Department of English

Writing Center

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I help my students like English and writing?

Realizing that some students will never love English can be tough for a tutor to accept—we are English majors, after all! Get students interested by drawing analogies with things that appeal to them. Use their writing to build them up, and they will respond positively in most situations. And always remember that your enthusiasm is the most effective aspect of a session.

How do I help the students connect with one another?

You will quite likely have a hugely diverse group of students. When you begin the course, get to know your students by asking questions or playing games; the methods, I’ll leave to you. Having a short period of time before you start workshopping papers where people can share news, funny stories, or just talk also helps the students relax. Building camaraderie is important because if they are friendly with one another, they will be more receptive to and able to give better criticism and advice.

How do I build trust while still remaining on the side of the teacher when questions arise?

Let your students know that you are empathetic; you’ve been in their shoes. However, as a tutor, you have to be loyal to the teacher because it is the teacher handing out the grade, not you. Explain the reasons for English grammatical conventions. Don’t deal with their frustrations in a flippant way, but don’t coddle them either.

What do I do with a student who won't read out loud?

Always provide the student with the opportunity every time you are reading aloud as a group. If the student does not want to read, don’t force him/her. Encouragement over a period of time can lead to greater confidence in reading aloud. This especially works when a student trusts the other members of the group.

How can I handle negative or disruptive behavior?

Use the instructor as a resource! If you don’t feel comfortable dealing with a student, often having the instructor speak with them will carry more weight than anything else. It’s important to not let anyone take advantage of you because the other students are watching you react to the inappropriate behavior. Laying down the ground rules and being really strict, especially in the beginning, will help you beat negative behavior.

What do I do with a student whose reading and writing problems seem to suggest that s/he is dealing with cognitive challenges?

In my experience, this student’s desire to read or write may have been hindered by teachers who have told the student s/he can’t. Don’t back down or let the student use a disability as a crutch (because s/he may try to); encourage the student by using appropriate praise and then work patiently with him/her. Additional advice and services are available at the Student Support Center on campus.

How do I make workshopping papers interesting and engaging?

Try several methods of workshopping and see which ones your group responds to best. Always facilitate group discussion in one way or another; you are trying to build a discourse among the students about their papers. Sharing a paper of your own will also help you model the process, as well as understand the dynamics of workshopping on a more personal level, hopefully allowing you to feel the distress of your students.

What are several methods of workshopping papers?

  • Have the student read his/her paper out loud. Have the other students make mental notes or jot down the things they noticed. After the paragraph or entire paper has been read aloud, allow each student an opportunity to share one thing they especially liked (and a reason) and one thing they think could be improved (and a suggestion).
  • If you notice that your students are struggling with a certain issue, or if you feel they need more discussion on the lesson taught that day, use the workshop paper as an example of the concept in question. Focusing the students’ thinking on a specific concept will increase their understanding of it and build their confidence in recognizing elements of good writing.
  • Change the people you sit next to in the circle and watch and facilitate the comments that students make during discussion time. This technique makes students accountable for their thoughts (they must pay attention!) and builds their confidence in commenting on others’ papers when you show them approval and encouragement.
  • Several other workshop methods are listed below:

(a) Read a paper aloud and have the students respond silently in writing. The response could be about how the essay made them feel, what they liked, what they didn’t like, suggestions for improvement, etc.

(b) Use a paper that does not belong to any of the students so that they can really put their teeth into it without worrying about someone else’s feelings. Let them take it apart piece by piece if they want. This will assist in developing their revision skills.

(c) Have students fill out a rubric for certain aspects of writing that they themselves might be graded on. This process helps them understand the position of the teacher.

(d) Take example sentences from Activity Day assignments that need revision and work on sentence structure and/or grammar issues.

(e) Use a weakness from an essay (lack of detail, poor thesis, lack of clarity) and have students rewrite the sentence/paragraph in a better way. This helps them practice revision, and you can assess the product immediately.

(f) Assign specific roles for each student, like “So-and-so, listen for the thesis,” and “So-and-so, listen for detail or idea development.” (Give these assignments verbally or in writing.) Then, when the paper has been read aloud, each student should have a comment about a specific aspect of the writing.

How can the workshops help students learn to shift focus from grammar and sentence structure to issues of content and organization?

This problem is best answered by using the workshop method in which you give students a topic to focus on. Spend some time at the beginning of the course explaining why grammar is important, but also emphasize that it is a lower-level concern when other structural issues are present. A secondary method involves removing the grammatical evidence: when your students don’t have a copy of the paper in front of them, they can’t play the editor; they are forced to listen and make genuine responses as an audience. So, for this reason, sometimes not having drafts in front of the students can produce higher-level discussion.

How can workshops help students develop a greater understanding of what it means to respond to the needs of an audience?

Reading aloud is the best technique here. When students read out loud and then actively talk about what their confusions are, they begin to discuss organization, structure, and the thesis without realizing it. A tutor should occasionally point out when students were confused and then ask them why they were confused. Helping to pinpoint these communication issues will lead to productive discussion.

How can the workshop help students move from dependence and lack of confidence to independence and confidence?

The PIE principle may sound like a cop-out answer, but it is actually a device that works magic! Once students have been praised in an area in which they initially feel weak, they are more likely to take confident steps forward. Keep a positive environment—never let your students make fun of other students because this could potentially ruin the entire build-up of trust. Another great strategy is to continually model the workshop setting, and to scaffold it in a way that is student-based. Slowly, your students will begin to understand the pattern and will only need a small amount of direction.