Writing Center Myths

Ellen Snell

Throughout the past months that I have spent working as a consultant in the Writing Center at UofL, I have noticed that there are many misconceptions of and apprehensions surrounding writing centers in general. Some clients feel that in visiting the Writing Center, they are acknowledging their status as “bad” writers; others are worried that the details of their sessions will be forwarded to their professors. Both of these writing center “myths,” are, of course, false, but there is another misconception upon which I wish to focus: the myth of an English-as-a-first-language-only Writing Center.

In a given week at the UofL Writing Center, we see clients from many backgrounds who study many disciplines – first-year students studying History, PhD. students polishing up their doctoral work, and even faculty members wanting an extra hand in looking over articles before submitting them for publication, just to name a few. What many people may not know, however, is that at the Writing Center we also work with clients whose first language may not be English.

As a student who studied English Literature and Spanish at my undergraduate institution, I was excited to learn that I would be working with ESL students/non-native speakers at the UofL Writing Center. There are some different perspectives that working with an ESL client brings to the table, and I wanted to reflect on a few of those perspectives here.

1. PICTIONARY (WITHOUT THE GUESSWORK). Sometimes when going over an idea or a concept that may be a little ambiguous (imagine that, the English language being ambiguous!), I like to draw a picture or a diagram on a piece of scrap paper to help illustrate the concept. This can be as simple as a few boxes labeled PA, P, and F to indicate the change in grammar from past, present and future tense. I’ve found that sometimes just being able to see an idea drawn out on paper can make things easier for the client to understand and for the consultant to explain.

2. SLOW DOWN!!! Especially when a client or a consultant is nervous (or they’re both nervous!), he or she may tend to talk fast – really fast. While this may not present too much of a challenge to a native English speaker listening to a speed-talking consultant, such a situation may be more difficult when the student is a non-native speaker trying to keep up with the motor-mouth consultant. So, slow down everybody! Just taking a moment to stop, think and inhale deeply can help everyone keep pace and have a successful session.

3. READ ALOUD (YES, YOU). I’m a big fan of the ol’ “I can read it aloud or you can read it aloud” scenario in writing center sessions. I think that the act of reading aloud, as well as the act of hearing a paper read aloud, can work wonders in bringing possible revisions to light and generally clarifying things all around. Some clients, however, may not feel comfortable reading their own work aloud, especially students who may just be getting the hang of the English language. Here’s where the consultant offering to read comes in handy: the client may feel more at ease listening to the paper rather than reading it aloud, and the consultant gets a different perspective by doing the reading him or herself.

I hope these few tips help to dispel more “writing center myths” and make potential clients feel more welcome, no matter their language background!

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