Empowering Tutors and ELL Writers by Examining Commonplaces

Lisa Bell, Utah Valley University


Writing centers, as communities of practice, often fail to question their own praxis since it is work reinforced by shared ways of knowing and being within a community. However, change cannot occur without examining and challenging assumptions and commonplaces individually and collectively. During a three-year action research study focused on training mostly monolingual tutors to engage in scaffolding and multidirectional learning with ELL, international student writers, commonplaces emerged related to contextual nature of writing, and the role of sentence-level language in tutoring and writing. Using the theoretical constructivist frameworks that inform writing center work, this article examines those commonplaces and connects them to existing interdisciplinary scholarship. While the work of examining and eliminating assumptions is an ongoing endeavor, the action research and consideration of commonplaces have led to tutor education aimed at equipping tutors to empower multilingual writers by encouraging discussions of objectives, options, outcomes, and ownership.

Keywords: ELL writers, writing center, writing tutor, commonplaces

Although writing centers exist in the overlap of literacy, learning, and language, we have yet to understand this positioning or resolve what it means to support learners who share this intersectional space. In fact, writing center history with ELL writers has been notably problematic. As a larger community, we have othered such writers through tutor education (Moussu, 2013; Nakumara, 2010; Thonus, 2014), non-directive pedagogies, policies restricting or refusing to assist with sentence-level language concerns, and policing of contextual language and literacy practices (García, 2017; Green, 2016; Greenfield, 2019). At the local level, as a writing center administrator, I have spent the better part of two decades fielding repeated tutor and faculty requests for more tutor training for working with ELL writers, as if the writers were the challenge rather than the systems they navigate.

In 2019, as part of a doctoral program at Arizona State University, I completed an interdisciplinary three-year, cyclical action research study to improve the ways Brigham Young University’s mostly monolingual, native English-speaking tutors facilitated learning with ELL, international student writers in tutoring sessions. Initial rounds of this IRB-approved study revealed that the tutors felt comfortable instructing and motivating ELL writers, but scaffolding remained a space of uncertainty. This was notable, since scaffolding involves tailoring “the learning process to the individual needs and developmental level of the learner. Scaffolding provides the structure and support necessary to progressively build knowledge” (Kolb et al., 2014, p. 218).  Since scaffolding is central to the experiential, co-constructed learning that occurs in tutorials, I focused my study on a training intervention designed to help tutors improve scaffolding with ELL writers. As part of the training intervention, tutors participated in classroom instruction on the contextual nature of writing, scaffolding, and sentence-level language. Tutors also completed peer and administrator observations and post-observation reflective discussions. The effectiveness of the intervention and improvement with scaffolding was measured by tutor surveys, pre- and post-intervention tutor interviews, tutorial observations, and surveys and focus groups with ELL writers (Bell, 2019).

Research results indicated that scaffolding and multidirectional learning and participation improved within tutorials; however, as the semesters and research cycles progressed, it became clear that the disconnect between the mostly monolingual tutors and ELL writers was less about scaffolding and more about unpacking systems and psyches. Scaffolding was a tool to facilitate multidirectional learning, but dismantling deficit thinking and systems of silos was the larger work. In communities of practice, such as writing centers, we often fail to question our own praxis since it is work reinforced by shared ways of knowing and being within a community. However, as Nancy Grimm (2009) noted in an address to the writing center community, “significant change in any workplace occurs when unconscious conceptual models are brought to the surface and replaced with conscious ones” (p. 16).

The multiyear action research study resulted in a bound dissertation on a library shelf, but the work of addressing the disconnects between writing tutors and ELL writers continues because it is the work of rattling and revising our commonplaces. Although ELL writers’ and writing tutors’ questions, explanations, and asides were not measured alongside the effectiveness of the training intervention, the commonplaces they exposed revealed the need for ongoing cognitive and affective attention and sent me back to the scholarship where patterns and relationships continued to emerge and inform the work. While the focus of the initial IRB study was a training intervention within a specific writing center, this article focuses on the commonplaces and assumptions about tutors and ELL writers uncovered during the iterative, interdisciplinary research process, including how writing center work involves issues of identity and power dynamics, communities and systems, the contextual nature of writing, and the layers of sentence-level language. This examination of commonplaces offers no concrete solutions but reinforces the importance of objectives, options, outcomes, and ownership as tutors and ELL writers interact in tutoring and learning exchanges.

