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“The Thing That You Would Like to Tell”: ESL at the Writing Studio

Posted by on Friday, April 25, 2014 in Writing Studio Blog.

by Kathleen Deguzman

English Writing Fellow for Spring 2014, Vanderbilt Writing Studio


According to enrollment information for the 2013 – 2014 academic year, international students constitute just over 9% of the Vanderbilt population.[1] At the Writing Studio, we often work with these students when they seek help on written assignments. In fact, 11% of our consultations in fall 2013 listed ESL (English as a second language) concerns as a topic of discussion. But drawing from interviews I conducted with Freddo Lin, a junior from China double majoring in history and philosophy, and a student from the Graduate Department of Religion who wishes to remain anonymous, I highlight in this blog post what falls through the cracks when only statistics and language barriers are discussed in the context of writing centers. As Bobbi Olson recently pointed out, the wealth of writing center studies on ESL clients has “focus[ed] too much on the needs of the institution at the expense of the needs of multilingual writers.”[2]

Many undergraduates – not just those who come to attend Vanderbilt from across the globe – struggle with the transition to university-level academic writing. For international students, tackling projects such as the first paper in a freshman writing seminar thus poses a doubly daunting task: to write in a language they are often still in a process of acquiring, and to do so within essay forms that stand as kinds of languages in their own right. In graduate-level writing, “the language of the university,” or academic discourse, takes on further complexities depending on factors such as discipline-specific standards and particular journals’ target audiences.

Working with ESL writers has been the subject of writing center studies for many years now. Sharon A. Myers argued that writing centers should rethink the practice of “minimalist tutoring” in consultations with ESL writers.[3] Coined by Jeff Brooks, minimalist tutoring is a hands-off approach that prioritizes higher-order concerns such as argument and structure over lower-order ones such as grammar and syntax.[4] Myers, however, contended that writing tutors should deepen their command of grammar rather than dismiss the subject as mere proofreading. Myers’s call to embrace the embedded linguistic issues that come with proofreading has been helpful in rethinking how writer centers – including Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio – can better serve ESL clients. But when we speak of “ESL writers,” what exactly do we mean, and how do these clients perceive themselves as writers when coming to resources such as the Writing Studio?

Writing centers are in a unique position to make clients better producers of written knowledge through one-on-one consultations. As a result, pedagogical acronyms drawn from other fields such as “ESL,” “NNS,” (non-native speaker), and “TESOL” (teaching English to speakers of other languages) often fail to appreciate the intellectual abilities of the writers with whom we work. As the graduate student working in Religious and Theological Studies told me, “Such categories would not bother me at all. But it is one thing to be a native speaker, and it is another to be a good writer. To the best of my knowledge, my status as a non-native speaker does not prevent me from becoming a good writer.” Indeed, speaking a language and writing convincing arguments in it are dramatically different linguistic and intellectual endeavors. The subject of English in fact serves as a familiar course for many international students at Vanderbilt. As Lin described, “I have been studying English since graduation from elementary school.”

Although grammar is often a chief interest of writers such as Lin when coming to the Writing Studio, he also seeks constructive criticism on higher order concerns such as argument. Lin regularly works with the Writing Studio staff “to develop ideas and the potential structure of my essay,” while the student from the Graduate Department of Religion aims to “make progress in writing my dissertation.” Being distinct from native speakers thus equips writers such as Lin with a strategic polylinguism. As Lin explains:

I think it is a fact that no matter how “proficient” non-native speakers are with English, they are still not native speakers for many reasons: education, cultural background, family, and ways of thinking and expressing. Being an ESLer or non-native speaker never necessarily means that you are not capable of the same kind of level of thought-processing. You have a 21-year-old mind, a normal functioning brain – the matter is that you may not be able to fully and accurately express the thing that you would like to tell.

At the same time, Lin admits that being an ESL writer can stir feelings of reluctance. “What hurts,” he explains, is how at times “you don’t try as hard as you should to communicate and express your idea” given how native speakers “tend to treat you less ‘native’ at the first place.”

At the Writing Studio, we strive to work against the “native” bias that Lin describes. It is common for our clients to come to a consultation seeking another pair of eyes for proofreading only to engage in an immersive conversation about argument and structure instead. As Myers highlighted, ESL writers’ mistakes with language are often lexical – that is, relating to vocabulary rather than grammar. In my sessions with both American and international students, questions about particular words – say, “superstition” versus “ritual” – have opened the most rewarding sessions for client and consultant alike. Though consultations with ESL writers often entail arduous explanations and essays profuse with editing marks, the productive mistakes of these conversations serve as powerful reminders of the ongoing processes that underlie all writing.


[1] The figure is actually 9.46%, which means that more students come to Vanderbilt from outside the United States than from New England (4.15%) or the West (7.71%). See ReVU: Quick Facts About Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University, accessed January 29, 2014,

[2] Bobbi Olson, “Rethinking Our Work with Multilingual Writers: The Ethics and Responsibilities of Language Teaching in the Writing Center,” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10 no. 2 (2013).

[3] Sharon A. Myers, “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction,” Writing Center Journal 24, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2003): 51 – 70.

[4] Jeff Brooks, “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work,” Writing Lab Newsletter 15, no. 6 (February 1991): 1 – 4.