Tutoring Writing and English

It’s definitely Fall. The days are getting shorter and cooler. The leaves are falling. Flannel sheets are on the bed. Sweaters and fleece are ready to go. And of course, school is back in full swing, and I’m tutoring writing and English at the community colleges.

As a writer, I am humbled by this work. Writing is difficult for everyone, even native English speakers. The language is treacherous. I myself am constantly learning something new.

Most of my students are non-native English speakers, either immigrants or international students of all ages and from every continent. I am awed by their courage and determination in learning English to improve their lives and following their dream for an education thousands of miles away from home, family, culture, and everything that’s familiar to them. Often, this is a huge leap–their first time away from wherever they call home.

Yes, they are extremely challenged. Articles. Verb forms. Idioms. Prepositions. Pronunciation. So many rules and so many exceptions. So much coming at them every day, tumbling over them like bushels of autumn leaves. But they show up for tutoring to get help, sometimes daily.

Like I said, tutoring is humbling. It reminds me how difficult English and writing is.

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I have to say, tutoring is demanding work, more than I realized. The tutor’s brain is constantly shifting gears to adjust to each student’s needs. It’s a good mental work-out because we meet with a different student every thirty minutes to assist them with their essays or personal statements for applying to a university or whatever they need help with.

In this brief time, we greet the student, review the teacher’s assignment, scan the draft they have brought,  assess whether they are following the guidelines for the assignment, and evaluate their proficiency in expressing their thoughts on the page. We are encouraging, but at the same time, we need to point out the areas that need more work, whether it’s at the sentence level, paragraph level, or the general organization. Because tutors offer students information to learning the rules of writing and English, it is often challenging to communicate “the lesson” in a way that the student can understand.

Tutors don’t “fix” the student’s writing; instead, we give them information that they can understand and apply themselves. Instead of a quick fix, this process is collaborative between tutor and student. It’s a conversation with both parties needing time to process information. As such, thirty minutes can quickly evaporate, and waiting until the last minute to come in for help will be frustrating for everyone.

Students often use electronic dictionaries, whose accuracy can be questionable, especially translating from one language to another. Many inexperienced writers believe that using fancy words improves their essays. They don’t. Often these words don’t make sense in the sentence, and when I ask the student to define the word, they cannot. They pluck a word from these dictionaries without understanding that synonyms often have nuances in their meanings that make them inappropriate for what the student wants to express. This only confirms that the English language is complicated and very difficult to learn; I get these lessons every day, and my heart just goes out to these students. I wish I could make learning easier for them, but there are no short-cuts.

They are not only working on their writing skills, but also on their speaking skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Each of these areas is extremely challenging. I remind them that mistakes are natural. Learning something new requires practice, practice, and more practice. Effective writing requires more than one or two drafts. And I invite them back to visit us again, as often as they need to.

We tutors are here for them. In every season.

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One Hour Every Day: Part 2

Because I’m not the most disciplined writer, writing for an hour a day sounds reasonable.

I can get up in the morning, get a cup of tea, and sit at my desk to work on a piece, do some journaling, write something for my blog, or compose a marketing piece like a synopsis. Emails, texting, and tweeting don’t count nor should they. However, more formal correspondence, though borderline, should because it requires complete sentences, good grammar, and thoughtful construction. I don’t write letters often anymore, only occasionally, but I remember the pre-computer days when everyone wrote letters, and long-distance telephone calls were rare and expensive.

I’m not disciplined, and I know very well how life can intervene and intercept writing time so that even one hour seems impossible. But writers have to write; we have to develop a practice. I have to develop a practice. And one hour is a good starting point.

Sitting down to write for an hour is like a runner who wisely stretches and warms up before taking off down the road. It’s like a pianist practicing scales: playing strengthens the wrists and fingers over time so they become flexible and can respond to what the music demands.

Writers need to warm up, flex their muscles, too, and not just my hands and fingers. Because I use my body to write, writing is a physical activity. Calling up the words and transforming ideas into language require brain-to hand coordination. It’s the practice of putting words on the page in a coherent way. Ideas float out from the ethers all the time; it’s the writer’s job to tether those ideas with words. Pin them down. Make sense of them. Find the precise words and language to convey meaning that will resonate with readers.

I agree with Ian Brennan: writing should be a daily practice. I don’t know whether the writing will get easier. I hope so. But first of all, I need to get my butt into the chair for at least an hour and have my pen and paper or computer ready. Theoretically, my body will become a more responsive instrument over time to whatever the brain conjures up. The pianist develops a relationship to the piano keys, to the pedals, to the entire instrument; she stretches her fingers daily to produce the notes desired. Similarly, the writer needs to sit at her desk for at least one hour to develop a relationship with her writing tools.

This I know: when the writing starts to flow, the measurement of time becomes meaningless.