Terms, Methodology, and Theoretical Frameworks

As with any study, it is essential to establish the participants involved in the research and the labels used to describe them. Terms such as multilingual and ELL encompass a vast range of writers, including those proficient in multiple Englishes and learners just beginning to engage with English as an additional language. The action research informing this examination of commonplaces involved international students at Brigham Young University, a large, private, R1, predominantly white institution (PWI) in the U.S. Intermountain West. At the time of the research, international students accounted for less than 4% of the student body (BYU Communications). The writers included in the study were undergraduate international students who self-identified as ELL with a first language other than English. The ELL writers were not asked to identify their race or country of origin. Participating tutors were undergraduate university students who all identified English as their native language, though two tutors also self-identified as multilingual. Such identifiers matter since experience, identity, and context shape commonplaces within systems and communities.

The methodology of the original study as interdisciplinary, mixed-methods action research was a purposeful choice for a study seeking to effect and measure change within a specific writing center and learning community. Rather than focusing on contributing to a larger body of generalizable knowledge, action research or teacher research is a cyclical and systematic research approach used to address local problems and improve educational practices (see Figure 1).

The image depicts the action research cycle which includes iterative planning, acting, observing, and reflecting, leading to continual progress.
Figure 1. The Action Research Cycle

Note: Adapted from the Teaching & Learning Academy at Valencia College. http://valenciacollege.edu/faculty/development/teaching-learning-academy/action-research

Throughout this ongoing cycle of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting, action research embraces inquiry, collaboration, innovation, and empirical evaluation (Creswell, 2015). Action research also invites a range of perspectives, lending itself to interdisciplinary, mixed methods studies that employ qualitative and quantitative data to triangulate findings and access the breadth and depth of understanding needed to effect change. The pairing of mixed methods with action research is common since “mixed methods seek to provide more comprehensive answers to study research questions, and action research seeks to provide more comprehensive solutions to practical problems” (Ivankova, 2014, p. 53). Consequently, this study actively involved tutors and ELL writers in the change process, which was essential given the sociocultural nature of writing center work.

Theory both informs research and shapes practice and perspectives about our work, including assumptions and commonplaces. The theoretical frameworks informing writing centers in recent decades have epistemological roots in constructionism, leading to constructivist sociocultural learning theories, including experiential learning and communities of practice. Constructionism is the idea that knowledge is constructed, and sociocultural theory, often associated with Lev Vygotsky (1978) notes that knowledge is constructed through interaction with others. It is through interaction that learners make meaning and access collective and individual understanding (Crotty, 1998). As R. Mark Hall (2017) explains, “expertise is not located in individuals, either in the tutor or in the [writer], for example, in a writing center consultation; rather expertise emerges through their interactions” (p. 72). The same can be said for interactions among writers and readers or speakers and listeners, making sociocultural theory a common framework within disciplines connected to literacy and language (Hanjani & Li, 2014; Hyland & Hyland, 2006; Lee, 2016; Nasir & Hand, 2006) including writing center studies (Kim, 2012; Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2014; Nordlof, 2014).

Interactions create opportunities for learning, but the environment and type of engagement also matter. Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is a sociocultural theory suggesting learners acquire knowledge through application, practice, and feedback in environments conducive to learning. Writing centers embrace this framework knowing that writers learn to write by writing, tutors learn to tutor through tutoring, and language learners acquire language as they use it. Within the ELT framework, writing centers strive to curate low-stakes, resource-rich learning environments where learners can receive formative feedback and engage in active, experiential learning.

