March 2014
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Jennifer Haigh & Robert Barrett, Sonoma State University, California, USA

Jennifer Haigh

Robert Barrett

Traditionally in the United States, writing centers tend to work with native English speakers, in part because native English speakers make up a larger proportion of the postsecondary education population. However, as many recent books and articles explain, the number of multilingual students enrolling in postsecondary education in the United States is rapidly increasing (Ferris, 2009; Kim & Diaz, 2013; Menken, Kleyn, & Chae, 2012). As more people have immigrated to the United States, those of us in writing center work have seen a change in the population of students that we work with. Although these students share a commonality of being multilingual, their backgrounds are incredibly diverse. Some are international students, whereas others are U.S. residents, though they range in how long they have lived in the United States. Ferris (2009) demonstrates that the prior education and academic experiences of students can vary dramatically between multilingual students. As Doolan and Miller (2012) state, many of these incoming students are below grade average in their academic abilities. Menken et al (2012) further explain that the lack of preparation often relates to public schools in the United States being ill equipped to properly support the distinct needs of multilingual students.

Unfortunately, not every university is equipped to aid these diverse groups of students—either Generation 1.5 students or international students—in making the most of their education. In other words, some schools recruiting and accepting multilingual students do not always have services in place to help them be successful. Many students have turned to writing centers in order to find the additional help they need.

However, with these linguistically diverse groups of tutees, a tutor’s tool kit needs to be diversified as well. Much common writing center pedagogy, which we have relied on in training tutors over the years, may not be appropriate for all tutees (Harris, 1997; Thonus, 2003). For example, it is common writing center practice to assume that students should be able to identify their own mistakes while listening to their writing read aloud, whether by themselves or their tutor; this practice would not necessarily be appropriate with a multilingual student. With this increased reliance of nontraditional tutees on writing centers comes an increased responsibility for writing center directors: a responsibility to train tutors in various pedagogical approaches. Yet this responsibility is complicated by larger university policies such as budget cuts, which limit the amount of paid training days/seminars and registration unit caps and also limit the ability of students to take tutor training courses. These complications are exemplified by the recent history of our writing center at Sonoma State University (SSU).

To provide some necessary background, the SSU Writing Center houses two programs: the Writing Center, which functions as most writing centers do and serves all students at the university, and the Multilingual Learners Program (MLL). The MLL Program is funded by a federal TRiO grant and, therefore, has to follow federal guidelines on who can be served. To qualify, students must be permanent residents or U.S. citizens and meet at least one of the following three requirements: be the first student in their family to attend college, meet family income requirements (below the federal poverty level), or have a disability. In addition, students who enter the MLL Program must also have learned a language other than English at or before the same time that they learned English. In other words, the majority of students that we serve in the MLL Program are Generation 1.5 students: those “who immigrate as children and have life experiences that span two or more countries, cultures, and languages” (Roberge, 2009, p. 4). The MLL Program provides a variety of services for students, though the main focus is on academic support, primarily math and writing tutoring.

When students come to the Writing Center at SSU, they are asked a short series of questions by our front desk staff, who also work as tutors in the writing center: Have they been to the Writing Center before? Do they speak a language other than English? Did they learn that language at the same time as or before they learned English? Their answers to those questions determine whether the students are scheduled with a Writing Center tutor or an MLL tutor. All tutors are trained to work with any student who comes in, regardless of their language background, but MLL tutors are given additional training on working with students with a multilingual background, typically by reading additional articles, looking at a wide variety of sample student essays, and attending more tutor training meetings that focus on effective strategies for tutoring multilingual students. In addition, MLL tutors typically have previous experience working with multilingual students, often having taught ESL/EFL before entering SSU as students. Conversely, although the MLL tutors may have more experience working with multilingual students from their teaching experience, oftentimes they have limited writing tutoring experience and, thus, may need more training in writing center pedagogy.

In the 3 years that the MLL Program has been at SSU, we have been working out numerous growing pains. The MLL Program has limited capacity on the number of students that we can serve, limited by the budget set by the federal government each year. This year we are capped at 133 students who can receive tutoring services. Considering that the SSU Writing Center serves roughly 1,500 students each semester, 133 is a very small fraction. Because of these federal requirements for the MLL Program, clearly the general Writing Center student tutors also need to be trained in working with multilingual students, though many of the tutors initially assume that the students they work with will be linguistically homogenous.

To resolve some of our issues with effectively training tutors and providing services to all students, we have examined various methods of cross-training our tutors. We believe that our methods have the potential to be adapted to the needs of different programs. A time- and cost-effective way of initiating increased training for tutors is to employ techniques of cross-training. By cross-training, we simply mean tutors training tutors. Ideally, these tutors would represent varying disciplines and pedagogical backgrounds, and cross-training among them would enable every tutor to more effectively work with a diverse group of students. Following are some techniques that we have either effectively used in the past or begun to put in place at the SSU Writing Center.

