Blog Post

Chapter 1: Our Students: Learning to Listen to Multilingual Student Voices

By Joshua Belknap

Local Context: Monolingual Assumptions, Multilingual Dialogues

“Help me come up w/a plan?” read the email from my department chair; “ESL students are getting short-changed.” Beneath this terse entreaty, she had forwarded along a message written by a professor in the Music and Art Department to his chairperson:

This semester, I have three classes of respectful students who absolutely cannot write. I have sent most to the Writing Center Or english tutors.....they are telling me that the people at the WCenter are not helpful even though they are well-intentioned. Same with the English tutors. Usually, I have a handful of really good writers who I team up with those who cannot. This semester I am not able to do this.

These students NEED help with English construction, spelling, everything! Critical thinking does not even play into it at this point. Have a lot of chinese students who are struggling with the English language anyway. Any advice?


Professor X

I oversee a staff of writing tutors and an English as a Second Language (ESL) language and computer lab under the aegis of the Department of Academic Literacy and Linguistics at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC); a large urban 2-year college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The above email is emblematic of an ever more common kind of referral to our tutoring center, similar to the one from Professor X, from many others across the disciplinary spectrum who include writing in their curricula.1 Professor X’s classroom is imagined around monolingual Standard American English (SAE) as the medium of instruction and around native English-speaking (and White) students as the norm, whereas in fact, he is confronted with the reality of teaching three multilingual classes full of plural nationalities, races, languages, and cultures. What further struck me when I read Professor X’s message is the fact that this instructor simultaneously exhibits what might be called “monolinguistic deficit-model” assumptions about the writing of his multilingual students, yet also himself deviates from SAE in the language of his email. Were I to critique Professor X’s writing from a similar deficit-model of idealized SAE, I would note that the message includes sentence fragments, for example, and poor adherence to usage rules of punctuation and capitalization. Of course, writing tasks are situated and context-specific: email is informal and often hastily composed, and collegial familiarity might also frame this kind of code-switching in this correspondence. More troubling to me, though, is degree of unequivocality of Professor X’s monolinguistic condemnation of his students: three classes full of students who “absolutely cannot write,” and “NEED help with… everything!” Moreover, this is not a small percentage of aberrant students; they are most or all of Professor X’s students.

This professor is very likely a well-intentioned, dedicated educator, and his opinion of the multilingual students in his classroom is not an anomalous one, but rather represents the norm among faculty and tutors across disciplines. Moreover, his assumptions concerning his students almost certainly do not arise from hostility or indifference, but rather from hegemonic cultural and language-oriented notions that pervade both academic and public discourse. As educators, we all need to pause and reflect on the assumptions we bring into our classrooms when encountering multilingual students, including assumptions about the definition and nature of “critical thinking” and “language proficiency,” as well as what we mean when we say a student “cannot write.” These phrases may well be descriptions of our students. However, they may also be illustrative sketches of our own reflexive cultural and linguistic misapprehensions, as well as descriptions of our own struggles with rendering or effectively communicating complex pedagogies within classrooms in which the English language is the norm. This normative standard of monolingualism is not conducive to effective pedagogy at BMCC, within CUNY, or, for that matter, within any higher education environment that shares similar values of pluralism and linguistic diversity.

With an ever-increasing number of referrals from instructors in multiple departments at BMCC, I decided to create materials for and facilitate professional development workshops for tutors and faculty to investigate multilingual issues in student writing and to share pedagogical strategies for working with English Language Learner (ELL) students. A necessary approach to writing instruction and tutoring, particularly with multilingual writers, is collaboration: the idea that teaching and tutoring is a dialogue, not a monologue, and that ELL students need a definite personal stake in the agenda of a tutoring session. To respond to the increasing linguistic diversity of student writers at U.S. colleges, writing tutors partnering with ELL students best serve their needs by being aware of and responding to the kind of pervasive monolinguistic “English Only” ideology (Horner and Trimbur 1992) that Prof. X displays, in which the ideal model writer is thought to be a monolingual native speaker of an “ideal” prestige brand of Standard (Written) English. Tutor and faculty exposure to (at least some) recent developments in transnational and new literacy scholarship can help facilitate tutor sensitivity to the diverse literacies that multilingual students bring to the classroom and to the tutoring table from an array of cultures spanning the planet, all of which will encourage and cultivate dialogic relationships between ELL writers and instructors/tutors.

