Writing Center Tutors and Students with Learning Disabilities: Perceptions, Feelings, and Tutoring Strategies
by Alexandra (Sasha) Yambor
I have been a peer tutor in a writing center for several years. During that time, I have found myself sometimes frustrated when I was not sure if I knew the best way to help a writer. Conversations with my peer tutor colleagues assured me that I was not alone in this, especially when it comes to supporting the work of a student-writer who has (or is suspected to have) a learning disability that affects that student’s reading or writing processes. And it is important that writing center tutors do feel confident that they are able to meet the needs of writers with reading/writing-related learning disabilities. First, because since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, colleges and universities are obliged to enhance the accessibility of higher education for students with many kinds of disabilities, increasing the numbers of students with disabilities who are enrolled in American colleges and universities. Second, because writing centers are likely to seem like a natural fit for the learning needs of students with a range of different learning disabilities—from anxiety disorders, to attention deficits, to processing disorders—many of whom may know that they tend to benefit from the kinds of pedagogical practices common to writing centers: collaboration, immediate response, individual attention, a slower pace, and multimodal learning strategies (Mooney & Cole; Dolmage). Whether they find writing centers on their own or are referred there by advisors in a disability support service, college students whose learning disabilities affect their reading and writing practices are likely to rely on me and my peer tutoring colleagues for support.
When they reach the writing center, how will students with learning disabilities be received? In what ways do peer tutors in writing centers understand the nature and impact of learning disabilities? How do those tutors feel about working with students with learning disabilities? What strategies are tutors likely to use when working with a student who has either disclosed a disability, or whom the tutor believes has a disability?
The qualitative IRB (Institutional Review Board)-approved research study I describe in this essay took up these questions. I conducted interviews with five peer tutors in a writing center in a small, private, suburban college in Pennsylvania to explore tutors’ perceptions about, feelings toward, and strategies for supporting students whose learning disabilities affect their reading or writing. The results have implications for best practices in tutor education. In this essay I will analyze existing literature about perceptions of learning disabilities, how learning disabilities are represented in the kinds of writing center tutor-training literature tutors are likely to be exposed to, how tutors perceive and feel about working with students with learning disabilities, and the strategies tutors use to work with these students. It is my hope that the voices of peer tutors in this essay not only provide useful data to writing center professionals and other educators, but also prompt reflection among readers who may encounter people with learning disabilities in other contexts as well.
Perceptions and Definitions of Learning Disabilities
Above, I refer to a broad array of learning disabilities that may affect reading and writing processes rather than focusing on a more clearly defined disability. This is a deliberate choice. Writing center tutors are likely to work with students with a wide range of disabilities, and they usually have little background in formal study of special education, cognitive psychology, or other fields that would offer them specialized knowledge about particular disabilities. Rather than providing a definition of learning disabilities to tutors in the study, or focusing their attention on a small set of conditions, I solicited tutors’ own perceptions and understandings of what disabilities are in order to create a more accurate picture of the assumptions they might bring to working with students whose learning needs the tutors perceive as atypical. Tutors’ varying perceptions of disabilities and the needs of people with disabilities mirror distinct perceptions we see more broadly in society.
Among the many ways of understanding learning disabilities and the educational needs of students with learning disabilities, there are two broad views of particular relevance to this study: I will refer to these competing views as the “distinctly different” perception and the “continuum” perception.
The distinctly different perception reflects the understanding of students with learning disabilities as distinctly, cognitively different from “mainstream” or “regular” learners, and such difference carries with it distinctly different educational needs (Wood, et al. 147). A person with the distinctly different perception might define a learning disability as “something that must be fixed or accommodated” (Wood, et al. 147). This perception informs pedagogical practices like “pull out” assistive education programs for learners whose needs are understood as too different from “mainstream” or “regular” learners in the classroom and suggests that teachers or tutors for learners with disabilities need the kinds of teaching strategies they would learn from a special education teacher training curriculum.
The second perception, and the one currently gaining wider support, is an understanding of all cognitive and neurological ability existing on a continuum, with all learners’ needs varying. Following this perception, learners we consider “disabled” are simply fall along the continuum differently than others. This point of view suggests that what we consider “abled” or “disabled” is due to some arbitrary designation we have drawn on that continuum. A person with the perception that learning disabilities are on a continuum might consider a learning disability to be a difference in cognitive processing that can be enhanced rather corrected or compensated for (Hughes 6). An educator with the continuum perception is likely to approach working with students with learning disabilities as, “not a ‘problem’ but rather an opportunity to rethink our practices in teaching writing” (Wood, et al. 148), since we should assume that all our learners have varying needs we may or may not be meeting.
