As I was reading Julie Neff’s article on tutoring students with learning disabilities, I couldn’t help but ask the same question that I had after our discussions about ESL students: how can we quickly determine whether a student needs a style of tutoring that differs from our standard approach?
In my experience, it’s fairly easy to tell whether or not English is a student’s second language. However, I find it difficult to get a sense of what level of proficiency an ESL student has attained during some sessions. When explaining a grammatical error, I’m sometimes unsure if the student understands every word I’m saying, if she gets the general idea, or if she is struggling to understand because I’m not using the kind of vocabulary that she’s familiar with. I still wish someone would give me a flowchart that I could follow during sessions to quickly figure out how proficient the student is in English—and, therefore, how I should adapt my tutoring style to best meet her needs. Of course, it may be the case that no magic flowchart exists, and I simply have to face the fact that determining a student’s level of language proficiency is a messy process.
I think this judgment is even more difficult to make in the case of students with learning disabilities or other conditions that complicate the learning process. One of my closest friends is dyslexic, and I didn’t even realize this until he told me directly. I had noticed that he doesn’t read as quickly as I do, but I didn’t think anything of it because everyone reads at a different pace. Even when reading his papers, I didn’t notice any indication that writing might be difficult for him; he made no more sentence-level errors and had no more higher-order concerns in his writing than the average student.
While it’s possible that I’m an exceptionally oblivious person when it comes to things like this, I suspect that determining whether a student has a learning disability—and if so, what type—might be difficult for other tutors as well. After all, as Neff explains, these students are often extremely intelligent and have become skilled at “compensating for and adapting to their particular disabilit[ies]” (251). My friend uses different strategies than most students to learn the course content and demonstrate his knowledge of the material: he listens to audio versions of his textbooks and is allowed extra time to take his exams. While the extended test time in particular makes it obvious to his professors that he’s dyslexic, I wonder if a writing tutor would be able to pick up on this fact simply by having a session with him.
Unless a student is very open about his or her particular challenges—whether these include a learning disability, limited familiarity with the English language, or another factor that we have yet to discuss—how can we as tutors determine the best approach to use? Is trial and error the only means by which we can tailor our style to meet students’ individual needs? Do you have any strategies that help you hone in on a student’s needs, especially strategies that might speed up the process? What has helped you in the past, and what ideas do you have for future sessions?
Neff, Julie. “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. 4th ed. Eds. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 249-62. Print.