-by-side writing
conferences tailored to the student’s specific needs.
Bacon, Nora. Fall 2007 T.A. Seminar Lecture.
U of Nebraska at Omaha. 17 Sep. 2007.
Dr. Bacon held the Fall, 2007 TA Seminar
for new teaching assistants at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, instructing new pre-service teachers on writing history,
theory, and pedagogy.
“CCCC Statement on Second-Language
Writing and Writers.” College Composition and Communication 52.4
(2001): 669-74. MLA International Bibliography. 20 Nov. 2007
<http://search.ebscohost .com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2001700307 &site=ehost-live>.
document deals with recommended guidelines for writing programs concerning placement of ESL writers, writing prompts for assessments,
ESL recommended class sizes, credit for ESL writing classes, instructor preparation, and finally, both pre-service and in-service
Michele M. “What We Already Know about Teaching ESL Writers.” English Journal. 77
84-85. Education Abstracts. 20 Nov. 2007 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct= true&db=qeh&AN=BEDI88021837&site=ehost-live>.
article begins by addressing shortfalls in the composition process of teaching writing to ESL speakers and discusses strategies
used in L1 composition that may be employed in L2 composition, such as reading assignments, journaling, revision, peer review
and teacher conferencing.
Paul Kei. “Composition Studies and ESL Writing: A Disciplinary Division of Labor.”
and Communication. 50.4 (1999): 699-721. JSTOR. 6 Nov. 2007
piece examines in some detail the Division of Labor model and the history of how the separation of composition and TESL came
about. It is a follow-up to Matsuda’s earlier scholarly piece “Situating
ESL Writing in a Cross-Disciplinary Context” (1998), and along this continued topic, the author offers suggestions for
how composition studies can institute TESL studies without actually advocating a merging of the two disciplines.
Paul Kei. “Situating ESL Writing in a Cross-Disciplinary Context.” Written Communi-
15.1 (1998): 99-121. Academic Search Premier. 6 Nov. 2007 <http://search.ebsco host.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=83981&site=ehost-live>.
text offers three predominant models of TESL writing pedagogy, including Division of Labor Model, Disciplinary Intersection
Model, and the Symbiotic Model, the latter of which Matsuda is a proponent. He
explores the strengths and weaknesses of each of the first two models before presenting the latter model as a viable solution
for TESL writing.
Sarah J. “Learning to teach writing through tutoring and journal writing.” Teachers and
Theory and Practice. 12.3 (2006): 325-45. Academic Search Premier. 6 Nov
article examines twelve pre-service writing teachers who are tasked with tutoring ESL students while maintaining detailed
journal entries on their experience. Based upon these reflections of individual
experiences, Shin draws some conclusions about five thematic categories shared in the teachers’ journals.
Vivian, and Ruth Spack. “Teaching Multilingual Learners Across the Curriculum:
Beyond the ESOL Classroom
and Back Again.” Journal of Basic Writing. 25.2 (2006)
& Mass Media Complete. 6 Nov. 2007 <http://search.ebscohost
research paper addresses the responsibility of faculty from all disciplines in teaching ESOL writers how to write. Zamel and Spack offer as evidence interviews from faculty and students that support their assertion that
writing should be taught as a learning process in an environment of encouragement and support.
Names have been changed for the purpose of anonymity.