Jay Dolmage, an advocate for the continuum view, posits that the struggles students with learning disabilities have in education are less due to their ability and more due to academia’s “steep steps” (91). By “steep steps,” Dolmage refers to the rigid adherence to a traditional set of teaching and learning practices and procedures that learners with diverse needs are not allowed to approach in their own, individual ways. Inflexible curriculum requirements, reliance on particular kinds of assessments (like high stakes exams), and other “steep steps” have historically served as gatekeepers in academia, denying entry or progression for students with learning disabilities.
Here is where writing centers come into the picture. Writing centers across the United States rely heavily on tutoring staffs that are not professionals in special education. Usually these tutors are peer tutors with some training in tutoring practices, but they often lack expert level knowledge of how people learn. Within the field of writing center studies, many argue that peer tutors do offer strong support for writers, despite not being experts, because tutors learn to respond in the moment to individual writers’ needs using a variety of strategies related to different cognitive strengths (Neff). This is in keeping with Dolmage’s and other scholars’ support of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) teaching practices. UDL is “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” emphasizing the use in all learning environments of multiple means of engagement, representation of the content to be learned, and student action or expression to be used to assess their learning (“About Universal Design for Learning”). Dolmage explains the concept of Universal Design as a way to change how educators and tutors teach writing to all students. He theorizes that Universal Design is “a way to plan, to foresee, to imagine the future” (24).
The writing center seems to be a location that allows students to work successfully using a variety of approaches more suited to where they are on the continuum of abilities; accordingly, the steep steps may begin to collapse because of UDL-like strategies that writing tutors use. When I began this study, I assumed that the tutors had perceptions of learning disabilities more in keeping with the “continuum” view, as I do, and therefore confidence in the strategies that they were using with learners they knew or suspected had a disability. Even though some tutors may not have been familiar with the terminology of UDL, they were likely to have come across strategies compatible with it in their tutor training materials. However, while many writing center tutoring practices are in keeping with UDL (which suggests that peer tutors should feel confident about working with writers with learning disabilities), much of the writing center and tutor education literature I reviewed implies a tacit perception of learning disabilities more in keeping with the “distinctly different” view.
Representations of Disability in Tutor Training Literature
The “continuum” and “distinctly different” understandings of what learning disabilities are inform very different pedagogical approaches in higher education, including how writing centers can best support students with learning disabilities that affect their reading or writing. We can see these perceptions implicit in suggestions for tutoring strategies in writing center literature intended as tutor training or education.
In keeping with the perception that students with learning disabilities have distinctly different needs, some writing center scholars claim that tutors should be “trained on the special features of writing disabilities, the special needs of students with such disabilities, and the corresponding instructional strategies” (Li & Hamel 40). This way of training gives the tutor a specific way to tutor and concrete strategies to compensate for particular disabilities. Anne Mullin also states that training tutors in this specific knowledge is important but states that one of the most valuable tutor training aspects was having a tutor with a learning disability talk about her experiences and help the other tutors understand students with learning disabilities (ix). The access that Mullin and her tutors had was valuable and integral in helping them to become more adept at helping students with learning disabilities. Since Mullin and her tutors felt that they lacked the specialized knowledge to help this population of students, they began to actively seek out the people on their campus who did have access to the specialized knowledge and ask them for assistance in becoming more accessible for students with learning disabilities.
Tracey Baker makes the claim that tutors should be trained in similar ways as special education teachers. She asserts that tutors and writing center professionals should use special education strategies to become effective tutors (5). When Baker analyzed the recommendations that the special education community gave, she found that the tutors were already using those strategies. This could have been attributed to the fact that they had a tutor on staff that had a learning disability and whose job it was to help tutors and student navigate the sometimes murky waters of tutoring students with disabilities (5). If tutors have that knowledge then, conceivably, they will be able to use those same strategies in their sessions to better help students.