(Trans)National Context: Multilingual Students = Our Students

An increasing number of scholars from various disciplines have been examining and publishing work about global/transnational, cross-linguistic, and cross-cultural questions resulting from the cultural, political, and economic spread of globalization. Transnational scholars in my field, rhetoric and composition, contend that since its inception, the discipline has been U.S.-centric, exclusively nationalistic in its pedagogical approaches, medium of instruction, and curricula. It is no surprise to anyone working in U.S. higher education that the number of multilingual students—students studying in learning environments in which coursework is not in their native language— has increased dramatically in recent years. According to the Institute of International Education, 819,644 international students, most of whom come from non-English speaking contexts, studied in the US in the 2012-2013 school year (“Fast Facts” 2013). This represents a 40 percent increase from the previous ten years and a record, all-time high. Moreover, in the 2014-2015 academic year, 974,926 international students studied at U.S. colleges and universities, an additional increase of 155,282 international students, or 19%, in the last year alone (ibid.).

Because of this dramatic increase in international enrollment and the growing number of multilingual students who are permanent US residents or US citizens, “it has become increasingly clear that students’ language needs can no longer be relegated to the 'experts' in specialized courses or tutoring centers” (Hall, quoted in Worden et al. 2015). All faculty will teach multilingual students, and thus all faculty need to understand their unique linguistic resources and needs. All faculty and tutors will teach and work with multilingual students, yet few faculty or tutors have received specialized training to prepare them to work effectively with the multilingual writers in their classrooms. Even among writing teachers, few have received specialized training to prepare them to work effectively with the multilingual writers in their classrooms (Cox 2011). As a result, tutors and faculty can often feel overwhelmed and confused when faced with student writing that does not conform to monolingual expectations. Given this confusion, “some may be eager to learn new strategies for negotiating language differences in their classrooms” (Ives et al., quoted in Worden et al. 2015), and others may need to be persuaded that they have a role to play in improving writing instruction, particularly for multilingual students (Walvoord 1992). These challenges are particularly pressing for multilingual writing (Cox 2014). In light of all of these factors, it is clear that there is a significant need for professional development for faculty and tutors across the disciplines to work with multilingual writers.

As noted above, the increasing numbers of multilingual students in US universities, whether international students or multilingual citizens and permanent residents, have made it clear that students’ language needs can no longer be outsourced to the “experts” in specialized courses or tutoring centers. Increasingly, we as educators must realize that the multilingual student is not one that deviates from the norm, but rather is increasingly becoming the standard student, comprising nearly half of the student population. In short, this is not an unusual or irregular student population; these are simply our students. While there is a need for professional development efforts designed to help faculty more effectively teach multilingual writing, institutional divisions between first language (L1) and second language (L2) writing instruction pose challenges for the organization and delivery of such professional development efforts. One way to overcome such challenges is through grassroots forms of collaboration across institutional boundaries. This chapter suggests one such grassroots effort, the creation of a tutor/faculty development workshop designed to help teachers and tutors across the disciplines work more effectively with multilingual writers. This chapter describes ideas for the creation and curriculum of such workshops, and also proposes ongoing adaptations of the workshop for new audiences. I will also consider tutor and faculty responses to the workshop, and reflect on the challenges and rewards of such grassroots collaborative efforts.

Reorienting Monolingual Pedagogy: The Need for Translingual Workshops

One consequence of privileging an “ideal” Standard Written English is that other dialects and, more generally speaking, other linguistic and cultural resources are dismissed as unacceptable (or simply ignored) in tutoring sessions or classrooms. Transnational, transcultural and multilingual considerations in the writing classroom and/or tutoring table can profoundly shift thinking about how tutors and instructors implement writing pedagogy, in that multilingual process writing (if one may call it that) is not intended to produce an object to be passively consumed and judged on its grammatical merit by a discerning reader. Instead, writers and readers co-construct meaning in written texts together, and thus conversation becomes “an intellectual movement to see languages not as discrete entities but as situated, dynamic, and negotiated” (Matsuda 2013).

The BMCC ESL Lab tutors serve the needs of multilingual students registered in remedial ESL writing courses at the college, focusing both on higher order and grammatical or sentence-level language issues in student writing2 and on discussing aspects of, and preparing students for, a high-stakes writing exam that they must pass in order to register for credit-bearing mainstream English courses. ESL tutoring sessions at BMCC consist of small group or one-on-one consultations between students and tutors, set as weekly appointments for the entire semester. Certain structural and institutional realities at the school, as well as changes in the Academic Literacy and Linguistics department, have motivated me to rethink the interactions between colleagues in various departments to more clearly reflect the dialogical practices used in tutoring sessions with ESL students.

