You sit down with a student for their first ever writing center tutoring session. He explains that he wants to work on revisions for his rhetorical analysis paper for FYC, since he didn’t do well on his first draft. The student thinks he understands how rhetorical analysis works, but he’s confused about what he’s doing wrong on paper. “I just feel like my teacher doesn’t understand what I’m saying,” he complains. “And her comments don’t make any sense to me.” With the student’s frustration in mind, you sit down together to look over his draft.
You immediately understand where the professor is coming from. You have a vague idea of what the student is getting at, but many sentences are fragmented or disconnected, and you realize you’re confused too. The punctuation is all over the place, so much so that meaning is often inhibited. Hesitantly, you ask the tutee to elaborate on one sentence. “I’m a little confused here,” you begin. “Can you explain to me what you are trying to say?” The student begins talking, and you realize he really does understand the material. The problem is not that he is confused about how to conduct a rhetorical analysis; the problem is that he is confused about how to put that knowledge in writing.
For writers with basic writing skills, remember that their writing does not necessarily reflect their intelligence or understanding. Imagine how frustrating it must be to know that you understand a topic, and know what you want to say about it, but still feel like you are unable to express it! As tutors, our role is to be encouraging and respectful, while helping tutees learn how to express those thoughts in writing (Ryan & Zimmerelli 59).
When developing basic writing skills, meaning is of first importance. There may be many grammatical or punctuation errors in a student’s writing, but you can’t work on everything at once. Having content that is clearly understood by the reader, even if it is a little clunky, is preferable to perfect punctuation that will have to be redone later anyway. A good way to establish clarity is asking the question posed in the session above: “Can you explain to me what you’re trying to say?” By figuring out what a student’s intended meaning is, you can better assist them in finding issues that are inhibiting that meaning.
Reading aloud is another effective method to help student writers identify grammatical and structural errors that inhibit meaning. If the writer stumbles over something they wrote, or says something different from what is on the page, they can often use this red flag to recognize their own errors. Trying to correct too much at once can be overwhelming, so remind students with basic writing skills that they can schedule tutoring sessions often, and at any point in the writing process; this will give them time to work on issues that don’t necessarily inhibit meaning.
According to Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, basic writing students sometimes feel like academic writing is more of a trap than a means of communication (qtd. in Ryan & Zimmerelli 58). As tutors, we must do our best to invite students to communicate in their writing those things they can say and think in other mediums.
Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.