All posts by marshallwritingcenter

Tutoring the Basic Writer

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.


Works Cited


Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 4th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.



-Erika Bias


Acceptance is Key

I have no idea what this means. How do you do this? What do you mean? Wait, what? These are just a few of the things I’ve said during my sessions at the Writing Center. Let me clarify what I mean by this. These are things that I have asked my tutees in my position as a tutor in the Writing Center. This probably sounds backwards. The tutor’s the one who’s supposed to answer the questions not ask them. Right? That is exactly what I believed to be the case when I began my time working in the Writing Center. I was so certain of this “truth”, in fact, that the mere thought of tutoring filled me to the brim with feelings of terror and monumental inadequacy. I’ve been writing for years, and I’ve written my fair share of paper in school, but what makes anybody think that that makes me qualified to teach others how to do it? Ludicrous.

So, I would ask the aforementioned questions of my tutees. Every word of every question made me feel like a failure and a massive ignoramus. Of course, my tutees were totally understanding people. They had nothing but nice things to say to me, including the fact that they actually found the advice that I could manage to give to be quite helpful regardless of my worries. Since I was already being hard on myself, I believed that they were simply being polite fore sake of sparing my feelings. “You did well, big guy. Here’s a juice box for you” was the patronizing phrase I felt laid beneath the surface of their encouragement. I could almost feel their hands patting my head as they stood to leave the session. As such, I did not put too much stock into the compliment that came my way.

However, this changed during one of my sessions a few weeks ago. A girl came in with a paper on an environmental issue of which I had very little knowledge. Her question, though, was about finding sources on the library’s databases. This was something that I actually understood on some level. She had one source but needed about six more in order to meet the requirements of the paper. So, I did what I could and explained, as well as I was able, the process of how to better the way that she searched for items on the databases. By the end of the session, we had found at least three more sources for her to use. While this was shy of the total number that she needed, she thanked me adamantly for helping her get that much closer to finishing her work. This time, I accepted her “thank you” for the genuine gratitude that it was intended to be.

I am reminded of an article that I read in my Writing Center Theory class entitled “Will You Trust Me?” The article talks about a very similar situation concerning tutor and tutee relations in regards to what a tutor should know. It points out that we are students too. We are learning alongside our tutees. Therefore, no, we are not going to be a bottomless well of writing knowledge. As it turns out, the tutees oftentimes understand some things that we don’t. This story is proof of that fact.

It’s funny that my tutees were the first ones to understand this concept even though, I assume, they had probably never read that article before, and I had. They weren’t under any kind of illusion that I would have every answer to every question they might ask. They knew that I was a student just like them with a similar amount of knowledge and experience. Most tutees don’t expect perfection from their tutors. They don’t hold us up to some grammar god status, so don’t do that to yourself. You are human, and you don’t have all of the answers. It’s okay. Do what you can, and accept every “thank you” that you are given.


Social Anxiety and Tutoring

Another week in which I have two back-to-back tutoring sessions during my one hour in the Writing Center. I make sure to get to the desk early and hope that my tutee isn’t already there. Maybe I’ll have some time to sit and breathe. I sit at the desk and stare into space, my legs bouncing up and down restlessly while my heart pounds in anticipation. Anxious questions run circles in my head. What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I stumble over my words? What do I do if I don’t understand the subject?

A student approaches the desk and says her name and that she has an appointment at 2:00. I recognize the name of course. I’ve looked at the appointment at least 5 times now in order to memorize the assignment summary and plan exactly how I’m going to run this session.

She follows me to the back. I ask, “Do you need a computer?” but she has a hard copy. We sit in the corner and she says that she wants to go over grammar and content.

I never know how to approach grammar requests. We’re not supposed to copy-edit, but that’s what the students usually push for. I don’t want to frustrate her. To avoid any kind of pressure, I start reading her paper aloud, feeling ridiculous. She notices where I pause to discern meaning, and now she knows that something here needs fixed. I run out of breath during the longest sentences, and I suggest cutting them down if she thinks it would be a good idea. I don’t want to seem pushy. She needs to be in charge of the decisions.

Every awkward silence makes me want to run. Every question creates another awkward silence as I struggle to think of a reply. With every reply, I wonder if what I’m saying could make sense to anyone other than me.

It’s supposed to be a 30-minute session, but after only fifteen, I can’t think of anything else to offer. I ask if she has more questions, but she shakes her head and pulls out a paper for me to sign. I tell her to please come back if she needs anything else.