When college administrators began promoting new priorities and a new mission, including streamlining and combining levels of remedial English/ESL courses, encouraging greater collaboration among departments and programs, and increasing faculty research productivity, I decided:

  • To develop multilingual-sensitive faculty/tutor training materials for WAC/WID (Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines)
  • To reach out to colleagues across disciplines to establish grounds for more substantive collaborations, in order to avoid unidirectional monological discourse (such as, for example, merely distributing informational materials about the resources and services ESL Lab/tutoring program offer without actually speaking with faculty from other departments).

At least partially responsible for the increasingly numerous referrals of multilingual students to our lab and tutoring area was what Paul Kei Matsuda (2006) calls the tacit “policy of linguistic containment” that prevails in many universities and colleges, whereby programs and institutions work to contain language differences by sending or outsourcing students to writing centers or specialized courses to work on their language needs (641). While specialized instruction and tutoring can be very helpful for students, who get the benefit of learning from an instructor trained in second language pedagogy, these practices can also have unintended negative consequences. One of these consequences is that linguistic containment contributes to English Only/monolingual ideological assumptions, such as that there is a static “proper” ideal English, and that students’ language issues in writing should be separated, quarantined, and outsourced to specialists in ELL, ESL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

The implication of monolingual assumptions reinforced by linguistic containment is that faculty who are not ELL specialists or applied linguists are not (and should not be) required to engage with multilingual/ELL issues in student writing. Monolingual notions of static, ideal English classify the linguistic problems of multilingual/ELL students as “abnormal” and situate them “out there” somewhere, outside the mainstream classroom, sequestered and separate from disciplinary writing tasks, to be referred to and dealt with by applied linguists and TESOL specialists, as a general practitioner would refer an extraordinary patient to a medical specialist. The type of divisions between first language (L1) and second language (L2) writing instruction and tutoring at BMCC is neither a recent development nor unusual– most higher education institutions maintain some sort of separation between these types of courses, whether by creating separate sections of writing courses within one department or by giving responsibility for the two types of courses to different departments. Though the English and Academic Literacy and Linguistics departments have much to offer each other and the college more broadly in terms of our collective expertise on writing and second language development, the institutional division between our departments made any potential contributions more difficult to coordinate. This departmental divide also reflects what several prominent scholars in both composition studies and second language writing have noted: the limitations of the long standing division between L1 and L2 writing research and instruction, and the need for greater interdisciplinary conversation and sustained collaboration (Horner et al. 2011; MacDonald 2007; Matsuda 2013; Horner et al 2011).

The Tutor Workshops3

Workshop 1: Getting our Multilingual Bearings

In the first workshop, tutors, faculty, and facilitators will begin by thinking about and sharing our own history and experience(s) with language acquisition and study, in order to potentially reorient our thinking about the ways our students deploy translingual practices and navigate and negotiate multiple literacies and fluencies. We will then discuss how multilingual writers’ language abilities can be conceptualized as both a linguistic and cultural topic to help tutors and faculty understand and appreciate multilingual writers’ specific challenges in academic (and other) writing practices. We will then discuss how tutors and teachers can strive for transparency of expectations, goals, and writing tasks, and how a writing assignment can be designed so that multilingual writers’ L1 knowledge and cultural background can be used as a resource (Canagarajah 2006; Horner et al. 2011; Lu and Horner 2013). As practice, the faculty and tutor attendees will analyze instructions for a sample writing assignment and discuss their critique of the assignment’s accessibility for multilingual student writers. At some point in the workshop, we will share our own strategies for reinforcing principles of accessibility and clarity such as using graphic organizers; making a connection between the assignment and what students are already familiar with; using a model essay and analyzing it in class using a color-coding scheme; and modeling our own reading practice by thinking aloud. Each of these strategies will be briefly introduced with a sample activity that the attendees can carry out in their own classes.

In preparation for the series of workshops, I will draw on research from both applied linguistics and rhetoric and composition to try to identify the best practices for responding to multilingual student writing (see Appendix). From my perspective as a Writing Program Administrator (WPA), writing instructor, and researcher, I will consider my own pedagogical and tutor training methods and attempt to situate them within research from each field. Knowing that instructors in all fields who assign writing have to provide students with feedback, I see this as a pedagogical topic that crosses disciplinary divides. Based on experience working with multilingual writers in classrooms and writing centers, I also see this as an area of pedagogy that many tutors and instructors—myself included—struggle with when working with multilingual writers. In the workshop, we will use sample student writing along with samples of tutor/teacher feedback to model our practice alongside the theoretical approaches we will employ.

