How can we help multilingual writers thrive? The Research and Writing Center and the Department of Linguistics find answers.
Writing can be really hard. At least, that’s what many college students quickly realize when exposed to the rigor of university-level writing. Writing can be especially challenging for multilingual writers, or MLWs, who comprise a diverse group of students at BYU with varying levels of writing experience. MLWs include (but are not limited to) students who learned English as a second or additional language (including many international students) and students who grew up in bilingual households.
Enter the Research & Writing Center (RWC). The RWC aims to help students from across campus adjust to the steep learning curve of university writing through one-to-one consultations with trained student tutors. While MLWs make up only 3% of the university student body, they are responsible for 15–20% of the consultations at the RWC. Nonetheless, academic writing can seem so complex and seemingly arbitrary that many MLWs can feel frustrated or hopeless when faced with writing assignments.
Students at the RWC are working to change that. The RWC recently partnered with the Department of Linguistics to form a cross-departmental research group that studies the goals, motivations, and needs of MLWs with the end of supporting them better in their writing. Associate Professor of Linguistics Grant Eckstein (second language writing) started the group when he realized the wealth of information that could be collected from RWC consultations. “We’ve got all this data coming in from second language writers and tutors who are tutoring them,” he says. “How do we make their experiences better by studying what they want, need, and then do in a writing center visit?”
The research group coincided with some recent shifts at the RWC. In 2021, the RWC hired Katie Watkins, who has a background in TESOL as well as teaching writing, to coordinate and enhance multilingual writing support across campus. Working with writing center director Tyler Gardner, Watkins recently implemented a new program where MLWs sign up to meet weekly with the same specially trained tutor over the course of a semester to improve holistically in their writing skills.
This approach is relatively unique in the writing center landscape. Watkins explains: “There isn’t a lot of research that’s been done on what changes for multilingual students when they have the opportunity to meet regularly with a tutor over a long period of time.” This is because most writing centers only offer one-off consultations—typically, students bring in a paper, read it with a tutor, discuss the paper, and work on revising it over the course of just 30 to 60 minutes. Most studies on writing centers focus on these one-off consultations rather than repeated or longitudinal approaches to supporting writers.
The research group, made up of undergraduate tutors and graduate students, was created to fill the gaps in existing research by using data collected from the new program. For example, Luke Beckstrand (Linguistics, ’24) was involved in studying the goals that multilingual students set. “We were researching the motivations behind what brings multilingual writers to our writing center,” he says. “We wanted to know what kind of help they wanted and what kinds of goals they set in a longitudinal setting.
“We were pleasantly surprised to discover that multilingual students have many writing and writing-adjacent goals that are unrelated to grammar,” Beckstrand continues. This surprised the student researchers because many prior studies indicated that MLWs considered grammar to be their primary concern—they thought that MLWs mostly wanted their writing, on a word and phrase level, to sound like a native speaker’s writing. But many of these previous studies just dealt with one-off sessions.
The undergraduate researchers discovered that MLWs, when offered support over an extended period of time, “were able to branch out and set a much broader range of goals,” Watkins says. These goals included high-order skills like organization, writing-process skills like outlining and drafting, and writing-adjacent skills like time management, building confidence, and growing their English vocabulary. In short, MLWs didn’t just want to imitate other writers or pass with a minimum level of competency—they wanted to develop into writers entirely their own.
The longitudinal approach to writing appeared to be the key difference in helping MLWs realize these larger goals. “Not only can you give better ongoing support, but it opens students and their goals up,” says Gardner. “When you open up the opportunities they have for writing support, MLWs dream bigger.”
The results of the research group have implications in both the fields of TESOL and writing center scholarship. Emma Fox (English, ’24), Haley Bess Stegman (Communication Disorders, ’23), Brynn Shults Wengler (Editing and Publishing, ’22), and Taylor Crofts (English, ’24) gave a presentation at the Intermountain TESOL conference in September and were subsequently invited to present their research at a symposium for the BYU English Language Center. Beckstrand and Leanne Chun (Editing and Publishing, ‘22) are preparing to present on the logistics of incorporating longitudinal tutoring for MLWs in a writing center at the international TESOL conference in Portland in March 2023. The entire group of undergraduate researchers are currently preparing a paper on their qualitative study of MLW students’ longitudinal goals to submit for publication to the Writing Center Journal.
Involvement in the group has prompted some reflection for the student researchers on their own approaches to tutoring MLWs. “These students are thinking really deeply about their writing, probably more deeply than I’ve ever thought about my own,” attests Fox, who worked to compile and qualitatively analyze the longitudinal goals of MLW students at the RWC. Stegman says, “This research highlights the fact that while we may have similarities in background or situation, we all are unique, with a wide array of goals, hopes, and potentials.”
Overall, this research group represents new and innovative efforts to serve the multilingual population on BYU campus and campuses everywhere. “Our hope would be that this research isn’t just useful for continuing to build and improve our program, but that it will help other people too,” Gardner concludes.
Learn more about the RWC and sign up for a consultation or the multilingual writing tutorial (ELING 310R) here.