I go back to the desk. My tutee waves goodbye as she leaves, and then I cringe inwardly and whine to the other tutors about what a bad tutor I am until the next student arrives. I bombard myself with more questions and comments. What if I did the session completely wrong and she gets a bad grade? What if she comes back and cusses me out? Is there anything I could’ve done differently? I should’ve told her not to remove all the lengthy sentences, but to balance them with shorter ones. I realize I completely forgot to tell her my name.

Even grad students can only handle so much stress, and social anxiety will pile itself onto your already existing stress mercilessly. I’ve helped friends and loved ones with schoolwork before, but when it came time to begin tutoring strangers, the stress really started getting to me. One Wednesday, while waiting for a student to show up for a session, I said to myself, “Relax. These are not bad or scary people. They’re students, just like you. They’re coming here to seek your help, not to berate or destroy you.”

Here are a few tips that have really helped me deal with tutoring anxiety:

Take a few deep breaths. It’s going to be a great session, and even if it’s not, one bad session isn’t going to hurt you as long as you do better on the next one. You are an English graduate student in the Writing Center. This is where you thrive.

  1. Don’t obsess.

Yes, it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into before you get into it, but you don’t have to plan everything you’re going to say. The students will tell you what they need, and this will allow you to ask your own questions.

  1. Take something away from every session.

The tutees aren’t the only ones learning here; you are, too. If you remember the strategies that work best for you and keep them in mind, you will be much less stressed over a session. For example, I like reading the students’ papers aloud because it helps them hear mistakes while also eliminating awkward silences. I’ve also realized that one of the most important things to do is read the paper alongside the assignment rubric because sometimes students lose sight of the requirements. This makes me feel more confident about helping students because it tells me exactly what the professors want from them. It might help you to write down the strategies that work best for you.

  1. Trust yourself.

There may be moments in which everything you know about tutoring seems to disappear from your memory when you need it the most. It hasn’t. You’ve been through the training course, and you know what to do when a student approaches you to go over grammar and content. Don’t panic. You have your Bedford Guide in your bag if you need it, but you already know everything you need to know.

If you suffer from social anxiety, tutoring is a great way to get accustomed to interacting with students, especially if you plan to become a teacher. Your tutoring strategies just might become your teaching strategies one day, so this is a good time to test your abilities and get comfortable in the teacher’s seat.

No tutor is perfect or ever will be. The only thing you can do is your best, and that will often be enough. So, have fun with your sessions, and remember that your tutee might be just as nervous as you are.


Navigating Unfamiliar Territory

My experience in the writing center has been a learning experience and a mixture of trial and error. I have enjoyed working with a variety of students and subject matter. One session involved choosing a topic for analysis. This assignment came from a content that was unfamiliar and seemed quite intimidating at first, but I soon found myself excited to learn more!

When exploring unfamiliar content or genres, it is important to review the original assignment sheet of the professor. It is also helpful to ask questions of the student to gain understanding of what ideas he or she has already explored. In this particular session, we were brainstorming ideas for a topic for a film study analysis. This student was very informed about general topics related to the assignment, and working with her seemed more like a fun conversational Q&A. I felt like I came away from the session with a better understanding of the topic as well.

I have compiled a list of a few tips that hopefully be helpful when assisting students with unfamiliar content.

  1. Understand what you have to offer to students. What are your own strengths and weaknesses?

Everyone has a strength that he or she can offer to any tutoring session. When you understand what they are, you can apply them to any session.

  1. Do not be afraid to ask questions or to take a minute to look something up.

Remember no one knows everything about everything. There is nothing wrong with admitting to a student that you simply do not know the answer to a particular question. In situations like this, it is best just to say that you do not know and that you can search for the answer together.

  1. This may seem like common sense, but it’s extremely important and must be said. Pay attention to the student!

If you are constantly checking your phone or looking around the room or talking to someone else in the writing center, then it is likely your student will feel that he or she does not have your undivided attention. We live in a world where we are extremely busy and easily distracted by technology and the many tasks that must be checked off of our to do list every day. It is important to remember that during a tutoring session, we are there to serve the student and everything else will have to wait!

  1. Have fun!

The advantage of serving as a tutor in the writing center is that we get to meet new people every week. So have fun, and enjoy the experience of learning new things!

In relation to the tutoring session referred to earlier, I evaluated my own strengths and weaknesses. Even though I knew very little about the topic, I also knew that I could assist the student with topic selection through the right questioning. I knew that I could go through the brainstorming process with her and help her come to her own conclusion as to what type of analysis she wanted to write.

