Book Review: Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers by Ben Rafoth

Rafoth, Ben. Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers. University Press of Colorado, 2015. pp. 184. Paperback. $24.95.

In his book, Ben Rafoth builds on the work of Dana Ferris and others in making a passionate and well-researched argument regarding the ongoing marginalization of ELL students in current writing center frameworks and approaches. In reality, the writing center serves a diverse range of student populations, but, he writes, our theories for writing center work are based upon “a culture of monolingualism,” a culture which “grows among racial and cultural stereotypes on the hard clay of ignorance and isolation” (16). As a result, many students have needs that are not being met because the contextual factors impacting their linguistic situation are not part of our tutoring lore and are not being integrated with the training of writing center consultants and administrators. Rafoth argues that if we are sincere in our desire to help all students who come into the writing center, we must re-examine our beliefs, conventions, and practices and modify them to reflect the current literature on L2 acquisition.

One way of creating the necessary reform involves the infusion of current knowledge and perspective in other fields, such as Second Language Acquisition (SLA), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and World Englishes into scholarly discussions about writing center work. Returning to the past will not give the field of writing center studies the knowledge it needs to make necessary changes, but luckily the requisite perspectives do exist in these other disciplines. Rafoth draws on research from noted scholars in the previously mentioned areas, including A. Suresh Canagarajah, Stephen Krashen, Richard Schmidt, Larry Selinker, and others as he discusses concepts like language varieties, comprehensible input (i + 1), transfer, errors/mistakes, fossilization, and interlanguage. These are powerful factors in the acquisition of an additional language that greatly impact perceptions and student performance within the academy. Interlanguage, or “a learner’s developing second language that includes some of the characteristics of the first language, some of the second language that they are in the process of learning, and some features that are a natural part of nearly all language-learning experience” (71), is an especially key component to consider in a writing session. While some may look at interlanguage as see only errors, it is actually a natural and frequently predictable part of the process of language acquisition. The fact that it is natural changes the way consultants should approach a piece of communication and the communicator who produced it in a session because it may be that the consultant will have to be more directive in the way they tutor to help the client identify and overcome errors they cannot help making.

The problem is that consultants frequently do not receive the training they require to help students whose interlanguage is negatively influencing their classroom performance/grades. In many situations, consultants do recognize that students have particular needs, but lack the framework or knowledge to resolve their specific linguistic concerns. On the other hand, many students come to the writing center seeking enlightenment, eagerly hoping for some clarification, but go away unsatisfied when the consultant attempts to be “less directive,” an approach that is widely accepted but may not be what the student needs to improve. Either way, neither individual is getting what they would like out of the session. Rafoth quotes Rico, a student writer from Venezuela, who says, “The best way [for an L2 writer] to get help is to write whatever they want and then have the tutor go over it and explain every mistake” (16). While the logistics of explaining every mistake does not necessarily work with the time constraints of a tutoring session or what we now know about the providing effective feedback, Rico is quite right in that some students do require more “explanation” than others. This is where an understanding of errors and mistakes comes into play.

By asking students questions about their writing, consultants can understand better whether clients have made a particular linguistic choice because they did not know any better (error) or in spite of what they know (mistake). If the student is making a mistake, it might only be necessary to draw their attention to it and then let them resolve it. If the student is making an error, the consultant may need to supply the writer with some additional lexical or syntactical knowledge. “To respond to writers like Rico,” Rafoth writes, “tutors must bring a fair amount of knowledge and experience to the table,” but “much of this knowledge is rarely taught or available to tutors” (17). Nevertheless, Rafoth continues, “Both directors and tutors have a responsibility to expand the knowledge base for themselves and others because writing centers are part of the hope and inspiration that public higher education holds out to everyone” (17).

Rafoth’s book is a valuable contribution to the current literature on writing center praxis as it relates to multilingual learners and certainly one that directors should seek to incorporate into their tutor training curricula. If I were to use it in a training course or practicum for tutors, I would recommend contrasting Rafoth’s work with Muriel Harris and Tony Silva’s piece from 1993 called “Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options.” I would additionally supply consultants with a basic handbook on Second Language Acquisition concepts, such as Rod Ellis’s Second Language Acquisition (1997), so consultants can familiarize themselves, if they have not experienced them personally, with the kinds of challenges multilingual communicators face as part of learning another language. At the very least, such study can only make consultants more sympathetic, and at the most improve the quality of their sessions with multilingual communicators.

Reviewed by Jeff Howard