Tutors' Corner

A proverbial misfit who fits in: Consulting on English as an ELL and non-English major? Yes, it can be effective!   

 By Żaneta Janiczak, Graduate Assistant

Writing Center University of Nevada, Reno

 As a science major and English Language Learner (ELL) who favors technical writing, I do not necessarily seem a natural first choice for a graduate assistantship at a university writing center. Moreover, when faced with a decision to apply for a graduate assistant position in the midst of doctoral studies in Geography, while opportune, it was daunting to take on another task that might not be directly related to my research. However, this partnership has proven mutually beneficial and, seven months later, I can honestly say that I would not have had it any other way.   

 Tempted by the challenge, I was searching for positions that would enhance my teaching skills as a future scholar and help defray school expenses. I hoped to utilize my previous work experience with diverse college students and apply relevant knowledge stemming from my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Master’s degree in Intercultural Relations. Because of my preparation, I knew I had what it took to help university students become strong and confident writers.  Regardless of the discipline, developing good writing skills is a critical component of every student’s college education. After all, what good is a prodigy engineer or GIS specialist if she cannot express her thoughts clearly to a potential client or the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

 I was determined to be a part of the University Writing Center team that assists students in developing their writing skills, regardless of their level of expertise. I have found that at least three lessons have helped me to be effective in my writing center work:

1.       Have confidence in your educational and professional credentials. Do not limit the work to your own discipline. You may be given an opportunity to follow your passion (e.g., for writing) and boost your skillset (e.g., web content development) in ways that will strengthen your credentials and employability after graduation. 

 2.       As an ELL Writing Consultant, you have the advantage of being intimately familiar with the linguistic challenges of foreign language acquisition. Your insights into grammar, by the virtue of learning two or more languages, puts you in a unique position to respond to a wide range of language issues, and to understand what other ELLs may be going through (in ways that native speakers cannot). It is not uncommon, as an ELL writing consultant, to explain certain grammar rules through parallels with other languages. An ELL writing consultant doesn’t need to use, “Trust me, it sounds right this way.”  Integrating visual presentations, for example, drawing time segments when discussing nuances between past perfect and past perfect continuous tenses to a Chinese writer who is working in English (whose language incorporates adverbials and time axioms instead of actual verb tenses) may prove to be an effective strategy. 

 3.       ELLs who are supporting English language work are essentially working in and on a foreign language. I admit that it can be a daunting adventure, if one does not have a solid command of American English language rules, even though grammar rules were heavily emphasized in our language classes outside of the US. International students are required to develop comprehensive fluency in the spoken and written language before entering American colleges; they are well equipped to explain American English grammar rules (perhaps in students’ native languages, if needed). In this case, preparation indeed is the key to successful consulting and, even if you have to work a little harder to get to full proficiency in explaining grammar rules, the effort pays off. 

 The list could go on, but I felt that these were the three most valuable lessons. I would have liked to describe the beauty of peer-to-peer consultations I have encountered and the pleasure of working out the nuances of paraphrasing to help freshmen avoid plagiarizing. Maybe next time?