I was also not afraid to openly admit to her that I had not watched any of the movies she was referring to in class, and I was unfamiliar with the producer who was the focus of discussion. At this point, we took time to watch a movie trailer and she reviewed important plot structures for me so that I could understand enough about the films to assist her in connecting plot structures to important themes for analysis. It is also very important to be engaged in the tutoring session. I do this by giving a student my undivided attention, and even if it’s a topic that I’m unfamiliar with, I can still show enthusiasm and focus on the discussion enough to be of assistance.

Even though the session was slightly challenging, we both walked away from the session feeling good and having fun. Learning is a process for both tutor and tutee and being open minded enough to learn something new can always create an atmosphere of excitement.


Stranger in a Strange Land: Being a Creative Writer Tutoring in the Writing Center

Much like the character Valentine Michael Smith, in Robert A. Heinlein’s book, Stranger in a Strange Land, I too, felt like I had been raised by Martians only to come back to Earth and become the “other.” As I registered for courses during this, my first year as a graduate student at Marshall University, I felt apprehensive about taking a Writing Center course and working as a tutor. Having a Creative Writing background, instead of a literary or even English educational one, I was struggling to understand how I could truly help any student. I can remember looking around at my peers, so versed in literature, grammar, critical theory. This role made sense for them, but for me? With what methodology would I use? How could I actively help someone writing a lab report, or scholarly research in the Biology field? Or even explain grammatical issues concisely? Up until this point, my experience had been literary analysis, personal essays, and poems. I felt apprehensive, unsure, and underprepared.

Although I felt this way because I thought my background wasn’t a good fit for such a pedagogical situation, it’s now clear that having doubt and anxiety transitioning from a student to a tutor, is pretty common. Across the board, especially seen on this blog, there are clear anxieties most tutors experience. And these fears are seemingly thwarted by using techniques we already have in our wheelhouse, coupled with positive, open communication with our students. Through this revelation, I have begun to understand that my background isn’t a hindrance, but an advantage.

With my Creative Writing background, I am able to use my classroom experiences as a foundation for my personal tutoring methodology. I make the tutoring appointments less rigid, cultivating an open, safe space, much akin to a workshop. The idea of Writing Center pedagogy, with its collaborative, peer-oriented structure, lends itself well to a workshop approach. In typical fashion, the student brings their paper to the appointment and we review it together—usually with one of us reading the work aloud to the other to hear any obvious mistakes. Using the strategy of oral performance is an element of Creative Writing workshop, as well. Hearing the paper aloud can help the student understand how run-on sentences effect the flow of a paper, and any other mistakes there may be, which might not be obvious on the page. Once this reading is finished, the exchange of ideas between the student and tutor (more like a peer) becomes a crucial part to a productive appointment, one I’m happy to have experienced through my Creative Writing undergraduate classes.

Another Creative Writing technique that can be used through a tutoring session is the brainstorming technique of free-writing. This pedagogical strategy promotes casual writing in which the student “freely” writes down thoughts about their project with the goal of revealing new ideas or perspectives. This technique is helpful when the student feels stuck, either on where to go for the rest of the paper, or even beginning the paper itself—overcoming the dreaded “writer’s block.” Using Creative Writing strategies in the tutoring session can be a clever way of making complex concepts more clear, and an alternative technique has the potential to make learning more exciting for the student, thus possibly making retention of material better.

Differences in background, learning styles, and methodology are important for tutoring as these techniques may reach a student, where more traditional pedagogies may not. Creating a unique, eclectic Writing Center is important for students and learning, because it allows for a multi-faceted environment. After all, learning isn’t “one size fits all.” It makes sense then, to include tutors who stem from all different types of undergraduate concentrations, challenging not only the student, but yourself, too! Some advice from personal experience would be to always pull from personal resources. You might be surprised how well these experiences transfer to the tutoring session. In essence, don’t fret fellow “stranger,” be confident and creative, as you trek through this sometimes “strange land” of tutoring.



Accents and Tutoring

Have you considered working at the Writing Center but thought your accent may not fit in? Are you scared that students may not understand you? You would not be alone with these thoughts and fears, as I had the same thoughts that you might. I was quite nervous at the thought of tutoring English as a second language (ESL) students that could not understand my accent. While at first, I struggled to speak clearly because I was nervous, I found some techniques that are useful in helping me with ESL students. These techniques can help anyone no matter where in the world your accent hails from. These techniques include code-switching, active listening, and explanation with conversations.