Other scholars working from the distinctly different perspective recommend tutoring strategies that align with UDL approaches, implying that supporting student writers with learning disabilities is not strictly the purview of specialists. In one of the most widely read articles on tutoring writers with learning disabilities in the writing center, Julie Neff outlines a number of strategies associated with UDL including modeling, directive scaffolding, leading questions, reassuring, and creating a positive space. However, early in the article, Neff defines a learning disability as “a malfunction in the system in one or more areas” (82) of the brain, and argues that to support a student with a disability, it’s important to understand the nature of that malfunction. To me, this sounds like Neff is taking the position that students with learning disabilities have “distinctly different” needs. On the other hand, Neff discourages tutors from making the mistake of thinking that a student’s difference in performance implies a difference in cognition or intelligence, and she assures tutors that they can, indeed, work with students with learning disabilities by simply trying a slightly wider range of tutoring strategies than they might have employed previously. None of the techniques she suggest seem beyond the scope of a writing tutor who has not had formal study in special education.
In the literature, I found writing center professionals suggesting strategies informed by quite different understandings of learning disabilities. Their different perceptions made me begin to wonder: what perceptions do tutors have about writers with learning disabilities, and how does that inform their strategies when working with students whom they know or suspect have a learning disability? Additionally, what feelings do writing tutors have about working with students with learning disabilities, and are there connections between how tutors perceive learning disabilities and how they feel about working with students who may have learning disabilities?
Findings from My Study
I interviewed 5 tutors—Marie, Ben, Caroline, Elizabeth, and Maureen—to explore their perceptions of learning disabilities, their feelings toward working with writers with learning disabilities, and the strategies they used in writing center sessions with students whom they knew or suspected had learning disabilities. Each tutor that I interviewed had anywhere from a semester to four years of tutoring experience. In the interviews a number of tutors stated that they felt frustrated during sessions with disabled students, but they realized that they needed to be patient with the students. These feelings of frustration fall into the distinctly different line of reasoning because the tutors felt unable to help the students since they felt that they had not learned the specialized knowledge that could help the students better. The tutors also expressed feelings and perceptions about working with students with learning disabilities which demonstrate the perception of learning-disabled students’ needs as distinctly different from “mainstream” learners. The tutors expressed their perceptions of these students, which demonstrates the perception of learning disabilities as requiring tutors’ patience and the perception of learning-disabled learners’ needs as unusual, or not the norm (“taking time out” of the session). All of these perceptions that tutors report speak to the tutors’ fear of not having a specialized knowledge base for the population of students with learning disabilities.
Another theme that arose in the tutor interviews was that the tutors used some strategies that were outlined in Julie Neff’s book chapter, but they did not report using a number from that chapter. It is possible that the tutors were not aware of the other strategies that Neff describes, and the strategies they missed seemed to be connected with the use of specialized knowledge. Since the strategies that the tutors reported fell in line with the UDL guidelines and Neff’s article, the tutors’ understandings of the strategies are in line with the continuum perception even though their feelings seemed to fall into the distinctly different category. This should perhaps not be entirely surprising, since there was a tension between perception and strategies in Neff’s article, as I addressed above.
Differences among Tutors’ Perceptions of Learning Disabilities
When examining how the tutors perceived learning disabilities, tutors’ answers came about after asking these two questions: How did you learn how to support students with learning disabilities? How well prepared did you feel to address the needs of any of the students you knew or thought had a learning disability?
When analyzing participants’ responses to my interview questions, I used a modified Grounded Theory approach (Charmaz). It became clear that I could categorize participants’ responses as reflecting a view more informed by the “distinctly different” model associated with specialized need, or the “continuum” model, associated with UDL, based on what tutors were saying about how they decided a writer might have a learning disability, what they thought students with learning disabilities needed from them, the strategies they chose to use, and their feelings about their work with students with learning disabilities (particularly, their level of confidence).
Three of the five tutors that I interviewed felt that students with learning disabilities are distinctly different from the other students that they interacted with. They expressed that they were “more involved” in the sessions when they suspected or knew that they had a student with a learning disability (Caroline). One tutor expressed that, “I don’t have too much knowledge of learning disabilities in themselves, so dysgraphia to me, which is the one I know the most, it’s just a name with some vague things attached to it so I don’t really know what that means and what it would mean to the person.” Jennifer Wewers echoes his sentiment: “For most of us dyslexia is a word we recognize but do not understand” (229). This raises the question: Do students feel less understood because of the tutor’s uncertainty about their level of specialization and knowledge in tutoring sessions?
