Writing Center Theory - A Brief Discussion On English Language Learners

Writing Center Theory - A Brief Discussion On English Language Learners

Musings on English language learners in regards to Writing Center theory
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A few nights ago in my WRD 582 course (grad-level writing center theory/pedagogy), we did a very important writing exercise that I think all writing instructors should try with their students. Before I get into it, though, let me give you a general idea of what writing center theory is and why it's such an unknown, yet important thing to be familiar with.

Writing center theory is something I was first introduced to in August 2013 at my Alma mater, UIC. There, I took a course, ENG 222: Tutoring in the Writing Center. This course, similar to my current graduate level course, taught us theories about writing, writing centers, the students who come to writing centers, and how we as tutors can help students find their voice in their own writing. In addition to learning writing center (WC) theory, everyone in the class tutored two hours a week to build and hone our skills as writing tutors.

Tutoring in the WC while taking 222 was what changed my outlook on writing tutoring and what led me to fall in love with the discipline. As the years went on and I moved onto grad school, I wanted to continue studying WC theory and utilizing my skills to help make people better writers. Over the years, I've worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of different writers coming from different social, cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. And though I've loved helping all of them, there has always been a specific group of writers I've been drawn to: English Language Learners (ELL).

As the name indicates, these students are non-native English speakers who are in the process of learning English as a second (or other) language. Coming from a household with one parent whose first language was not English (it's Spanish), I have always been drawn to ELL students for a multitude reasons - one being my personal familiarity with a family member learning English as their second language, and my curiosity surrounding the learning process.

As my curiosity has proliferated over the years, I've increasingly thought about a truism regarding writing tutoring: tutors need to be attentive to a writer's individual needs. However, I believe this statement holds more weight when discussing and working with ELL writers.

That being said, let's transport ourselves to another world right now and immerse our minds in the life of an ELL student writer.


Imagine that it's your first full semester at a new school in the United States. You've come over to study for your Master's degree in an American university because you've been told about the wonderful education you'll be receiving and how an American degree will boost your resume. You're excited because you've studied English during your entire academic career back home, so you have a pretty strong grasp on the language.

You're finally in your first English lit course at your new American school, and you're so excited to speak and write and think in English. You know you can do it because you've done it every day since you were 5 years old.

Fast forward three weeks: you're working on your first essay for your English course and you realize it's a lot harder to write 1500 words in this language than it is to read a book or drum up a conversation with your peers. You can't really wrap your head around why it's so difficult to articulate yourself on paper in the language you've spent the past 17 years studying in school, but you drink your coffee and concentrate on writing the best damn essay you've ever written because you know you can.

Two weeks later, the papers are returned to the class. And you, anxious as ever, get back a red-inked, marked up pile of papers with phrases like "incoherent," "illogical," and "fix this" written within the margins without any explanation of your mistakes or why what you wrote was wrong.

Defeated, you decide you hate writing, you hate English, and you hate your new American school.

Now freeze.

Let's go back to the exercise I mentioned earlier.


It was simple. For five minutes, the class was instructed to write about our process learning a language other than English.

As everyone in American schools is required to take a second language at some point by the time they're in college, all of us obviously had some familiarity in learning another language. We all wrote our experiences in full detail (a majority of us on laptops, typing furiously as English grad students do), and by the time the five minutes were over, we stopped, pleased with our thorough responses.

Then, my professor told us what to do for the second half of the exercise.

Now, we had to rewrite what we had just written - in the language we had written about. (I.e. I wrote about Spanish, so I had to re-write my response IN Spanish).

Stunned, for the next five minutes, the furious clacking of our keyboards ceased as we all struggled with trying to transcribe our paragraphs into another language, our non-native tongues.

When the second half of the exercise was over, we discussed how this process of writing our thoughts out in another language while not being fluent in it reflects the experience of ELL student writers. Collectively, we found that in English, we were able to articulate our thoughts using high diction, strong vocabulary, and complex sentence structure; when it came to the inverse, however, we were unable to articulate ourselves past what would be considered an elementary understanding of the respective languages.

It was only then that we understood the battle between the colorful, bountiful ideas in an ELL writer's mind versus what they're able to put down on paper when they're not writing in their native tongue.


As we do not have to deal with writing in another language and do not have to adapt to academic guidelines that American professors make the entire class adhere to, it is harder for native English speakers to understand the challenges ELL writers face on a daily basis. This is why this exercise is crucial to building an empathetic understanding of what ELL students are going through during their writing process.

As writing tutors, it is literally our job to make sure we are providing the best help possible to students so that they become better writers. So while studying WC theory, we learn that our end goal isn't to help someone just for a moment. By this, we mean that we want a writer's ability to improve overall rather than just helping them get a better grade on a paper for their class.

