Vol. 1. No. 3 A-1 March 1995
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Meeting In The Writing Center: The Field Of ESL

Lynne Ronesi
University of Rhode Island


More and more ESL students are seeking writing help at U.S. college and university writing centers. This trend emphasizes the complementary role of the writing center and ESL writing instruction in improving ESL writing skills. Writing center and ESL writing pedagogy share the process and collaborative approaches, which emphasize the writing process using revision and reader feedback. Often difficult to implement in a classroom setting, these approaches can be used successfully with ESL students in the writing center. However, many writing center instructors, unfamiliar with the needs of ESL students, are often ill-equipped to work successfully with this special population. This has caused writing center faculties to turn to the ESL profession for help in establishing suitable strategies. The growing need for ESL expertise in the writing center has created a variety of capacities to which ESL instructors can contribute.

ESL students are flooding the writing centers of colleges and universities nation-wide. The students' path between their ESL instruction and the writing center offers tangible evidence of the two fields' inevitable alliance. Indeed, the writing center and ESL composition share much in writing theory, goals, and approaches. ESL professionals need to understand how ESL writing instruction and the writing center can play a complementary role in [-1-] helping the growing number of ESL students write effectively in English.

To this end, a familiarity with the purpose and nature of the writing center is necessary. Irene Clark (1992) describes its function as...

a facility where writers of all kinds, from a first semester freshman to a faculty member, can come for an individualized writing conference with a knowledgeable, well-trained tutor. Writing center tutors work with papers at all stages of the writing process those that are in the process of being formulated, as well as rough drafts, or relatively polished efforts that need only slight additional editing. Frequently, students come to the writing center to discuss a writing topic before they have written anything at all, or they may come in with outlines or rough drafts. (p. 3)

An atmosphere lively with sound and movement characterizes most writing centers. The conversations of students and tutors buzz from behind the carrels. Ringing phones accompany the clickety click of keyboards. Papers rustle. Laughter erupts. Steady streams of students come and go. However, the spirited if chaotic air of the writing center should not suggest an "off-the-cuff approach" to the learning processes within. The principles guiding the operation of the writing center reflect contemporary composition theory relevant to both mainstream and ESL writing pedagogy. In particular, two contemporary approaches to writing pedagogythe process approach and the collaborative approachhave been traditionally employed at the writing center (Clark, 1992, p. v).

Thom Hawkins (1984) summed up the ideas underlying the process and collaborative approaches when he wrote:

The best, maybe the only way, to learn how to write is by writing and rewriting. Beyond practicing writing, the writer can also learn a good deal by talking to a sensitive and responsive reader before and during writing and rewriting. (p. xi)

The writing process has received a great deal of attention since the early 1970s, when researchers started examining the writing strategies of experienced writers. They found that writing is not a linear process easily fit into a pre-taught format, but a recursive process during which authors form and clarify their ideas. In a discussion of their findings in her related study, Vivian Zamel (1987) reported that the stages of "rehearsing,' 'drafting,' and 'revising'...interact together and repeatedly in order to discover meaning" (p. 268). Perl, Sommers, and Rose [-2-] (cited in Zamel, 1987, p. 270) concluded that less-skilled writers were so preoccupied with writing rules and form that their ability to express themselves was impeded. Good writers explore their ideas by writing, leaving their writing, thinking further, re-writing, reorganizing, adding, and deleting even before determining the actual content of their piece. The process approach emphasizes the steps taken in writing to explore ideas, opinions, and their relation to the writing topic.

To address the process approach within the ESL classroom, many instructors present writing as a social rather than a solitary act. Class and small group brainstorming activities often precede writing assignments; pre-writing, free writing, and journal writing shared with teachers and classmates are part of most ESL writing classes. As Clark (1992) points out: "Talking through a paper enables students to probe further into their topics, conversational banter often leading to serious exploration and discovery" (p. 10). Writers sharing ideas, reviewing and commenting on each other's writing, and providing each other with an authentic audience are part of the collaborative approach. While the collaboration process is largely associated with peer collaboration, Zamel (1987) does not exclude the teacher from the process, stating "Teacher-student conferences need to be regularly held between drafts so that students learn, while they are creating, what areas need to be worked on" (p. 276). However, she emphasizes the importance of peer review"shar[ing] their writing with other students...forms the basis of much process-centered instruction" (p. 276). The two approaches seem interdependent in addressing writer exploration.

