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Peer Tutor Handbook: Part 7: Tutoring ELL/ESL Students and Students with Learning Disabilities

Peer tutoring is a core component of student success at USM. Here's the Keleher Learning Commons approach.

Tutoring English Language Learning (ELL)/English as Second Language (ESL) Students

Tips for Working with ESL Students

  • Discuss the student's goals with him/her before getting started.
  • Speak clearly, naturally and avoid using lots of slang.
  • Ask students to repeat what you have just said to show understanding.
  • If a student has trouble understanding you, write down what you are saying. If you have trouble understanding the student, ask him or her to write down what he/she is saying.
  • Use lots of repetition.
  • Put everything you cover into context.
  • Encourage each student to take an active part of the tutoring session; there should be "equal time" for the student to talk or ask questions and it is sometimes easy to forget to stop and wait for questions to be formulated. Sometimes you need to wait in silence before a question gets asked. In some cultures a student does not ask questions.
  • Thank the student for questions. Some students are deathly afraid to ask a question, so praising a question is a good way to encourage more.
  • Encourage students to make friends outside of class because this will improve their English.
  • Don't treat students like children. English language proficiency does not indicate intelligence or ability level.
  • Don't try to change your students' language patterns by teaching them Standard English. Respect their oral speech habits and encourage them to add Standard English to their everyday language patterns. ESL students may ask you to correct their speech when they feel comfortable, but don't assume this is the case unless asked.
  • Use plenty of examples.
  • Don't act as if you understand the student if you don't.
  • Don't speak too slowly; it might tend to raise your voice volume and/or to make your speech unnatural. Although it might be hard to understand your normal speech pattern, with practice the student will become familiar with it and, in the long run, it will help him/her understand other native English speakers. You can lengthen your speech and insert more pauses; this might help a student understand more easily.
  • Don't be afraid to correct the student.

Techniques for Questioning ESL Students

Within the tutoring session, frequently check students' comprehension to make sure they really understand concepts. ESL students may nod their heads as though they understand when they really don't. Encourage participation and check comprehension in non-threatening ways, and provide cooperative experiences by using the following techniques.

  • Most Difficult: Wh- questions (Who, What, Where, When, Why, Which & How) "Why is A more difficult?"
  • Easier: OR questions. "Which is more difficult, A or B?"
  • Easiest: YES / NO questions check comprehension, but do not rely on this strategy too much. "Is this difficult for you?"

Begin with the most difficult question type. If these cannot be answered by the student, try a less difficult level to help them understand what you're asking; then work toward the more difficult levels.

  • Ask the students to give examples when explaining concepts.
  • Ask students to become the tutor and explain the concept to you.
  • Search for answers to questions with the students.
  • Use restatement to clarify students' responses; "I think you said . . ."
  • Admit it if there is a communication problem; "I don't understand."
  • Write down words the student does not know.

(Section adapted from “Tutor Training: Tips for Working with ESL Students”)

Tutoring Students with Learning Disabilities

(Section adapted from College Students with Learning Disabilities and “Teaching Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficits.”)

A Learning Disability (LD) is generally identified as a disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with average to superior intelligence take in, retain, and express information. An LD is:

  • Presumably due to central nervous system dysfunction.
  • Cross-cultural: it occurs regardless of racial or ethnic origin.
  • Often inconsistent: an LD student may manifest difficulties in relation to learning demands and setting. That is, it may be more apparent during certain times of a person’s life, or in response only to certain academic areas.
  • Common: experts estimate that 10% of the population evidences learning disabilities. As part of a support service that works with students with learning disabilities, it is important to remember that LDs are also:
  • Invisible: because learning disabilities are neurological disorders, their existence is not obvious to others. We cannot recognize a student with a learning disability by appearance or demeanor. Since LDs cut across gender, race, socio-economic and cultural lines, there is no “picture” of what a student with an LD looks like.
  • Frustrating: because LDs are invisible, teachers, tutors, and peers often do not understand the additional challenges faced by an individual with a disability. Students with LDs are often put in the awkward position of having to convince others that they have a disability, that this disability interferes with the process of learning, and that they are entitled to accommodations for this disability under law.
  • Misunderstood: LDs are neurological disorders that affect the way students perceive, understand, process, manipulate and communicate information. This fact does not mean that students cannot perceive, understand, process, manipulate or communicate. It just means that these students may do these things in a different manner or at a different rate than most other students, just as the visually impaired student may read a textbook in a different manner than most students.

A student with an LD will generally have difficulty in one or more of the following areas:

  • oral expression
  • listening comprehension
  • written expression
  • basic reading skills and reading comprehension
  • mathematical calculation
  • problem solving

Since an integral part of the peer-tutor interaction is assisting students in the writing process, it might be a good idea to be familiar with some of the characteristics of the written language skills a learning disabled student may present: 

  • difficulty planning a topic or organizing thoughts on paper
  • difficulty with sentence structure
  • slow written production
  • inability to copy correctly from a book or dry-erase board 

A paper written by an LD student might have some of the following characteristics:

  • frequent spelling errors (omissions, substitutions, transpositions)
  • limited length
  • poor penmanship (poorly framed letters, incorrect use of capitalization, trouble with spacing)
  • overly large handwriting 

Strategies for Effectively Tutoring a Student with a Learning Disability

  • Ask questions, repeat information or answers, and listen to the students’ comments and questions patiently
  • Offer verbal as well as written remarks; be sure to clearly and accurately sum up the tutorial, and articulate clearly the recommendations for revision you offer the student at the end of a session.
  • Spend time helping students analyze the writing assignment. With poor reading skills, some LD students write well on the wrong topic; others may have mistaken notions of “what’s expected” by the instructor.
  • Help students to focus on the question of audience very early in the writing process. Many LD students find writing so agonizing that they are happy just to get something down. They may not spend any time considering what it will be like for readers to plow through their essays.
  • Warn students against trying to “get organized” or write a formal outline too early in the writing process. Instead, recommend free writing, clustering, drawing or diagramming.
  • Work on selecting or generating a thesis or main idea statement from the student’s free writing, draft, etc.
  • Try using an “idea list” to help students organize their notes, free writing, or draft. Once they have a main point, have them list the ideas expressed in their free writing. Work on organizing this list in support of the thesis by numbering each item. Then revise the idea list: ask the student if there are any ideas that don’t develop the thesis, and cross these out.
  • Allow the student to tape record a tutorial if (s)he wishes.
  • Provide adequate opportunity for the student to ask questions. 

(Section adapted from College Students with Learning Disabilities and “Teaching Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficits.”)