As sociocultural interactions and experiential learning take place, communities of practice (COP) emerge with shared “routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions or concepts that the community has produced or adopted” (Wenger, 1998, p. 83). As learners encounter and engage with communities of practice, they navigate boundaries and negotiate issues of identity. For this reason, writing center scholars Anne Geller et al. (2007) stress the importance of being aware and intentional about writing centers as communities of practice. Thinking of writing centers through the lens of communities of practice is essential to understanding how our programs support or dismantle systems, revise or reify collective and individual identities, and facilitate or frustrate learning interactions. It is through this lens that writing center tutors understand their role as expert-outsiders (Nowacek & Hughes, 2015), brokers (Wenger, 1998), and boundary crossers (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). In these roles, tutors work with writers to navigate and negotiate systems and identities. Tutoring as an expert-outsider is difficult and dynamic cognitive and relational work that is never neutral, for as Harry Denny (2010) explains, in writing centers, “identity and the politics of negotiation and face are always present and require inventory and mapping” (p. 28). It is within the specific contexts of our local writing centers and the theoretical frameworks of our larger communities that we need to inventory, map, and mindfully reexamine and rewrite commonplaces as the stories we tell about ourselves and the writers we work with. Doing so is essential to effecting needed change within writing centers as intersectional spaces for learning and learners.

Commonplaces Involving Identity and Power Dynamics

Since, writing, tutoring, and language learning involve social interaction and community, they inevitably involve individual and collective identities alongside the power dynamics inherent in human interaction. Where there are communities, there are people who belong within, intersect across, and fall outside the lines of the group. Since action research involves eliciting the perspectives of various stakeholders, the survey responses, interviews, and focus groups with participating tutors and ELL writers revealed the many commonplaces associated with identity and power within a specific writing center, and these commonplaces connected with the literature informing the study.

The assumption that writing tutors are experts surfaced in both the action research and interdisciplinary literature despite being at odds with the many identities tutors inhabit, including that of expert-outsider. ELL writers often desire and expect tutors to know the answers to questions about writing and language (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2014; Moussu, 2013; Thompson et al., 2009). However, writing, language, and learning are never static or set domains, and the ways they manifest in and across disciplines makes tutoring more about proficiency in navigating systems than in memorizing shifting subject matter. For example, tutors work with writers on a range of citation styles, and it would be unreasonable to expect tutors to memorize multiple style guides, particularly when new versions of these manuals are regularly published. Instead, the value of the tutor is in their ability to use citation resources effectively, to transfer what they know about citation in general to specific searches, and to model the process of navigating unfamiliar content. In this way, they help bridge and negotiate between the known and unknown with “a sense of expertise that can prepare them to be simultaneously confident enough to work with writers from a wide range of disciplines and levels of experience and humble enough to remain open to constantly learning” (Nowacek & Hughes, 2015, p. 172).

Noting the need to be adaptable and open to taking on different roles, one tutor explained: “Since I end up giving students feedback in lots of different contexts, here [in the Writing Center] it’s like more of this, like, you know, the kind of expert-outsider type thing” (Bell, 2019, p. 107). Allowing tutors to function as expert-outsiders rather than experts when working with ELL writers reduces the cognitive and emotional weight of expectations and allows tutors to take on a range of needed roles, including cultural informant and co-learner. The expectation that educators be experts may be culturally informed, much like peer learning, so tutors and ELL writers will likely need to negotiate expectations surrounding expertise to engage in multidirectional, participatory learning (Merkel, 2018).