Unfortunately, in many colleges and universities, class time is limited and students can number twenty-five or thirty (or more). In those situations, even the most creative, well-intentioned instructor can have difficulty adding these approaches to the classroom curriculum. In their study on implementing in-class writing workshops with ESL students, Kreeft Peyton, Jones, Vincent, and Greenblatt (1994) reported that "revising seems to be the most difficult and neglected aspect of writing instruction" (p. 481) and cited limited time and student reluctance to change text as reasons. The authors also reported difficulties with peer criticism due to students' inability to comment effectively on "form, tone, and sequence" (p. 479). In addition, the authors stated that the students' different levels of proficiency, accents of varying difficulty, and general belief that student comments were of little value undermined the peer review exercises. In other contexts, teachers named large class size, time problems, redundancy, class management problems, and discomfort in the teacher/student relationship as problems in their conferencing regularly with students (Harris, 1986, p. 4). Clearly, the realities of classroom logistics hinder the activities most crucial to the development of writing skills. [-3-]

While writing centers cannot replace writing classes, they can act as an adjunct in the process and collaborative approaches. In the writing center, successful collaboration results when well-trained tutors and students discuss student writing at its various junctures from the initial brainstorming to the typed, ready-to-hand-in version. These discussions draw the students' attention to the writing process and help them to recognize the roles re-thinking, re-writing, re-organizing, and verbally expressing their ideas play in it. With the emphasis writing center theory places on content and organization, tutors will encourage ESL writers to concentrate on brainstorming and creating structure for their ideas without the hindrance of dwelling on sentence-level problems. During these meetings, the students' writing evolves while they decide to re-direct ideas, add content and organization, discard redundant and excessive language, and eventually strengthen syntax. In short, the students begin to experience writing in English as a recursive, collaborative process.

Also, as Clark (1992) points out, the writing center's one-to-one approach benefits ESL students by allowing them to practice a range of language skills and providing them a safe arena for risk taking.

The writing center, with its emphasis on non-evaluative one-to one teaching, is ideal for helping ESL students, in that it provides a special opportunity for students to utilize the whole range of language experiencespeaking, reading, writing, and listeningand to have the tutor or teacher provide immediate, non-threatening feedback. In the writing center, the student has the advantage of trying things out and receiving an immediate response. (p. 122)

The potential for unlimited development in writing exists for ESL students who regularly visit the writing center; however, there are circumstances under which such visits can prove unsatisfactory or even detrimental. Although approaches in teaching ESL writing parallel those used with native English speaking (NES) American students, the ESL student is very different from her American counterpart; not sharing a first language is only the tip of the iceberg. Related linguistic and other issues pose their own problems for the ESL student and her tutor at the writing center. In Janet Moser's study (1993) on Haitian ESL students who avoided tutoring at the writing center, she found that their tutors felt a keen lack of competence when working with most ESL students.

The tutors expressed their frustration with not being able to anticipate typical ESL errors and with the language limitations of the ESL students. On viewing the tapes, tutors easily noted their excessive eagerness to supply answers rather than to wait for the student's [-4-] response, and started to see a pattern of writing errors that they had not noted before. The tutors themselves acknowledged a need for specific training: "If we understood why they make these mistakes, we could give them help. (p. 41)

Clearly, the tutors felt inadequately prepared to collaborate with ESL students. Their statements indicated a lack of background in linguistics; indeed, familiarity with contrastive rhetorical organization and the role of first language interference on second language learning would have prepared the tutors to anticipate the types of errors Creole/French speakers might make.

Such knowledge allows for more satisfactory collaborations as Kate Gadbow (1992) demonstrates in her reflective article. As the new director of a writing center serving a high percentage of ESL students, she soon realized that referring them to an ESL grammar book did little to improve their writing organization and development. When her research led her to discussion of work by Robert Kaplan and Carolyn Matalene on contrastive rhetorical organization, she realized that her ESL students were writing English sentences in their cultures' rhetorical style. Armed with this knowledge, she became able to anticipate her ESL students' errors in organization and structure and has therefore become a more effective collaborator and tutor trainer. Gadbow states: "All this research has led to some understanding. I'm better able to counsel restraint to my TA's who are constantly tempted to take shortcuts and 'fix' the papers before students really understand what is wrong" (p. 3).

Still, other potentially troublesome differencesnon-linguistic in natureexist between the ESL student and her American tutor. As Muriel Harris (1986) points out, students from other cultures have "habits, behavior patterns, perspectives, ways of delivering information, and other cultural filters that can affect writing in ways we often do not sufficiently attend toand indeed are in danger of ignoring" (p. 87). Perceptions regarding authority and the teacher/student relationship top the list. In many societies, teachers have a ranking almost equal to that of parents, and certainly play a more authoritarian role than their American counterparts. This attitude might cause an ESL student to take a respectful, subservient role during her visits to the writing center, thus making collaboration difficult for the unsuspecting tutor. Behavioral norms that dictate appropriateness in such issues as the distance between people, the amount and length of eye contact, the level of directness in speech or writing, or the amount of time between question and response vary from culture to culture. Even some gestures conveying achievement or victory in the United States are considered obscene in other countries. Lack of cross-cultural communication strategies on the [-5-] part of the tutor can result in a bewildering collaboration or an unhappy student.

An often quoted motto of writing centers is "treat the writer, not the writing". Clearly, treating the ESL writer requires a great deal of additional knowledge and attention. Indeed, as the number of writing center visits by ESL students increases, so does the amount of writing center literature with suggestions on how to best serve them. Currently, much in writing center literature touches upon the sociolinguistic and cultural factors affecting the success of ESL students, citing research from the fields of ESL, second language acquisition, intercultural education, rhetoric, and linguistics. The authors and researchers agree on the need for ESL expertise in the writing center (Clark, 1992; Friedlander, 1984; Harris, 1986; Kreeft Peyton et al., 1994; Reid, 1993: Simard, 1984), and generally advise writing center professionals to review ESL literature, consult with ESL specialists, and have tutors trained in ESL pedagogy. Many writing center directors have heeded their advice, and have also included ESL professionals on their staff.