I looked for statements when tutors were consciously noticing and responding to body language and behaviors, like when students were acting overly anxious or seemed unable to focus during the session. Coding for these conscious notices that the tutors were making gave me the ability to put the tutors into one of two categories. If we look at two of the tutors from the study we can see examples of these different viewpoints. The tutor that fell into the continuum viewpoint was Maureen. Maureen was highly in touch with the student’s body language. She would begin to change her way of approaching a student if she began to perceive that one was “overly anxious.” During her changing perceptions of the student she did not come to a staggering halt and change her perspective or feelings about the student; she let the changes occur naturally and allowed the students to gage the conversation in the way that worked best for them. The strategies that she used to help her keep this occurrence natural were keeping students calm, building confidence/positivity, remembering students’ needs, and allowing students to take their time during the session. For my coding I began to see these natural occurrences like Maureen’s falling into the “continuum” viewpoint because the tutors were noticing the students’ actions and reactions, not the tutor’s own feelings of inadequacy in not understanding the students’ specialized needs. Two of the five tutors that I interviewed fell under the continuum category. They expressed views like “all students deserve to understand what is going on, even if the tutor has to spend more time with the student” (Elizabeth).
Tutors who tended to view the needs of students with learning disabilities as distinctly different and requiring specialized knowledge to address were more likely to express frustration than tutors who viewed learning disabilities as more common and located on a continuum. One tutor who fell into the distinctly different viewpoint was Marie. When Marie noticed that something was different with the student, she described how she was unable to help the student because she did not have the necessary specialized skills. She began to lose faith in what she had learned in her tutor training course, and she began to lose confidence in herself as well. Marie used words like “terrified,” “panicked,” and “scared” to express the emotions that she was feeling when confronted with a student who had a learning disability. To compensate for this, Marie used strategies like incorporating as many learning styles as possible, interpreting and explaining for the student, and slowing herself down so that the student was able to keep up. Marie’s fear of being unable to handle this situation because she did not have the specialized knowledge scared her the most and gave her the viewpoint that students with learning disabilities are distinctly different and thus need special strategies to help solve their problems.
One of the themes that arose in the interviews was that a number of tutors stated that they felt frustrated during the session, but they realized that they needed to be patient with the students. Maureen stated that she needs to always be “really patient and mindful—definitely mindful” of what the student is going through and how she can use the strategies that she has access to in order to best help. Marie shared her feelings of frustration, saying, “I was just kind of frustrated because I was like is this person like fooling with me like are they trying to just get me to do their work for them.” This immediate assumption that a student who doesn’t respond to her tutoring the way others have in the past is attempting to manipulate her is a perfect example of one of the responses to learners with disabilities Neff warns about (240). But later on in the interviews Marie also states that she learned she needed to be more patient with students with learning disabilities.
Frustration was particularly linked to the idea that working with students with learning disabilities requires specialized knowledge. The tutors expressed significant concern about not having the specialized knowledge to work with students with learning disabilities.
The interviewed tutors reported a number of strategies they used when tutoring students with learning disabilities. Some of the strategies that the tutors reported match Neff’s proposed tutoring strategies, although tutors did not report using all of those strategies, as shown here:
|Strategies Neff Proposes||Seen in Study Results||Hypothetical Examples|
|Consistency in actions and words||Having open and engaging body language when comforting a student.|
|Creating a positive space||✓||Having a conversation to make the student comfortable when entering the writing center.|
|Directive scaffolding||✓||“Okay, so let’s start with working on this example that you have in your second body paragraph. How does this relate to your thesis?…See how we did that? Let’s move on to your other paragraphs and see if we can do the same thing.”|
|Directly pointing out errors||“This word is spelled wrong here. Maybe we can go through the rest of the paper and see if there are any other misspelled words.”|
|Interacting with the multiple spaces of the writing center||Moving from computer to white board or highlighters on paper to help the student better understand the objectives of the session.|
|Leading questions||✓||“What do you think about moving this paragraph to the beginning of the essay to better establish the claims that your thesis makes?”|
|Mapping idea (mind-maps)||Using the whiteboard or a piece of paper to make a map of the student’s ideas.|
|Modeling||✓||“Let me show you how to make a thesis and then maybe you can help me with another example and then do one on your own.”|
|Reading aloud||✓||Reading the paper aloud for the student.|
|Reassuring||✓||Making sure that the student feels confortable during the session.|
|Take-aways||✓||Providing notes or tools that students can take home with them to help with their further writing activities.|
Implications for Tutor Training
Throughout my research I found more tutors who felt discomfort about working with students with learning disabilities than I found tutors who expressed comfort or confidence. Tutors expressed feelings of frustration when it came to working with these students because they felt as though they did not have access to the specialized knowledge needed to work with this population of students. The tutors that were more confortable working with students with learning disabilities were so because they had previous access to the specialized knowledge because of classes they had taken, which seems to support the idea that at least some familiarity with the field of special education is helpful. Maureen was one of the tutors who had a higher comfort level because of her major and her previous experience training a fellow coworker at her part-time job who had a disability. I found that the tutors like Maureen had a mix of the “continuum” view and the “distinctly different” view. On one hand, the tutors recognized the differences; on the other hand, they also felt they were able to support the student by employing different tutoring approaches.
