October 2013
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Kristen Shrewsbury, Melissa Psallidas, E. Haley Cline, Alexa Livezey, Reba Leiding, Kellie Harlow

Kellie Harlow & Melissa Psallidas 

Karen Shrewsbury & Reba Leiding 


Alexa Livezey &
Haley Cline


A hallmark of academic success is the ability to read a classmate’s paper and provide effective feedback (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009). Often, peer editing is assigned in college writing as a means to engage writers in an academic, collaborative process that yields a more developed product than independent writing. English language learners (ELLs) are included in this intellectual exercise with little to no cultural preparation in the class for the work. In a weekly professional development meeting at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, peer tutors and faculty of the University Writing Center (UWC) and English Language Learner Services discussed what we soon discovered was not an isolated incident, but a previously unexplored facet of our role as tutors—that is, coaching a student writer in our area of expertise: how to review another writer’s paper. When an ELL books an appointment with a peer educator in the UWC to solicit help peer editing, the tutoring session becomes a training space in evaluating and editing writing with the unusual twist that the author is not present for the conversation. We found that in order to coach the methods of editing American, academic English, we had to address the conventions within which the task of editing fell, thereby entering into a deeper reflection of our craft. This article is a product of the yearlong reflective dialogue and research into peer educators teaching peer editing to ELLs.

Context of Our Professional Development Group

Our professional development group includes four trained UWC peer tutors, a UWC faculty fellow appointed for a year term from the library faculty, and the university ESL specialist. UWC peer tutors and faculty fellows are trained in a semester-long three-credit Tutoring Writing course offered through the School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication, and which includes both theory and practical experience. Nuances of working with ELLs comprise a small portion of the course content. Course topics include: session management, writing center theory, tutoring methods, and working with a diversity of writing styles. Weekly professional development meetings provide ongoing training for all peer tutors and faculty in topics relevant to tutoring and learning in the UWC. The ESL specialist is a permanent faculty position in English Language Learner Services, providing academic language tutoring and programming. For the 2012–2013 academic year, the ESL specialist served as the faculty leader for this writing center professional development group to continue the UWC peer tutors’ training in working with language learners in response to the increasing ELL utilization of the UWC.

Writing Tutors as Trainers

As we compared notes about coaching both native and nonnative English speakers in the art of peer editing, we began to explore the value of sharing our craft not only with other professionals, but with student writers as well. In bringing their peer editing assignments to a session, students approach peer tutors as resources or as coaches to educate them about editing and revision strategies. “Tutors, unlike peer readers, are trained to use methods that lead to results very different from the outcome of response groups” (Harris, 1992, p. 369). UWC tutors are trained in and log hours working with both higher order concerns such as thesis, organization, audience, and development, and lower order concerns, such as sentence structure and word choice. Similar to unskilled native-speaker writers, unskilled ESL writers tend to focus revisions on aspects of the text that do not concern meaning (Cumming & So, 1996; Berg, 1999). Engaging in a tutoring session for assistance in peer editing, students are able to learn in a customized appointment from a peer tutor how to look for, recognize, and address elements of writing that impact meaning. As the peer tutor coaches the student in lower and higher-order concerns, both the tutor’s and the student’s understanding of how to improve writing expands. Broadening the criteria in their mental rubric for evaluation, students are then able to consider their own writing in greater depth.

Our tutors are trained in the art of delivering feedback appropriately. While peer responders are expected to give more directive comments about another’s writing—the “try this, try that” method—knowing how to deliver these comments appropriately is not something typically taught during peer-response sessions (Harris, 1992). A student may not feel comfortable being so assertive when the writer is there, observing them edit. Thus in the uncommon circumstance of a student working with a tutor to critique an absent writer’s work, the likelihood increases that responses and critiques will be more objectively given because the writer is not sitting with the author. Learning to constructively critique may also help the student adjust to receiving critiques of their own work.