While much writing center literature exists, there are virtually no formal statistics depicting writing center staffing trends. However, commentary on WCENTER, the writing center on-line discussion group, reveals that nearly as many staffing variations as writing centers exist. This lack of standardization is the result of a number of factors. These include but are not limited to level of funding, support by administrators, and position within the university or college. Some staffing diversity may also be explained as the response of various writing centers to the unique needs of their students. Nonetheless, this staffing diversity, along with the lack of studies and statistics, suggests that writing centers are still struggling to establish their niche in the world of higher education.

Certainly, this situation affects how ESL professionals are hired. As on-going WCENTER discussion indicates, a few writing center directors have degrees or specializations in TESOL, and take responsibility for training their staff to respond to the needs of ESL students. Elsewhere, full- and/or part-time faculty specializing in writing, ESL, or learning disabled pedagogy are on staff. In some institutions that offer TESOL programs, writing centers address ESL-related issues by having TESOL degree candidates complete their teaching assistantships there. Still others with fewer resources invite ESL professionals and administrators to speak at writing center staff meetings. In many cases, writing centers have graduate and/or undergraduate staff who are required to complete a credit course in tutoring writing. To some degree, these courses often address ESL issues. Yet, a large number would like to hire an ESL professional but lacks the funds and support. [-6-]

For an ESL professional, working at the writing center may entail involvement in any of several capacities. The ESL teacher as a tutor, unencumbered by classroom dynamics and awarding of grades, can enjoy collaborating with many students at various proficiency levels. There, the ESL teacher can experience the satisfaction of working along with students during the writing process. As a tutor trainer in the writing center, the ESL professional educates staff members in ESL writing pedagogy and alerts them to the cultural differences that may affect ESL students' written and spoken communication. In doing this, the ESL professional plays an important role in sensitizing future professionalsacademic and otherwiseto the special needs of a growing population in the United States. Both knowledgeable and concerned about cross-cultural issues, ESL professionals may serve as a writing center's liaison to the ESL program, the minority and international student populations, and the personnel hired to serve them. This outreach informs these students and professionals of the services offered by the writing center.

The ESL professional in the writing center is in a ground-breaking environment. A field for only the past twenty five years and still somewhat lacking in definition, the writing center field is still young enough to be excitingespecially to the writing enthusiast. As Thom Hawkins (1984) pointed out, the writing center...

tend[s] to be a school's most concerted response to the individual needs of its students, especially the non-traditional student....[and is] in a superb position to make discoveries about language development and composition. Such immediate needs provide writing centers with the opportunity to test existing knowledge and explore new avenues of instruction. What writing centers can learn about teaching writing to their special populations can help all teachers of writing. (p. xiii-xiv)

ESL professionals should be keenly aware of the growing alliance between their field and the writing center. For those ESL writing teachers who are frustrated by the inability to work with all students or to address the writing process and collaboration in the classroom, the writing center can offer help. However, to address the needs of those and other visiting ESL students, the writing center needs to draw on ESL expertise. As more and more writing center professionals acknowledge the growing need for ESL expertise, ESL professionals especially those wishing to specialize in teaching writingshould not neglect the writing center in their job search. [-7-]


Clark, I. (1992). Writing in the center: Teaching in a writing center setting. Dubuque: Kendal/Hunt Publishing Company.

Friedlander, A. (1984). Meeting the needs of foreign students in the writing center. In Gary A. Olson (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp. 6-214). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Gadbow, K. (1992). Foreign students in the writing lab: Some ethical and practical considerations. Writing Lab Newsletter, 17 (3). 1-5.

Harris, M. (1986). Teaching one-to-one: The writing center conference. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hawkins, T. (1984). Introduction. In Gary A. Olson (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp. vii-ix). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Kreeft Peyton, J., & Jones, C., & Vincent, A., & Greenblatt, L. (1994). Implementing writing workshop with ESOL students: Visions and Realities. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 469-486.

Moser, J. (1993). Crossed currents: ESL students and their peer tutors. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 9 (2). 37-43.

Reid, J. M. (1993). Teaching ESL writing. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Regents/Prentice Hall.

Simard, R. (1984). Assessing a new professional role: the writing center tutor. In Gary A. Olson (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp. 197-5). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Zamel, V. (1987) Writing: The process of discovering meaning. In M.H. Long & J.C. Richards (Eds.), Methodology in TESOL: A book of readings (pp. 267-278). New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Author Note

Those interested in joining WCENTER, the writing center on-line discussion group, may do so by sending to <listproc@unicorn.acs.ttu.edu>. In the message, write only <subscribe wcenter yourfirstname yourlastname> [-8-]

Lynne Ronesi spent several years teaching in intensive English language programs at the State University of New York at Albany and at the University of the United Arab Emirates. She is currently the ESL Specialist at the University of Rhode Island's Writing Center.


Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.