I first learned about the term code-switching when I took my undergraduate communications course. Code-switching happens as a person consciously or unconsciously modifies their language around different groups of people. An example of this would be how a person speaks with their boss or professor compared to how they would talk to their siblings or friends. I had to learn to code-switch at a young age because my town of Goshen, Virginia had a distinct way of speaking. Many words from wash, liter, trunk, water, children, and bucket all sound strange in my accent. I had to learn when I moved to West Virginia to change how I spoke or else I faced teasing and misunderstandings.

This skill of code-switching is still useful to me because it allows for me to change my speech when I tutor. Some of the words that ESL students confuse are form, from, bat, bet, and bitter. I try to make sure when I speak with these students that I picture that I am speaking with a professor. The reason for this is I always speak in a very non-accented, for me at least, way with them. This mental picture always helps me to remind myself to speak in a slower manner because it prevents many misunderstandings that happen when I speak with my thick accent.

Another of the techniques that I have learned is to use active listening. When an ESL student becomes confused about a word that I have spoken, I always make sure to listen to them because they will repeat the word back to themselves. This is when I usually catch the mistake but many of the students will also ask about the word because they are unsure why I told them to go form the bus to the car.

Finally, I use discussion and explanation to make sure that students understand me. All the students that visit the Writing Center want to have a productive tutoring session and they will have no problem asking questions about unclear words. When I can explain the word that I am trying to use, it is a great chance for me and the student to learn at the same time. They may not have known the word and it gives me a chance to practice explaining myself without teasing.

Throughout my time at the Writing Center I always remember the students are not there to tease me nor will they be mad if some words are hard to understand. I always think in my mind as I speak with the ESL students that they sometimes have as much trouble being understood as I do. The times that I have used discussion as a tool, it has given me the chance to speak a little on my heavy Appalachian accent and to show students that even though I sound weird at times, that my accent has not held me back from being successful as a tutor and graduate student at Marshall. I make sure now tell anyone who may want to tutor that if my accent is understandable that no one will have trouble understanding theirs.



What Do You Mean, “Plagiarism”?

             You’re in your last tutoring session of the day. Your tutee, an ESL writer from South Korea, is working on a literary review of a bestselling American young adult novel. As you read over the paper, you start to sweat a little. Parts of this paper just don’t match. You find some sections have numerous grammatical errors common to ESL students from South Korea, while other sections have perfect English grammar. As you come to the end of the review, you realize you’ve even read those closing remarks on Goodreads yourself! You know the student has plagiarized, but you’d rather die than cause a scene by calling it out.

Don’t panic. This situation might not be what you think it is.

Plagiarism is a difficult subject to broach for writing tutors. No one wants to offend or cause hurt feelings—but no one wants to let academic dishonesty slide, or cause a student to be expelled because of their silence. As writing tutors, we should never be afraid to address plagiarism in student writing. It is equally important, however, that we approach it graciously, professionally, and with understanding about what plagiarism is and is not.

There are going to be students who intentionally misappropriate the work of others; they bought this paper from a paper mill, or they copied their text from a slew of Wikipedia articles and hoped no one would notice. In reality, however, most student plagiarism is actually accidental. Take the student from our example above: This ESL student is new to western academia. This is the first time he has prepared a paper to submit in America. What you may not know is that South Korea is a collectivist society. In the West, we value individualism and originality. In South Korea, they place value on social context, and it’s actually considered a good thing to imitate the voice of great writers (Bruce and Rafoth 108). This student has not used appropriate citation or quotation marks, not because he is trying to cheat, but because he legitimately doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong.

Academic plagiarism can constitute anything from incorrect citations, to patchwriting, to poor paraphrasing, or failure to cite a source. The good news for writing tutors is that whether or not you suspect a writer is plagiarizing intentionally, the approach is basically the same. Helping students understand academic dishonestly, and what constitutes plagiarism, is part of our job. Always be gracious and polite with your tutees, and try to explain to a student the principles of citation and paraphrasing. You don’t have to directly accuse a student of plagiarism to help them recognize and correct their own errors. Even if a student is intentionally misappropriating work, talking to them generally about proper citations lets them know that their plagiarism is detectable, and that they still have the opportunity to correct it.

As you explain, your Korean ESL tutee is blown away by the amount of citation required in western academia. He is also immensely grateful. Now having a fuller understanding of what to do, he goes through his paper and starts pointing out where he obtained certain information. Soon, his text is full of all the necessary citations, and his quotes have been properly noted or paraphrased. This student has now been prepared for greater academic success in an American university.

So tutors, rest easy. It’s okay to address difficult situations, and you have the tools and the knowledge to address them well. Don’t be afraid to talk about citations and academic dishonesty. Most student will be glad you did.