This study showed me that tutor training should more thoroughly explore contemporary views of learning disabilities, emphasizing the perception of the continuum of ability to help tutors gain another level of understanding in regard to students with learning disabilities. Writing center professionals might assume (like I did) that tutors understand that the strategies they use are appropriate for writers with disabilities, because they are similar to UDL techniques. However, that is not necessarily what tutors come away from their training believing. So, more grounding in special education would be useful, but not necessarily so because it would offer tutors strategies based on the “different” needs of learners. Alternatively, it could do something like what Mullin advocated, increasing empathy and comfort by emphasizing UDL strategies that work in all tutoring situations. I hope that readers, especially educators, whether they work in writing centers or not, might reflect on their own assumptions about people with learning disabilities and seek out opportunities to learn to relate to others whose cognitive or sensory experience of the world seems different from their own, rather than assuming people with learning disabilities cannot learn or perform without comprehensive specialized help.
“About Universal Design for Learning.” CAST. CAST, 2015. Web. 2 March 2016.
Baker, Tracey. “LD College Writers: Selected Readings.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 19.3 (1994): 5-7. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Ben. Personal Interview. February 2015.
Caroline. Personal Interview. February 2015.
Charmaz, Kathy. “Grounded Theory in the 21st Century: Applications for Advancing Social Justice Studies.” The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. 3rd ed. Eds. N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005. 507-35. Print.
Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Print.
Elizabeth. Personal Interview. February 2015.
Hughes, Hailey. “English for All: The Importance of Pedagogical Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities in the Writing Center.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. 13.1 (2015): 6-7. Web. 2 March 2016.
Li, Huijun and Hamel, Christine M. “Writing Issues in College Students with Learning Disabilities: A Synthesis of the Literature form 1990 to 2000.” Learning Disability Quarterly. 26.1 (2003): 29-46. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Marie. Personal Interview. February 2015.
Maureen. Personal Interview. February 2015.
Mooney, Jonathan and Cole, David. Learning Outside the Lines. New York: Fireside, 2001. Print.
Mullin, Anne E. “Importing Our Abilities to Tutor Students with Learning Disabilities.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 19.3 (1994): 1-4. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Neff, Julie. “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center.” Intersections: Theory-Practice in the Writing Center. Eds. Joan A. Mullin and Ray Wallace. Urbana: NCTE, 1994. 81-95. Print.
Wewers, Jennifer. “Writing Tutors and Dyslexic Tutees: Is There Something Special We Should Know?” Working with Student Writers. Eds. Leonard A. Podis and JoAnne M. Podis. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. 229-37. Print.
Wood, Tara, et al. “Where We Are: Disability and Accessibility: Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies.” Composition Studies. 42.2 (2014): 147-50. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
Alexandra (Sasha) Yambor is a recent graduate of York College of Pennsylvania (YCP), where she studied English Literature and Professional Writing. Sasha’s interest in writing centers and their relationship with students with learning disabilities began many years ago. This essay started as a research project for her senior seminar class, Senior Seminar in Professional Writing. Sasha has presented data from that initial project at the Mid-Atlantic Writing Centers Association conference, International Writing Centers Association conference, and the Conference on College Composition and Communication annual convention. Sasha is deeply grateful to all of the faculty at YCP, especially Jennifer Follett, and all of the amazing tutors of the YCP Writing Center.
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