As a WPA, I have attended and participated in (somewhat) comparable workshops for faculty and tutors in the past, and thus I will be able to build off of similar existing frameworks in creating this workshop, with the added advantage of knowing how tutors and teachers have responded. I will integrate perspectives on feedback from writing center theory and practice into the workshop, relying on the work of Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth (2004) in ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors to find clear guides for responding to multilingual writing. With this foundation, we will stress feedback as interactive social action, emphasizing the importance of context and clear communication. To do this, the curriculum will model a scaffolded method similar to Ferris and Hedgecock’s 2005 triad of "approach, response, follow-up" and it will provide students with feedback, separated into 1) contact 2) comment, and 3) follow-up.

Workshop 2: Grammar Feedback

In the second workshop, I will present strategies for addressing grammar in multilingual writing (Ferris and Hedgecock 2005; Bruce and Rafoth 2004). While grammar correction is a fraught issue both within L1 and L2 composition, we will acknowledge that multilingual student papers may contain, by the standards of their English-speaking professors, excessive grammatical and lexical inaccuracies. Our goal, therefore, will be to provide a framework for approaching grammar in multilingual writing that is as simple and straightforward as possible, to ease use in the classroom. We will emphasize the importance of limiting faculty focus to errors that seemed frequent, serious, and treatable (Ferris and Hedgecock 2005), and second, introduce the distinction between errors and mistakes (Bruce and Rafoth 2004).

However, understanding that tutors and faculty attending the workshops might not be teaching/tutoring language courses and also might not be qualified or desire to provide grammar instruction, we will also be careful to remind workshop participants that grammar correction should be integrated into their courses and tutoring sessions and should be in line with their overall instructional and pedagogical goals. We will emphasize that if improving grammar was not a pedagogical goal, and if students’ mistakes did not seriously impede overall comprehension, it might be appropriate to simply “read through” grammar errors rather than correct them. The workshop will be focused on how to use feedback on writing to help students succeed, and we will concentrate on options for marking errors and mistakes within a student paper. There will be materials in the workshop packet (see Appendix) that will address specific feedback questions such as how much and when to correct, differentiating between mistakes that impede reader understanding from relatively minor errors, et cetera.

Workshop 3: Dialect and Code-Meshing

Another area of multilingual writing that translingual workshops can help sensitize tutors and faculty to is code-meshing, “a communicative device used for specific rhetorical and ideological purposes in which a multilingual speaker intentionally integrates local and academic discourse as a form of resistance, reappropriation and/or transformation of the academic discourse” (Michel-Luna and Canagarajah 2007)4 in the interest of “strengthening pedagogies of language difference” (Ray 2013). Code-meshing can also be an approach to communication (including writing) “not as something have or have access to but as something we do” (Lu and Horner 2011). A consequence of privileging Standard Written English, or any standardized form of a language, in the classroom is other dialects, or strategies such as code-meshing, are dismissed as unacceptable in the classroom and in student writing. We will propose an approach in the workshop that instead “shifts attention to matters of agency—the ways in which individual language users fashion and refashion standardized norms, identity, the world, and their relation to others and the world… writers are seen not in terms of their degree of proximity, mastery, or adjustment to dominant definitions of exigent, feasible, appropriate, and stable “contexts” or “codes,” but as always responding to and shaping these” (Lu and Horner 2011) As Canagarajah (2006) writes,

Students and teachers who are expected to adopt English only (or monolingual) pedagogies practice bilingual discourse strategies that enable them to develop more relevant classroom interactions, curricular objectives, and learning styles […] Literacy practices of codes meshing are also not unusual—students mix codes to negotiate the meaning of English texts and to compose stories or journals in expressive, creative, or reflective writing (Hornberger). Much of this research literature demonstrates that rather than hampering the acquisition of English, the negotiation of codes can indeed facilitate it (601).

