ESL Tutors: Top 3 Mistakes for ESL Tutoring

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My sister, a piano teacher, told me, “just because you play the piano doesn’t mean you can accompany.” I never understood that until I tried it. I got pretty good at playing songs like “The Entertainer” and “Fur Elise,” so I decided to learn “A whole new world,” from Aladdin. I thought it would be fun to have my friends sing while I play, but once they started singing along, I lost everything. I fumbled around looking for the right keys, forgot about timing and everything else. My sister was right— it was a lot more challenging to accompany.

Tutoring can be like that. You feel like you know what you’re doing, then you get a curve ball. For many of my colleagues, that curveball is tutoring ESL (English as a Second Language).

My intention for this post is not to tell you everything you need to know when tutoring or teaching ESL. That would be an insanely long post! Instead, I’m going to give the 3 biggest mistakes I’ve seen and tell you what I think should be done instead.

Keep in mind that I’ve only taught and tutored college students so, if you tutor in K-12, you may need to adapt the strategies I give you. In addition, I mainly tutor and teach writing, so if you are tutoring math or another subject, you’ll need to adapt, too.

Mistake #1 Getting Louder

This might seem a little strange, but it’s true. People who don’t normally tutor ESL often get increasingly louder when working with ESL.  (I’m guilty. I did it when I first started.)

The rule of thumb here is don’t get louder, just talk slower. If the student looks confused and just isn’t “getting it,” don’t get louder. They’re not deaf! Instead, take a breath and talk slower. Don’t slur your words. Also, think about the vocabulary you’re using. Don’t use jargon or big words that you know that student couldn’t possibly know, let alone pronounce. If you happen to use one, stop and ask the student if he/she knows that word you used. If not, then give a simple explanation. Use the word in a sentence. That helps a lot!

Mistake #2 Taking Over

The motto in the first writing center I worked at was, “we help writers, not just writing.” We had a strict “hands off” approach, which meant that we always gave the student full ownership of the revision. Yes, I’m here to help you. That’s what tutors do. But I’m not here to do your homework while you sleep or surf the internet on your phone.  Uh-uh! Not on my watch! (Taking-over a tutoring session, by the way, is called appropriation. There’s tons of literature on it!)

Research (contact me via twitter for names and dates) has shown that tutors generally feel more inclined to take-over a session with ESL students.  This is mostly due to the frequent grammatical errors ESL students have in their writing. It’s exhaustive explaining how to fix every grammatical mistake. It’s much easier to just grab a pen and mark up the paper for them.

Don’t get me wrong! Some ESL students really need the corrections and can benefit from you telling them, “this is right, and this is wrong.” They’re still sorting out the language and want hard fast rules to hold on to. In general, however, it’s best to (whenever possible), give ESL students ownership of the corrections made.

It’s okay to correct a few mistakes— give some examples— but then let them try it on their own. Give options. “I see at least two ways to fix this,” I might say.  Then, I’d show them the two ways and let them choose which one they like best. I encourage them to look for other solutions and run them by me. This keeps them engaged and involved in the session and ultimately teaches them to work independently in the future, which is always my goal in tutoring. They won’t always have access to a tutor. They need to learn to be independent thinkers.

Mistake #3 Over complicating

I’ve seen tutors attempting to correct and fix everything the student did wrong. And, of course, they don’t want to do mistake #2 (taking over), so they give long, complicated explanations for everything they want corrected.

These sessions usually last an hour or more. In my opinion, that’s far too long for a session! I find myself giving small tasks. “Alright, you do problems 5-10 on your own, and then I’ll check them.” Or, “Alright. You’ve got a topic sentence! Awesome! Try writing some supporting sentences, and I’ll come back in 10 minutes or so and see what you come up with.”

What to do if you find yourself long winded and giving overly complicated answers to questions, though? Prioritize. What are the most important things the student needs to know today? Don’t try to teach them everything all at once. It’s a good idea to invite the student to work with you multiple times a week. They need repetition and they need practice. Lots of it! It takes more than one day to do that.

Most students will be fine with you saying something like, “wanting to know the difference between the, a, and an is a great question! Here’s the quick answer…. I can give you some handouts to help you practice at home. For now, though, let’s focus on getting a topic sentence down on paper, since that’s the goal of our session today…”

Bonus: Mistake #4 Belittling or under-simplifying

I don’t expect anyone to do this on purpose. But I find that tutors sometimes assume that because the student’s English is simple, he/she must have a simple mind. Not true! I’ve tutored extremely smart ESL students. One student I worked with was a famous composer in Vietnam. Another was a professional lawyer in her home country. It’s okay to treat them like adults; in fact, it’s important that you do! Don’t, for example, baby-talk. Use regular inflection in your voice and never talk down to them. Talking slowly (as discussed in mistake #1), isn’t a strategy because they’re slow in the head. It’s because it takes time for them to translate what you’re saying.

And, by the way, don’t assume you know exactly what it’s like for them to learn a second language or live in a foreign country. Even if you have done those things, their experience is unique. Stay away from politics and religion as much as possible. If it comes up, be respectful and keep your opinions to yourself.

Don’t say stuff like, “Oh, you’re Muslim! Does it make you mad that your women are forced to wear those veils over their faces?!” (I’ve heard a tutor say something like that. /face palm/) Tutoring is not the time to talk about your views of their culture, whatever your view may be. This is particularly important, especially right now with the number of refugees increasing. Be sensitive to their situation and always be encouraging! English is a crazy language. I always commend them for their courage and persistence in learning the language.

In conclusion
Just in closing, I’d like to suggest two books that have helped me most when I first started tutoring.

1)  A Tutor’s Guide: Helping Writers One to One Edited by Ben Rafoth
The essay called “Recent Developments in Assisting ESL Writers” by Jennifer Ritter is especially pertinent to our discussion here.

2) ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors edited by Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth

Tutoring ESL is my favorite! It’s why I went back to school and earned a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MTESOL). Now I teach ESL exclusively. They’re motivated, fun, and hard workers!


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