Another consistent commonplace related to identity and the problematic idea of tutors as experts is the framing of ELL writers as deficit, despite their existing literacy and language skills and content knowledge. Within the sociocultural framework of writing center practice is the idea of scaffolding learning, which Vygotsky (1978) describes as “problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” [italics in original] (p. 86). When ELL writers are assumed to be in deficit, and tutors are positioned as the “more capable peers,” power dynamics favor tutor perspectives and authority within tutorials. This is problematic since it fails to acknowledge the ELL writer’s sovereignty and peerness as a learner with literacy and content expertise in multiple languages. Though identity, power dynamics, and positioning within many U.S. academic communities and systems may render an ELL writer’s assets and autonomy less visible or valued, scholarship connects multilingualism to increased access to communities and power unavailable to monolingual learners (Gutiérrez et al., 2009; Paris & Alim, 2014; Rafoth, 2015; Wilson, 2012). In thinking about ELL writers, it is not enough to resist deficit narratives; ELL writers must be embraced and respected as whole learners with valuable, intersecting identities.

When the commonplace framing of ELL writers as deficit writers persists, writing center tutors may fail to understand ELL writers as language learners and language negotiators. Commonplace writing center practices such as reading a paper aloud fail to acknowledge the cognitive and linguistic capital that such activities demand. For language learners, reading aloud might shift attention away from the writing and place emphasis on reading, listening, and pronunciation. Not understanding ELL writers as language learners may mean a tutor fails to provide enough wait time for a language learner to listen and craft a response before the tutor jumps in with a response. It may also mean writing centers lack the programming and resources that allow ELL writers to select the best form of feedback and learning interaction for their individual needs.

Commonplaces Related to Systems, Communities, and Boundaries

Issues of identity and power mediate learning exchanges within tutoring sessions. These variables do not exist within a vacuum but are always mapped back to systems, communities, and boundaries. These structures are part of sociocultural exchanges since “all learning involves boundaries” (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011, p. 132), but our work must include an examination of identity, culture, and power dynamics present at these crossroads (Denny, 2010; Greenfield, 2019). Throughout the action research study, tutors became increasingly aware of the pressures on their ELL peers and asked questions about expectations and balance, leading one surveyed tutor to ask, “How can I help a Japanese student write in a way that makes sense to them AND in a way that will make sense to their professor?” (Bell, 2019, p. 107). Understandably, writing centers are both places bound by community and places where tutors learn to navigate boundaries (Merkel, 2018), but our centers may also be places where gatekeeping occurs, and learning and learners are frustrated.

The depiction of writing centers as homes and hubs, somehow separate from traditional educational systems, is also common in writing center narratives, but it is at odds with what many ELL writers experience in educational systems and communities not built with them in mind. Educational systems in the United States have not always welcomed ELL students. Often within K-12 settings, when a native, English-speaking student excels in a foreign language class, they are praised for their proficiency in language as a discipline. However, for students learning English as an additional language, English is not treated as a discipline but as a basic skill. Consequently, ELL students are often separated from their peers and tracked for remediation (Camarillo, 2022). Any gains in language proficiency by ELL students typically go unrecognized and are treated as catching up rather than celebrated as advancement within language study. Within the context of my action-research study, this separation and tracking was visible, with special sections of first-year composition for international ELL students and a separate ESL Writing Lab at the university, though the lab later merged into the main writing center (Bell, 2019). In many ways, this systematic separation reinforced unjust power dynamics and deficit thinking about ELL writers and excused tutors and administrators from doing the work to meet the needs of international ELL writers (Bell 2019). As part of the study, participants also noted some tutorial structures as mediating learning and reinforcing the idea that writing centers are not spaces designed for ELL writers. Several ELL writers spoke of the restrictions of session length, noting that “30 minutes is not enough time,” especially when introductions and reading aloud didn’t leave much time to “actually work” (Bell, 2019, p. 122). The commonplace narrative of writing centers as distinct, welcoming spaces does not always align with the practices and policies that reveal these spaces as extensions of larger systems and learning communities whose boundaries exclude ELL writers.

Commonplaces Related to Writing, Culture, and Context

Since writing centers often work with writers across the disciplines, tutors generally understand disciplines as communities with distinct theories and practices, including approaches to literacy, language, and learning. However, tutors and ELL writers may not always understand the ways in which writing center work is shaped by disciplinary culture and practice.

