The degree of attention writing tutors should pay to grammatical concerns is, to be sure, highly contested. Many scholars have concluded that even college teachers cannot agree on what constitutes a “significant” grammatical mistake.* Nevertheless, many writing center users request help with language-level concerns. Language usage, including grammar and syntax, are an aspect of the writing process and will, at times, require attention during tutoring sessions.
While there are several pedagogical approaches to grammar instruction, typically falling within the two camps of prescriptive and descriptive, any can be beneficial in a tutoring situation, depending on how they are used, the context of the tutoring session, and the needs of the writer. In other words, a situational understanding of these pedagogical approaches – and when best to employ them – will likely prove more beneficial than a rigid application of one or the other.
This resource contains the following two sections. "Rationales for Tutoring Grammar" discusses reasons why tutors might work with tutees on grammar concerns. "Strategies for Tutoring Grammar" offers practical pieces of advice for tutors. However, when leading a tutoring session, always follow your own writing center's guidelines for grammar instruction. These resources are intended to provide background information on tutoring grammar and may not account for your own center's policies.
*See, for example, Joseph M. Williams, “The Phenomenology of Error,” College Composition and Communication 32, no. 2 (1981): 152-168. Patrick Hartwell, “Grammar, Grammar, and the Teaching of Grammar,” College English 47, no. 2 (1985): 105-27; Robert J. Connors and Andrea A. Lunsford, “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” College Composition and Communication 39, no. 4 (1988): 395-409.
Rationales for Tutoring Grammar
Before discussing strategies for tutoring grammar, it is first necessary to look at some reasons writing centers (and their tutors) may choose to give attention to grammar during tutorials. Consistency in a writing center's purpose along with student and teacher concerns indicate that tutoring grammar can be a necessary and beneficial part of tutorials. The following rationales aim to enable us to understand why grammar can be just as much a part of writing center pedagogies and methodologies as any other part of the writing process.
Writing centers and tutoring operations should endeavor to be consistent in their purpose. Often writing centers have resources about grammar, syntax, and diction, all elements of the writing process. Furthermore, grammar is a part of the writing process, and the universal purpose of writing centers is to help tutees become better writers in every facet of their writing. Writing center tutors should, therefore, address these elements within tutoring sessions, for the entire writing process is within the purview of the writing centers’ purpose. While certain aspects of the writing process may be deemed more important for tutorials, no one aspect should be altogether neglected.
Whether writing centers make a distinction between high order concerns or lower order concerns, the concerns of the student should at least partly determine the focus and direction of the tutoring session. Thus, as a resource for students, writing centers and their tutors ought to pay attention to their requests. There are times when other issues may trump those of grammar, syntax, and diction; however, there are also times when those issues may need to be addressed. In the end, a negotiation between tutor and tutee must take place at the beginning of the session so as to determine what are the most important aspects of the writing process on which to focus, but it is still a negotiation that should factor in the concerns of the student.
Students are not the only ones who may view grammar as significant to the writing process; teachers may also emphasize grammar in their projects and assignments. Writing centers should encourage a dialogue between students and their teachers. Many tutoring sessions occur as a result of a teacher’s referral. Often these referral students come with concerns raised by their teacher, which can include grammatical problems. To refuse to help a student whose teacher has explicitly pointed grammatical concerns as an area of his or her writing that needs improvement, might hinder his or progress as writer and might also obstruct the dialogue between the student and teacher that takes place in (and out) of the classroom. The focus, or redirected focus, of a tutoring session ought not to be an impediment between teachers and their students. Tutors should aim to aid students as they seek to improve those areas of writing specifically highlighted or generally emphasized by their teachers.
Strategies for Tutoring Grammar
Here are some key concepts tutors might remember as they work with grammatical (or sentence-level) issues. However, while we hope these concepts are helpful, tutors should always follow their own writing center's guidelines for tutoring grammar.
Grammar is frequently used as a catch-all term for every aspect of the writing process. Students, including both native and international speakers of English, may want help on other parts of the writing process but may lack the necessary vocabulary to identify precisely their concerns; therefore, they may resort to one of the most commonly associated terms for writing, grammar. The tutor should clarify with the student what she or he means by “grammar.” Defining this term can help the tutor guide the tutorial session in the most effective direction.
Pet Peeves or Real Grammatical Issues
Tutors must be careful not to let pet peeves, or personal preferences about grammar, interfere with the focus of the tutorial session. Work to identify recurring grammatical issues or patterns of inconsistency in order to help focus the tutoring session around the most important needs of the student. Though it may be tempting to address all grammatical problems in a student’s paper, tutors should remember that doing so can easily overwhelm the student. Thus, tutors might select only the most pressing grammatical concerns, which are either hindering or disrupting the student’s meaning.
Tutoring Grammar and the Editing/Proofreading Process
Although writing centers typically are not editing or proofreading centers, they are a resource in which students can find helpful insights and guided instruction in the writing process. In short, writing centers help students in every aspect of the writing process, including the editing, or proofreading stage.
If tutors are working with students in this stage of the writing process, they may need to address certain grammatical issues for the sake of creating a polished piece of writing, having a professional tone, or adhering to formatting or style guides. Depending on the student's level of knowledge about grammar, tutors may have their tutees work more independently. Tutors may have the tutee search for, highlight, and correct grammatical mistakes, pointing out what the student may have overlooked, or the tutor may work more collaboratively with a tutee to provide oppomore detailed instruction and guidance.
This collaboration can include modeling proofreading strategies in one paragraph and having the tutee applies those same strategies to other paragraphs or identifying grammatical mistakes for the student on a separate sheet of paper and then having the tutee find those mistakes within the document. The idea, here, is that the tutor is demonstrating how the tutee can become a better proofreader. Admittedly, tutors may have to spend some time explaining certain grammatical concepts to a student and how to correctly use them, but the tutor should strive to keep the student engaged in the tutoring session. At no point should the tutor do the work of proofreading for the student. The ultimate goal of tutorials is to help students to understand better the various aspects of the writing process and to gain greater mastery over their writing. However much tutors may want tutees to grasp or implement the concepts discussed in the tutorial, they should always ensure that it is the work of the tutee, not the tutor, which produces results.
Finding Your Way
Most tutors have their own individual approaches with sessions that involve grammar concerns. Here are some practical tidbits of advice for tutors when it comes to working with grammar.
Never be afraid to admit what you do and do not know – tutoring sessions can be an opportunity to learn for the tutor as much as for the student; sometimes being a good tutor means knowing where to look.
Thus, when in doubt, find resources to aid you or ask for help from a fellow tutor – there is no shame in turning to others for their suggestions and guidance.
Finally, never let your explanations be the end of the matter – always have students demonstrate their understanding of a concept. While this idea applies to all facets of tutoring, it holds especially true for tutoring sessions concentrating on grammar. Students should exhibit their comprehension of a concept either by explaining it in their own terms or employing it in their writing.