By, Haley Cline
I traveled on Saturday, April 13, 2013, to Virginia Tech to attend the Virginia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (VATESOL) SouthWest Regional Conference. I was accompanying Kristen Shrewsbury, Shirley Yang, and Talat Altayyar, who would all be presenting at the conference. While I was not sure what to expect, I was excited at the notion of learning more about what experts in the field of TESOL had to say about a variety of different topics. As a peer tutor for the James Madison University Writing Center, I have some experience with working with English Language Learners. However, once I began to observe Kristen’s sessions, my understanding of tutoring techniques had grown exponentially, and I looked forward to supplementing this understanding with information from the conference.
The first seminar (given by Caitlin Capone of the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute) was about second language anxiety (SLA), how a teacher or professor would go about identifying whether a student had symptoms of SLA, how to avoid giving students SLA, and how to make students suffering from SLA become more confident in their second language abilities. The important lesson that I learned from Ms. Capone was that teachers and professors have a profound impact on whether ELL students feel comfortable speaking in their second language, not only in classrooms, but outside of them as well. If a student is consistently afraid of being corrected, or even penalized, by a professor for incorrect grammar or the inability to understand a certain language concept, this could keep them from trying to speak in the language at all. Ms. Capone argued that in a real-world setting, it is unlikely that a native speaker would correct a non-native speaker mid-sentence, if at all. Students should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to make mistakes while speaking in their second languages, because all new learners of every subject experience uncertainty. The more they practice, the better they will get, and a condescending or uninterested professor could do immeasurable damage to the self-esteem of an ELL student.
The second seminar that I attended was the one in which Kristen, Shirley, and Talat were presenting, along with Ahmad Abdul Ali. Their presentation was on JMU’s Multilingual Writer’s Community (MWC), and the impact that blog writing has made on ELL students. Kristen gave an overview of the MWC, while Shirley, Talat, and Ahmad (all English Language Learners) gave testimonials on how the MWC has helped them grow as English speakers and writers. All of the ELL students agreed that the free-writing exercises they participate in during the MWC help them not only gain confidence in their own writing skills, but also allow them to learn from each other and gain new perspectives. Before this conference, I was aware that the MWC blog existed, but I had never heard testimonials of how this type of media was helpful to those utilizing it. Hearing how blog writing in a setting where the writers can receive immediate feedback from others reinforced that supplemental learning outside of the classroom can give ELL students much more practice and confidence in their own abilities, something that may not occur when those students are in their official coursework.
I feel as though I benefitted greatly from attending the VATESOL Conference. I gained new perspectives on certain topics and got to know a few ELL students from my school that I did not know before. Learning from them about their experiences will help me become a better peer tutor, and I am more confident in working with English Language Learners in a writing center setting than I was before attending this conference.