Throughout the action research study, communication with tutors as research participants indicated strong assumptions about low-context, thesis-driven writing as the standard for good writing. Low-context communication assumes that to understand the writer’s main ideas, readers need to be given the full context of the work via direct and often repetitive written communication. Five-paragraph essay structure embodies this approach and is often familiar to ELL international student writers who use this culturally informed writing approach to complete U.S. university application essays and standardized entrance exams. As this assumption from tutors emerged as part of the cyclical action research, the training intervention shifted to include excerpts from the Writing Across Borders video series (Robertson, 2005) to learn about intercultural rhetoric and writing and to illustrate how writers from other cultures view writing within U.S. educational institutions. Unpacking these notions of good writing and contextualizing them was purposeful in helping tutors see the ways writing centers can reinforce certain structures and fail to acknowledge and value diverse cultural approaches to writing (Bell, 2019). The training attempted to disrupt commonplace assumptions about ELL writers and writing as deficit, as opposed to contextually aware and culturally connected.

Local writing center practice and larger writing center scholarship also exposed commonplaces for priorities within writing processes and tutoring sessions. Tutors are often trained to approach writing and revising processes from the disciplinary lens of composition. This includes adhering to defined priorities and a specific order of operations for writing. Within the tutorials included in the action research study, ELL writers often requested help with sentence-level language concerns, standing at odds with traditional writing center training that advises tutors to address global concerns such as content and organization before considering sentence-level revision. In fact, addressing grammar, usage, or mechanics has been labeled by writing center communities as of lower-order or local concern, but this is a disciplinary construct, not a matter of tutors or writers being misguided in their approach to writing. For language learners, writing often includes a building approach, meaning the writer first learns vocabulary to use for building sentences, and once they can write sentences in the additional language, they learn to write paragraphs, followed by full drafts. In contrast, the compositionist approach embraced by many writing centers takes a refining approach where writers are encouraged to get down their ideas and organize the text before finally addressing sentence-level language components. Figure 2 shows a simplistic version of these contrasting disciplinary models. Second language writing scholars Dana Ferris and John Hedgecock (2013) provide a more comprehensive history and context for these differing approaches (p. 62).

The image is a comparison on a building, language learning approach to prioritization in writing and language processes versus a refining, compositionist approach.
Figure 2. Approaches and Prioritization in Writing and Language Processes

Note: Language learners often take a building approach to writing as opposed to a refining approach typical in many English composition courses.

The main concern with these commonplaces and potentially conflicting sets of priorities is the tension that may arise between tutors and ELL students who ultimately are seeking a common outcome via different processes (David & Moussu, 2015; Hall, 2017; Moussu, 2013). This tension is amplified if tutors are trained to understand sentence-level concerns as editing (Min, 2016) or outside the realm of writing center work. Additionally, if tutors deliberately fail to address the primary literacy and language concerns of ELL writers, this compounds relational tensions within tutorials, reinforces problematic power structures, and further signals a lack of inclusion or equity for such learners within writing center systems and communities.

Commonplaces and Sentence-level Language

Perhaps the most prominent and divisive commonplaces uncovered in the action research study had to do with tutors’ and ELL international student writers’ understanding of sentence-level language concerns. These divides are also mirrored within the larger writing center community’s scholarship and practice.

The most contentious commonplace is the framing of attending to grammar and usage as entirely discriminatory or wholly essential. Perhaps a more useful lens is to consider approaches to sentence-level language as either prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive approaches exist to harness language into a set of conventional rules that language users can look to and abide by for increased communication. Descriptive approaches seek to understand how language is currently being used and how it shifts with time and context. Most tutors and writers use both prescriptive and descriptive approaches. ELL writers look to language “rules” while also wanting to improve their colloquial use of English. Tutors may dispense seemingly rigid punctuation rules and then eliminate punctuation when texting peers. Tutors may also explain the difference between who and whom before adding an aside that whom is rarely used now, even in academic writing. These prescriptive and descriptive approaches are not necessarily at odds or inherently problematic.

