Taught to Teach: How are Peer Tutors Trained to Support English Language Learners?

As an undergraduate peer tutor, part of my job is helping students navigate institutional barriers.  The ability to write well is essential to navigating the curriculum at my school, as well as applying for scholarships and jobs.  Students face a variety of challenges navigating these barriers, but English Language Learners(ELLs) have different struggles from their Native English Speaking (NES) peers.  

This insight is hardly unique; a portion of our training was dedicated to studying what other academics have to say about these specific concerns, which can be counterintuitive to NES tutors.   Some of the tools we discussed were informed by the work of Susan Blau, John Hall, and Sarah Sparks; intertwining global and local concerns rather than prioritizing one over another, providing direct feedback on grammar and word choice, and reviewing sections of papers line-by-line are all strategies they recommend that deviate from conferencing methods for NES.[1]  Jane Cogie contextualized some of these within a broader argument. Encouraging student participation in conferences despite the need for stronger direction, and flexibility navigating communication barriers to meet students where they are rather than adhering to strict priorities are more productive to learning for ELLs.[2] Ultimately, arguments we were exposed to such as these stressed that peer tutors could be a great support system for ELL students, but not by just showing up.  We had to be prepared.

When I was first exposed to the National Census of Writing, I was eager to learn how other schools supported ELLs; as peer tutors are the main resource at my institution, I was unfamiliar with alternative programming possibilities.   

Graph 1: What type of supports are available for ELLs? (n=410)

I learned from the census that peer tutors like me are the most common resource available to ELLs, but I was still curious about differences in tutors’ work across the census. Additionally, the high representation of peer tutors as support for ELLs in the census raised a new concern. Experts like Ilona Leki have argued that while peer writing tutors seemingly represent an ideal solution for struggling ELL writers, their needs often do not align with what tutors are trained to provide. For this solution to be realized, the training of peer tutors in working with ELLs is absolutely critical.[3] While peer tutors were the form of support provided by the most schools in the census, were they receiving the training needed to serve as this solution?  Or does their presence obscure a need for greater training?

            The census can’t answer these questions, but it does provide a place to start.  First, while it does not report the content of peer tutor training programs nor evaluate them it does provide information on where training takes place. 

Table 1: How are consultants working in the writing center initally trained? (n=557)

Most immediately, the census shows that peer tutors are initially trained in a variety of ways. Only around 36% of institutions initially train their consultants through full courses.

Table 2: What on-going professional development opportunities are offered for consultants working in the writing center? (n=517)

Table of on-going professional opportunities for writing center tutors

Professional development opportunities are similarly diverse, with the only method offered at a majority of schools being meetings with the director. If peer tutors are not trained to work with ELLs initially, they might not get that chance later on.     

 The Census data do not explain how training methods equip tutors to help ELLs. However, it is clear that those from institution to institution are diversely prepared to help diversely prepared writers.   Considering peer tutors’ prevalent role in supporting ELLs, this raises questions of practice. Are tutors being trained enough to meet this specialized need? Are some methods more effective than others, and is there an ideal combination?



[1] Blau, Susan, Hall, John, and Sparks, Sarah.  2002.  “Guilt-Free Tutoring:  Rethinking How We Tutor Non-Native-English-Speaking Students.”  Writing Center Journal 23.1: 23-43

[2] Cogie Jane.  2006.  “ESL Student Participation In Writing Center Sessions.”  The Writing Center Journal. 26(4): 48-62

[3] Ed.  Bruce, Shanti, and Raforth, Ben. 2004.   ESL Writers: A Guide For Writing Center Tutors. Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton/Cook.  xi-xv