Monday, March 10, 2008

Help with Writing College Essays

For ESL teachers teaching writing, the teaching isn't only about grammar and punctuation. It may not even be about teaching structure or how to do an outline first. Sometimes, helping ESL students is about helping them to think about the answer to a question they may not have thought about before. Sometimes, being an ESL tutor is like being a psychotherapist.

I was recently helping two young community college students with a writing assignment for their English class. One student was nineteen years old and the other was twenty years old. The question for which they had to write an essay was something like, "What matters in life at any given time and what really matters in life are often different things. Write about three things that really matter. Give details. How have these three things helped to shape your moral world view." Although these are not the exact words of the question, they are very close.

The first thing I thought about this question was that the question was not written very well. This becomes particularly apparent when you start to take the question apart and try to answer it. Such a question is particularly difficult for English language learners.

In addition to helping my ESL students with an outline, the grammar, vocabulary, etc., I also had to ask probing questions of my students about their values and what really matters to them and why. Initially, they had no clue what to write about. After several of my questions, they came up with some answers. Then we had to come up with the "why" for the answers.

The students' answers to the teacher's question took quite a while to develop. As an ESL tutor, it was part of my job to help the students develop the answers (and of course, to help them to express their ideas in English). I also was very conscious of not imposing my views or moral judgments on the answers they had.

Overall, this was a very challenging writing assignment for both the ESL students and their tutor.


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