However, there is often a tension between prescriptive and descriptive approaches that appears in tutorials. Despite academic traditions and prescriptivist efforts to homogenize language, standard academic English (SAE) remains a fairy tale (Greenfield, 2011) rather than an ideal or accurate form of English as a dynamic language. SAE has also been weaponized for linguistic colonization and the suppression of authentic language. As one of the multilingual tutors from the study explained when talking about working with an ELL writer:

It’s really hard at a university like this to integrate your voice as a minority because it might come off as unlearned or like there’s a deficit somewhere. And so I, like, I had gone through that, and I felt like that maybe came into the tutorial as well, where I didn’t want her to go through that. (Bell, 2019, p. 112)

In this case, the tutor saw the use of SAE as a way of protecting an ELL writer from those who may not value the writer’s authentic language.

Another commonplace of concern to tutors and ELL writers participating in the research related to being seen as either experts or ill-equipped to address sentence-level language. In reality, tutors’ and ELL writers’ relationships with grammar and usage often involve multiple ways of knowing and using sentence-level language. Tutors are commonly hired based on their demonstrated mastery of sentence-level language with their grades, writing samples, and diagnostics often reflecting proficiency with SAE conventions. Additionally, tutors may also be exempt from working with ELL writers on sentence-level language because tutors are not “editors” or may not be trained to help with sentence-level concerns. Conversely, ELL international students who have often studied grammar for years may find that the demands of university writing and language in new academic contexts impact their level of confidence with sentence-level aspects of their work.

In reality, for both tutors and ELL writers, identity and sentence-level language function on multiple levels. In this study, tutors commonly interacted with sentence-level language implicitly, hearing or feeling that something needed adjusting without being able to articulate the structures at play. Tutors also demonstrated how to work with sentence-level language pedagogically—what to prioritize or how to recognize patterns to address. ELL students, engaging with English as an additional language, often had explicit knowledge of sentence-level language, including proficiency with concepts and terms they had formally studied, alongside an inability to readily recognize or prioritize addressing patterns or concerns (see Table 1).

Table 1 outlines diverse ways of knowing and approaching sentence-level concerns, including intuitive or implicit, explicit or metalinguistic, and pedagogical
Table 1. Diverse Ways of Knowing and Approaching Sentence-level Language

Note: In this study, tutors primarily made use of implicit knowledge prior to training.

These findings align with research from Nick David and Lucie Moussu (2015) who explain that although ELL writers may have an explicit understanding of sentence-level language, they may not yet have “the linguistic proficiency as well as the rhetorical and cultural knowledge needed to effectively revise and self-edit their papers” (p. 50).

Understandably, tensions appear in tutorials when tutors and ELL writers do not share the same knowledge of sentence-level language and how to address it as part of the writing process. To address assumptions and disconnects between tutors and ELL writers, Ben Rafoth (2015) suggests tutors “be prepared well beyond what comes naturally to an earnest, well-read, and verbal native speaker” (p. 137). This may involve learning sentence-level language explicitly as part of their writing center work. Tutors in the study came to see the value of explicitly understanding language. As one tutor noted “I still have a few questions about how to explain certain grammatical ideas (esp. commas) that are intuitive to a native speaker” (Bell, 2019, p. 108), recognizing the need to understand language in multiple ways.

Explicitly studying sentence-level language puts tutors in contact with another commonplace assumption: that sentence-level concerns are similar for ELL writers and their native English-speaking peers, when that is not always the case. Comparing research on the sentence-level concerns of U.S. college students with those of their ELL peers (with L2 indicating that English is an additional language) in California’s university system, Ferris and Hedgecock (2013) illustrate how the concerns of different student populations might differ (see Table 2).

Table 2 is a comparison of the Top 20 writing errors of U.S. college students as shown in Lunsford and Lunsford’s 2008 research and the most common sentence-level errors for ELL writers at University of California schools as shown in 2006 research by Ferris.
Table 2. Comparison of Sentence-level Concerns in U.S. College and ELL Student Populations

Note: Adapted from Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice by Ferris, D., & Hedgecock, J. S. (2013). Routledge. P. 285.

