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Aiyah Shepard studies with flashcards at the Academic Achievement Center, which is in the process of merging with the Allen Student Advising Center, in Alden Library on September 30, 2019. (FILE)

Writing tutors struggle to help unexpected influx of ESL students

Tutors working for Ohio University’s Writing Commons are struggling to help a high demand of English second language, or ESL, students because of a lack of specific training.

Last year, OU combined the Academic Global Communications, or AGC, Writing Center, the Graduate Writing Center and the general Writing Center to create the Writing Commons. Many ESL students went to the Writing Commons because of this. 

David Bell, chair of the linguistics department and a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the university decided to combine the writing centers shortly after AGC instructors were removed in May 2020. Bell attributed that choice to budget cuts made within the College of Arts and Sciences and said AGC instructors were teaching in a program considered to be non-essential.

Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said the writing centers were not combined due to budget cuts. 

Bell said most of the tutors were graduate students in the applied linguistics programs when the AGC writing center operated independently. They had specific training to work with ESL students, he said.

“I feel bad, because you can tell some of them are very frustrated because they’re not getting what they need out of these sessions,” Ellery Pollard, a senior studying creative writing and a lead tutor in the Writing Commons, said. “We don’t necessarily have the resources available to us to explain how the English language works, and if we did, it might be better.”

Pollard said when the centers combined, not all of the previously-trained tutors followed.

Pollard said the tutors already at the Writing Commons did not have the specific training needed for those students.

While she said her bosses took steps to prepare them for this change, it was hard to adjust because the way she normally tutors is “not exactly what they need.” 

“It’s just sad and frustrating to see such an obvious need that isn’t being met. We’re still expected to fill that need, but we haven’t had the proper training or resources available to us to do that,” Pollard said.

Additionally, Pollard said she has to go into different topics than before, like teaching plagiarism, something she said other countries do not emphasize as much while Americans are taught it at a very young age.

Callie Martindale, a lead tutor and a senior studying English, said COVID-19 also had a large impact on the program.

“Last semester really stands out as a time for me where I was like, ‘I need to buckle down and really see what I can do here,’” Martindale said. “I wasn’t even a lead tutor at that point.”

Both Martindale and Pollard said the majority of the students they served during 2020 were ESL students. Pollard said around 90% of students she tutored during that year were ESL and all online.

Martindale said she believed she served around 70% to 80% ESL students. Since restrictions have lifted, Pollard and Martindale said they have seen fewer ESL students. Martindale said ESL students still make up around a quarter of the students she serves while Pollard said they still make up around 75%.

Martindale became a tutor in the summer of 2020 and described her learning process as “adapt or die” when helping ESL students.

Martindale said the tutors receive weekly paid training. However, this semester, they have not had one dedicated to ESL or multicultural people. She is hopeful this will happen in the spring.

“I wish that we had advice from our supervisors as to how to go about it. It’s been very much ... kind of learning through experience and just adapting yourself,” Martindale said.

Apart from the Writing Commons and what AGC offered, OU helps international students in the Ohio Program for Intensive English, or OPIE. This program offers pathway-level classes to international students to help with aspects of the English language.

Gerard Krzic, director of OPIE, said OPIE offers other resources to help ESL students. Advisers from OPIE help international students adjust to life in America and host global conversations that bring together international and domestic students. However, Krzic said there is no resource directly related to writing.

“It’s tricky to fill in that void that those resources left behind, and you want to do everything you can, but we’re students,” Martindale said. “We have limitations, and it’s really hard to know that those limitations are going to leave people disappointed.” 


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