We are helping build a new confidence around writing, whether the writer is a native or non-native English speaker; hence, we stand by the saying: "Better writers, not better writing".

This sentiment holds (almost) truer for ELL students. With ELL writers, we often tend to focus on less important topical errors like grammar, misspellings, and things that we deem "nonsensical," thereby ignoring the fact that these writers are brilliant and have complex thoughts, cohesive ideas, and limitless minds.

When a professor, a tutor, or a peer overlooks the content an ELL writer has put in front of them only to criticize the writer's weakened grasp on the grammatical and technical mechanics of the English language, we as a whole are discrediting a blossoming mind that craves knowledge and consideration.

Just because someone articulates themselves differently than you do does not make them inferior.

All minds have boundless ideas, some just don't yet have the ability to put their thoughts into words.

Cover Image Credit: UIC News

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I'm The Girl Without A 'Friend Group'

And here's why I'm OK with it

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Little things remind me all the time.

For example, I'll be sitting in the lounge with the people on my floor, just talking about how everyone's days went. Someone will turn to someone else and ask something along the lines of, "When are we going to so-and-so's place tonight?" Sometimes it'll even be, "Are you ready to go to so-and-so's place now? Okay, we'll see you later, Taylor!"

It's little things like that, little things that remind me I don't have a "friend group." And it's been like that forever. I don't have the same people to keep me company 24 hours of the day, the same people to do absolutely everything with, and the same people to cling to like glue. I don't have a whole cast of characters to entertain me and care for me and support me. Sometimes, especially when it feels obvious to me, not having a "friend group" makes me feel like a waste of space. If I don't have more friends than I can count, what's the point in trying to make friends at all?

I can tell you that there is a point. As a matter of fact, just because I don't have a close-knit clique doesn't mean I don't have any friends. The friends I have come from all different walks of life, some are from my town back home and some are from across the country. I've known some of my friends for years, and others I've only known for a few months. It doesn't really matter where they come from, though. What matters is that the friends I have all entertain me, care for me, and support me. Just because I'm not in that "friend group" with all of them together doesn't mean that we can't be friends to each other.

Still, I hate avoiding sticking myself in a box, and I'm not afraid to seek out friendships. I've noticed that a lot of the people I see who consider themselves to be in a "friend group" don't really venture outside the pack very often. I've never had a pack to venture outside of, so I don't mind reaching out to new people whenever.

I'm not going to lie, when I hear people talking about all the fun they're going to have with their "friend group" over the weekend, part of me wishes I could be included in something like that. I do sometimes want to have the personality type that allows me to mesh perfectly into a clique. I couldn't tell you what it is about me, but there is some part of me that just happens to function better one-on-one with people.

I hated it all my life up until very recently, and that's because I've finally learned that not having a "friend group" is never going to be the same as not having friends.

SEE ALSO: To The Girls Who Float Between Friend Groups

Cover Image Credit: wordpress.com

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An Open Letter To Myself At 15

This is an open letter to myself about things I wish I had known at 15.

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Dear Hailey,

You are so loved. I know times might be hard, but it will all be okay. It's okay to ride the fence and be unsure of what you want to do with your life. You're going to change your mind 10 more times before graduation anyways. Also, don't worry about all of the things that you can't change. You can't make someone fall in love with you or make her treat you like a better friend. It's okay for people not to fit in your life. Stop bending over backward for people and live for yourself. In a few years, you will go through so much, but you come out on the better side. You are going to be successful and driven. Also, learn what the meaning of "self-care" is. You need to do a lot of that in the upcoming years. Mental health is more important than anything. Also, quit cutting your baby hairs. They will never get longer so you need to embrace and love them early on. Figure out what you can change, and what you cannot. Most importantly, accept what you cannot change. When you decide that you are ready to face the things that you can change, do it with your whole heart. That doesn't mean complete perfection. It's important to know the difference. Start by making a plan for the future. Write it down, memorize it, do whatever makes it the easiest for you. Think through your plan logically, take into consideration your strengths and weaknesses. Remember to do the hard things first once in a while, the relief is sweet in the end.

You are ready.

You are young.

You are smart.

You are beautiful.

If you ever feel that you are at your lowest point, just remember the only place that you can go is up. Find reassurance in the weakness. The best is yet to come. Don't take pity on yourself. Instead, work harder to make your situation better. Be happy. There are so many things to be thankful for. Ask when you need help. No one can read your mind. Time won't stop for you. Worrying and stressing is simply a waste of time. Be strong and know that you are in God's hands. Everything will work out. It may not be today or tomorrow, but eventually, the pieces will fall into place and you will understand why things had to happen that way.

Love,

Me

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