Potential Conclusions

Although it seems difficult to reflect upon the workshops before they have actually occurred, there are some themes and possible outcomes to hope for as I plan for and schedule them with tutors and faculty. The first theme is the importance of making use of professional networks to create a platform for the workshops. Faculty and tutor buy-in for these workshops is necessary for any semblance of pedagogical efficacy and cultural change within the institution. Also importantly, the professional connections I will establish in the course of creating the initial workshops will, I hope, enable me to pursue opportunities to conduct similar sets of workshops with faculty from other disciplines in the future. I also hope that they will enable me to begin to partner more closely with the WAC/WID coordinators at the college to incorporate bi/multi-lingual/ELL education and awareness into WAC/WID workshop materials and resources in a permanent way.

A related theme is that we expect our experiences in the workshops to speak to the difficulties and rewards of interdisciplinary conversation. As we design the workshops, present them, and perhaps subsequently adapt them for different disciplines, a goal will be to mindfully respect faculty members’ disciplinary expertise and their experiences with multilingual writers, even when, or perhaps especially when, they contradict our own approaches and beliefs. This collaborative and open attitude, which we hope to actively cultivate in our conversations with faculty, will not only help us to counter resistance and gain faculty investment (Walvoord), but will also allow us to learn from faculty ourselves and incorporate these new insights into future versions of the workshops. The interdisciplinary nature of the workshops will also require anticipation of what faculty already know and believe about multilingual writing, and to be specifically mindful of their potential resistance to the strategies and information presented in the workshop. It will involve distilling our disciplinary knowledge in ways that avoid jargon and are not predicated on ideas that are unfamiliar or anathema to those outside of the discipline of rhetoric and composition, but that still remain true to the field and professional knowledge of multilingual writers and writing pedagogy.

For example, in the workshop we might present terms such as “disciplinary culture” rather than “discourse community” and “text type” rather than “genre,” as these might be more accessible to our participants. In addition, we will likely decide to include in our presentations practices which we have found effective but which we anticipated might be considered radical or even problematic by our participants, such as teaching strategies for student writers to include their L1s in the research and composing processes, and, as previously mentioned, “reading through” grammar mistakes if they do not impede understanding and are not central to the purpose of the assignment.

How effective might these strategies be? One potential problem could be that the content of our presentations, drawn as it is from literature in the rhetoric and composition and TESOL fields and our own tutoring/teaching experiences, will be too focused on writing in the humanities. As I discussed earlier, there is a need for further collaboration across disciplines during the planning and/or execution of such workshops, to better address participants’ concerns with technical and scientific writing. Faculty might appreciate more focused workshops that target specific disciplinary writing. Workshop presenters should also conduct follow-up surveys and/or classroom observations with the participants, to determine how they have transferred the techniques to their tutoring sessions/classrooms.

Overall, the hope is that the workshops will foster rewarding interdisciplinary interactions, which will benefit both the tutors and the faculty members who participate. As a WPA and tutoring coordinator, I anticipate improving and refining discussions about multilingual writing with faculty from different disciplines and gaining a broader perspective on writing instruction at the university, while providing a service which will empower faculty members and tutors to work more effectively with their multilingual students. These efforts can always continue to be enhanced to be more responsive to participants’ needs, and, hopefully, the dialogic power of collaboration will eventually be a means for tutors and faculty to more effectively address the needs of multilingual writers in a more structured, “official” way within the institution. The overarching goal, of course, is that these workshops will reflect a reconceptualization and reassessment of monolingual tutoring and teaching approaches as well as curricula, which is vital to adequately address a rapidly increasing global, translingual student population. This diverse body of students brings multiple writing styles and literacy traditions to the classroom, many of which could be viewed as cultural and linguistic assets/resources rather than as linguistic deficits/liabilities merely because they deviate from Standard American English.

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  1. These students are referred to the lab for supplemental help with their written assignments in courses across disciplines (e.g. English, Social Sciences, Speech, Business, Music/Art, etc.) from faculty throughout the college, but progressively more students are also referred from other tutoring centers at the college, including the Writing Center and the various English tutoring programs, to the point that our tutoring program did not have the budget or tutor resources to handle the volume of referrals.

  2. Interestingly, especially when contemplating literacy and student writing in transnational contexts, ESL instructors at BMCC often use the (arguably outdated) terms “global” vs. “local” errors when referring to sentence-level problems in student essays. Global errors interfere with the intended reader’s understanding of the text (e.g. if an ESL student, attempting to describe her uninspiring teachers, writes “these professors are bored” instead of “these professors are boring”), whereas local errors (e.g. “those professor are boring”) do not.

  3. See appendix for tutor workshop materials/handouts


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