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Saturday, November 16 • 13:30 - 15:00
"Correcting" would be "cheating": Shifting attitudes toward grammar feedback in writing centers

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"We don't do grammar in the Writing Center." This common reluctance stems from avoiding a proofreading service misconception and from tutors' fears that "correcting" writers' language might constitute cheating. Underlying these attitudes are beliefs about language: its acquisition, users and varieties. Explore a paradigm-shifting training model for equipping WC tutors.


There has been intensive interest in Written Corrective Feedback (WCF) in recent decades of Second Language Writing scholarship (Bitchener and Ferris, 2012; Han and Hyland, 2015; Guenette, 2015; Liu and Brown, 2015.) Appropriately, research has prioritized assessing effectiveness and defining best practices when responding to non-standard usage. In the field of Writing Center Studies, which intersects in important practical ways with SLW due to the high percentage of multilingual writers who visit Writing Centers, there has long been discomfort with whether or how to provide feedback on grammatical choices. This persists despite anecdotal and growing RAD-research-based evidence that many writers highly value this type of feedback, both through written comments or notations and orally, from their writing tutors (Rafoth, 2015; Salem, 2016.) We also know that users of non-dominant language varieties and styles are often penalized by faculty through lower grades and disheartening critical feedback (Zawacki and Cox, 2014.)

I argue this over-cautious stance toward directly addressing grammar in Writing Center sessions is both a reaction to misconceptions of Writing Centers as “proofreading” services--a common challenge across academia--and a result of unexamined beliefs about language, language learning, and language users.

Building upon an training model for Writing Center tutors, this interactive workshop session will explore a two-part approach to shifting this dynamic so that Writing Centers can become more inclusive spaces for dialogue between writers and readers about the linguistic resources available for clarifying meaning and connecting with audiences. The first stage involves an examination of common responses that L2 users, basic writers, and other users of non-dominant linguistic varieties may encounter in Writing Centers when they request feedback on their grammar. We will explore the implicit/explicit attitudes, both positive and negative, that underlie a spectrum of replies, such as:

  • “We don’t correct grammar here. We are not a proofreading service.”
  • “What you wrote was great! (Even though reader noticed non-standard usage that could stigmatize the writer or distract a reader)
  • “That’s not right that your professor takes off points for grammar! You should confront them on that!” (Exploring the problematic power dynamics of students confronting faculty even in situations of linguistic injustice and considering the role of Writing Centers in that dynamic)
  • “That doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know why.”
  • “The rule is…. [followed by a strict rule, delivered perhaps without accuracy, nuance or sensitivity to context]”

After exploring each of these responses and what they communicate to writers about themselves, about writing, about language use and acquisition, and about the role of tutoring in secondary or tertiary academic writing, I will outline a series of practical tools that Writing Center tutors can learn to use in order to respond strategically to sentence-level choices in writing. Drawing upon what tutors already know and prioritizing disambiguation of meaning, Writing Centers can equip staff to shift the culture around responding to grammar from one of suspicion or avoidance to one of inclusion and celebration of linguistic diversity. 


avatar for Jenny Thomas

Jenny Thomas

Assistant Director of College Writing and Language Diversity, Pomona College
Writing Centers, tutor training, linguistic discrimination, language minoritized students, international students, first-year composition, translanguaging, code-switching, code-meshing, faculty development

Saturday November 16, 2019 13:30 - 15:00 MST
Santa Cruz (25 pax)