History Writing Center launches provisional position geared toward ESL students


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

Harris Hall, home of the History Department. Members from the History department sent a statement to President Schapiro supporting student protesters.

Madeleine Fernando, Digital Managing Editor

The History Writing Center launched a provisional position this quarter specifically geared toward helping students for whom English is a second language.

History doctoral student Keith Clark took on the quarter-long position as an ESL-focused history writing coordinator. The position, the first of its kind in the history department, aims to encourage ESL student enrollment in history courses and help them succeed in their writing assignments, Clark said.

History Prof. Laura Hein, the chair of the department, said she has experience teaching ESL and came up with the idea for the position after observing the “different set of problems” she observed in papers among her ESL undergraduate and graduate students. She noticed they often had difficulties with the English language’s idiomatic expressions, vocabulary and complex rules.

Citing Northwestern’s rising percentage of international students, Hein said it was important for the department to address the “specific needs” of ESL students that differ from the concerns of native speakers, she said.

“(ESL students) just have a different set of problems in learning how to deploy the English language effectively,” Hein said. “Why do we say you do something ‘on purpose’ but you say you do it ‘by accident?’ … Those are just really hard things for students to learn.”

Hein knew the history department had graduate students who had specialized ESL-teaching experience and said she felt it was the right opportunity to take advantage of that expertise.

History doctoral student Jay Carroll, the other history writing coordinator for the quarter, said he was “very excited” when he learned of the newly created position. As a coordinator for the center last Winter Quarter, Carroll said he had 112 meetings, over half of which were with ESL students.

Carroll said the position will allow the center to better help students struggling with “idiomatic English” by providing more one-on-one interaction than they might receive with their class teaching assistants.

“I hope we are able to reach more students, both those who are English speakers and for whom English is a second, third or whatever language it is,” Carroll said. “Overall I hope that … we can reduce some of the anxiety in terms of the writing process for students who are ESL students, for first-year students or for those who are from the (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) departments.”

The ESL-focused position is currently being tested through the end of the quarter, Carroll said. The position may become permanent if enough students show interest, with a new tutor filling the role every quarter.

Clark said designating a person to work with ESL students will provide students with an additional level of support that allows them to write in a more sophisticated way and thrive in their classes.

“My hope is that students leave the sessions realizing that the writing required for a humanities course isn’t really that far of a stretch from what they already know,” Clark said. “(We’re helping) them realize that they already are fully capable of doing these things (and) just giving them that extra confidence and support to get there.”

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