Lead Tutors

The lead tutor program has been in place at Sonoma State since 2005. The lead tutors are hired to serve as mentors to new tutors. Each lead is hired because of previous experience in the Writing Center as well as his or her ability to respond and relate well to the new tutors. Most frequently, these are graduate students at SSU. They work an additional 5 hours a week with a small, select group of tutors. They check in with the tutors a few times a month, observe tutoring sessions a few times a semester, and provide guidance and support for their small group. The lead tutor program allows our experienced tutors to share their knowledge and expertise with new tutors, but the lead tutors also express that they frequently learn from the new tutors. The tutors report that they greatly enjoy their experiences with their lead tutors, because having a lead tutor gives them an avenue to discuss problems they are having or successes that they are having without needing to speak up in front of all the tutors. The lead tutor program also creates a sense of camaraderie among the tutors and helps to develop lasting tutor relationships.

Peer-Tutor Group Meetings

Sometimes it is easier for new tutors to open up about problems and challenges with a group of their peers. Previously, we used this tactic only with our MLL tutors, but this year we plan to implement it for all tutors. The MLL tutors reported that they liked having the option to meet with a small group of their fellow tutors to bounce ideas off of each other rather than needing to speak to an “authority figure.” To initiate this practice with the Writing Center, tutors will be assigned to a small cohort of peers, which they will meet with on a semiregular basis. The purpose of these meetings is to share their experiences with each other and give them opportunities to hear what other tutors do in their tutoring sessions away from any administration of supervisors. Through sharing personal triumphs, tutors in the cohort will be able to learn best practices and approaches from each other. Conversely, tutors can share challenges they have faced and possibly offer each other advice. If the cohort of tutors find a problem or challenge which they all share, they can then approach a supervisor or administrator, who can then either address the issue to the group, in a staff-wide meeting, or direct the group to some reading materials which may assist them.

Writing Center Meetings/Training Sessions

The SSU Writing Center holds weekly staff meetings that also serve as a way to train tutors on specific topics such as tutoring for the university graduate writing proficiency exam, working with developmental writing students, and working with ESL students. In the past, the MLL writing specialist, one of the full-time staff working for the MLL Program, has facilitated a few staff meetings focused on strategies for working with ESL students. Some of the MLL tutors have also facilitated meetings and offered specific strategies that have worked for them. For example, one MLL tutor led a staff meeting that taught tutors specific strategies for working with the international student population on verb tense issues. Our tutors, both MLL and Writing Center, have reported learning a great deal from these meetings that often help them feel more comfortable working with multilingual students. In some cases, the students report that the strategies or tutoring practices that were covered simply reinforced strategies that they were already using.

Cooperation With the University’s TESOL Program

Having a cooperative agreement with the university’s TESOL program can allow writing centers and writing tutoring programs to recruit potential tutors that are knowledgeable about working with ESL students. In addition, professors or students in the TESOL program could potentially lead workshops or staff meetings if there is no ESL writing specialist at the university. Partnering with the TESOL program also offers the chance for students in the TESOL program to gain experience working with ESL students and allows shared knowledge to be spread. Although this is still a newer initiative for us, the MLL Program has recruited several tutors from the MA TESOL program on the SSU campus. The MLL writing specialist is able to present workshops, but we are hoping to strengthen our relationship with the TESOL program in order to recruit tutors for both the MLL Program and the Writing Center.

We feel that the previous cross-training strategies have worked well or are worth trying for writing centers with similar constraints on training tutors. Most writing centers have a number of excellent tutors that can offer their fellow tutors new knowledge that may help a writing center learn to work with a variety of populations and help tutors learn discipline-specific skills.


Doolan, S., & Miller, D. (2012). Generation 1.5 written error patterns: A comparative study. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21, 1–22. doi:10.016/j.jslw.2011.09.001

Ferris, D. R. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Harris, M. (1997). Cultural conflicts in the writing center: Expectations and assumptions of ESL students. In C. Severino, J. C. Guerra, & J. E. Butler (Eds.), Writing in multicultural settings (pp. 220–233). New York, NY: Modern Language Association.

Kim, E., & Diaz, J. (2013). Immigrant students and higher education: ASHE higher education report 38.6. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Menken, K., Kleyn, T., & Chae, N. (2012). Spotlight on “long term English language learners”: Characteristics and prior schooling experiences of an invisible population. International Multilingual Research Journal, 6, 121–142. doi:10.1080/19313152.2012.665822

Roberge, M. R. (2009). A teacher’s perspective on generation 1.5. In M. Roberge, M. Siegal, & L. Harklau (Eds.), Generation 1.5 in college composition: Teaching academic writing to U.S-educated learners of ESL (pp. 3–24).New York, NY: Routledge.

Thonus, T. (2003). Serving generation 1.5 learners in the university writing center. TESOL Journal, 12(1), 17–24. doi:10.1002/j.1949-3533.2003.tb00115.x

Jennifer Haigh is the writing specialist for the Multilingual Learner Program at Sonoma State University. She earned her MA in English from Humboldt State University in 2012.

Robert Barrett is a writing tutor with Sonoma State University’s Multilingual Learners Program and a lead tutor at Sonoma State University’s Writing Center. After 8 years of teaching English as a foreign language, he came back to school with the goal of becoming an English composition and world literature professor.

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