Although several writing center scholars have recognized how an explicit understanding of sentence-level language may empower tutors to better support and collaborate with ELL writers (Eckstein, 2016; Moussu, 2013; Rafoth, 2015), which concepts are covered also matters. Understandably, tutors should learn how to explain concepts in ways that connect with ELL writers and empower them to make choices about their work. Tutors need to embrace the role of expert-outsider and move between ways of knowing and addressing sentence-level language, including taking on the roles of cultural informant, co-learner, and collaborator as they assist ELL writers with the objectives each writer has for their work.

Objectives, Options, Outcomes, and Ownership

In recognizing and reckoning with the commonplaces that trouble interactions between native English-speaking tutors and the ELL student writers involved in the action research study, it is clear there are no quick fixes. Tutoring, like writing, is complex, contextual work. It involves relational effort and the constant revision of expectations and roles as tutors and ELL writers work together to navigate and negotiate the systems and identities present in language and literacy learning. Rather than resulting in a set sequence of training moves, the most important outcome of the research study and relevant literature points to addressing the commonplaces that impede rather than empower tutors and writers as learners. Such efforts involve embracing ELL writers as full participants in multidirectional learning.

In practice, this may involve tutors and ELL writers working together to understand the writers’ goals or objectives for their work, collaboratively exploring possible options, collectively identifying and discussing likely outcomes for those options, and ultimately leaving ownership in the hands of the ELL writer. One of the participating tutors described using this approach with an ELL writer, saying,

I’m really glad I didn’t just tell her how to fix it because it turns out, the word she was using was actually perfect for the situation, and what we really needed to change was a preposition or like something really small that affected the meaning. [. . .] So yeah. I thought that was good, like bringing it back to her, like making sure I’m trying to understand what she’s saying and then building off of that. (Bell, 2019, pp. 98-99)

This approach can be reduced to a few concepts–objectives, options, outcomes, and ownership–but such a process requires tutors and ELL writers to challenge assumptions, commonplaces, systems, and their individual and shared identities. It is a praxis for ethical tutoring, a praxis that requires ongoing collaborative learning and a commitment to reimagining cognitive and emotional aspects of writing center work.


This examination of commonplaces connected to tutoring international ELL writers stemmed from a multiyear action research study and a lengthy interdisciplinary study of scholarship. Although this discussion of commonplaces is informed by empirical research and framed within the theoretical foundations of writing center work, it is contextual work grounded in a particular program with a specific demographic of undergraduate tutors and international ELL writers. The primary function of this ongoing work is to effect change within my local writing center, but I cannot do so without hoping for change within the larger writing center community. The commonplaces explored here may not be applicable to all writing centers, tutors, and ELL writers, but they offer an attempt to explore and triangulate input from multiple stakeholders and the scholarship stemming from areas of literacy, language, and learning, all of which intersect within writing centers. To generalize the experiences of ELL writers is unethical, but it is also unethical to ignore or exclude the needs of groups of learners under the claim that all tutoring is tailored to the needs of individual learners (Villanueva, 2006). While the practical application of this examination of commonplaces may seem aimed at tutor education, in a larger way, the research invites tutors to relinquish assumed control or expertise in their interactions with ELL writers and engage as expert-outsiders and co-learners–to move beyond learning about the experiences of ELL writers to learning with and from these peers. Most importantly, it reinforces the dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of writing center work and the need to continually reexamine the commonplaces within our communities in order to become more inclusive and equitable learning- and learner-centered communities of practice.


Thank you to the research participants and colleagues willing to examine these commonplaces and working towards increased equity within our educational system. As always, thank you to my family who make my scholarship possible.

Author Biography

Dr. Lisa Bell is Director of the Utah Valley University Writing Center and Graduate Writing Center. She is past president of the Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association and has served on the board of the International Writing Centers Association. Her research and scholarship focuses on online learning, support for multilingual writers, writing center administration, and tutor education.


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