Peer Tutor Support in the Social and Cultural Practice of Writing

In a study conducted with low-proficiency ESL students to determine the effectiveness in both giving and receiving peer-response, Nelson and Murphy (1993) recommend, “appropriate social, response, and writing skills to be best taught through exemplification and modeling by the teacher” (Berg, 1999, p. 220). When the requisite modeling and exemplification is in a mainstream classroom whose culture has been established over years of background learning in domestic high schools and early college courses, ELLs’ cultural outsider status can prove a challenge to accessing the dominant academic discourse. While this is more pronounced with international students entering the U.S. education system at the point of higher education, domestic ELLs also experience writing as a social and cultural process (Bloome, 1991). With a current goal to increase diversity in the UWC tutor population, including international and ELL tutors, the vast majority of UWC tutors at our university are native English speaking domestic students hailing from the dominant discourse forms. Working with peer expertise in the UWC or academic language support services affords customized education in the more implicit expectations of American English academic culture, or access to the dominant discourse model with focus on the ideas first, the mechanics last. This benefit directly informs tutor training as we methodically seek to diversify our tutor population and meet the academy’s standards for student writing.

As a support for students whose language varies from dominant forms, Fernsten (2008) recommends discussing writing as a thought process instead of simply as a matter of language accuracy. Writing center pedagogy and language acquisition pedagogy converged in the type of experiences we encountered this year, when our role as tutor included coaching the application of revision strategies to a peer’s paper. When a peer educator works with a student who is expected to peer edit, another level of their rapport is formed; the session allows for exploration of the prompt as well as the craft of writing. “Since tutors speak with words students recognize and understand, they act as interpreters for those bewildered by the critical vocabulary of teachers” (Harris, 1992, p.380). Working with a tutor reduces the frequency of ineffective responses, which would silence writers who otherwise would not know how to assess their own work and address issues (Fernsten, 2008). Focusing exclusively on the process of editing is also one of the ways ELLs can gain a clearer idea of how writing is viewed as a social and cultural process in American English academic culture. Working through the editing process makes accessible another way of understanding the writing process beyond just getting thoughts down in accurate English.


Native English speakers and ELLs often struggle with the task of peer editing in college classes. Trained university peer tutors work in a hybrid space as neither classroom peer nor teacher to coach student revisions primarily of the student’s own work. When approached to provide expertise in how they work with other people’s writing, peer tutors take on a tutor trainer role where they teach the methods of their craft. Particularly effective for ELLs who approach academic writing with diverse cultural and social conventions for writing, the peer tutoring session offers access to dominant discourse through coaching students in how to look at higher order concerns while also delivering explicit instruction in lower order concerns. The tutors’ practice is simultaneously enhanced as they systematically reflect on and teach their craft to peers.


Berg, E. C. (1999). The effects of trained peer response on ESL students’ revision types and writing quality. Journal of Second Language Writing, 8, 215–241.

Bloome, D. (1991). Anthropology and research on teaching the language arts. In J. Flood, J. Jensen, D. Lapp, & J. Squire (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts, pp. 46–56. New York: McMillan.

Cumming, A. & So, S. (1996). Tutoring second language text revision: Does the approach to instruction or language of communication make a difference? Journal of Second Language Writing, 5, 197–226.

Fernsten, L. (2008). Writer identity and ESL learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(1), 44–52.

Harris, M. (1992). Collaboration is not collaboration is not collaboration: Writing center tutorials vs. peer-response groups. College Composition and Communication, 43(3), 369–383.

Lundstrom, K. and Baker, W. (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer's own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18, 30–43.

Nelson, G.I. and Murphy, J.M. (1993). Peer Response Group: Do L2 Writers Use Peer Comments in Revising Their Drafts? TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 135- 141.

Kristen Shrewsbury coordinates English Language Learner Services for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA, where she led a year-long professional development group composed of four University Writing Center peer educators, Alexa Livezey, Melissa Psallidas, E. Haley Cline, and Kellie Harlow, and a Writing Center faculty fellow, Reba Leiding. This article was coauthored using Google Docs and democratic decision-making based in a social construction framework.

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