Image courtesy of Rob Cabellero

I am a terrible photographer. Really. For many years, I worked in the photographic industry as a sales person and trainer, but what I knew in my head about how a great image comes together never developed when it came time to push the shutter button. It still frustrates me. Sure, there are times I get a decent picture, but as the wise Doug Peterson once told me,

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It goes the same for writing. I have never been that great of a writer. It isn’t that I don’t have ideas, it is just that I often struggle to get those ideas down in words. What I hear in my head is nothing like what I often find thrown down on paper. To top it off, I teach writing in my EAP classroom. Just like photography, I understand the fundamentals, but in reality, I don’t do so well in production. Thankfully, I’m not paid to write.

In the past few weeks, our program has been working on implementing writing tutorials for students who are struggling in this area. For some of these individuals, the problems lie with their lack of language skills, whereas for others, it is in the academic part of the composition process. Either way, we are working on providing them support that will help them improve before they get left behind in the classroom.

This idea of writing tutorials brought be back to a book called Connecting speaking and writing in second language writing instructions by Robert Weissberg (2006). I read it for one of my MA TESOL courses and I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I do know. One of the chapters is on using dialog in the writing tutorial as a way of supporting the learner. To understand this better, Weissberg uses two terms for way of giving guidance or instruction: centripetal forces and centrifugal forces.

Centripetal comes from the Latin and means “to seek the centre”. Centripetal force draws an object towards the centre, much like gravity pulls an orbiting satellite. Centrifugal means “to flee the centre” and refers to the pull causing objects to move away from the centre, such as turn a corner sharply or a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Weissberg agues that while traditional tutoring has used centripetal force to teach writing, such as the use of grammar and structure to normalize language, we should be using centrifugal force, that is the use of dialog and negotiation to help the students explore the dynamic variables of language.

The chapter is a fascinating read and explores the facets of the use of spoken language to help writers improve their work. While I won’t get into everything here, it is the idea of peer-tutoring that especially caught my attention. Typically, I have been known to have learners read other students’ work and provide feedback, mostly in the form of written text. The example Weissberg gives shows how having students work in dialog can be far more meaningful and can assist both learners in the process. The example he gives has one students (S1) giving feedback to another (S2) on his or her writing. S1 isn’t exactly sure what is wrong with one of the sentences, but, through the discussion with S2, is able to come up with a better sentence (actually S2 comes up with it, showing how well this system works). Together, they negotiate a solution by “drawing on their implicit knowledge of English Grammar” (Weissberg, 2006).

I thought about how the way that I have been doing peer-editing might be improved by shifting the feedback from a ‘centripetal’ to a more ‘centrifugal force’ solution. Maybe I will have students read their texts to each other, allowing them to stop and work through difficult parts together. They could read it out loud together while sitting side-by-side, instead of handing things back and forth.

I am sure there are others out there that can share their thoughts on this matter. I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to add your comments below so others can learn from you as well. Cheers!


Weissberg, Robert. (2006). Connecting speaking and writing in second language writing instruction. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

2 thoughts on “Tutoring

  1. I have to pick an argument with you about this post. You say:
    “I have never been that great of a writer”
    I try to read your blog as often as I can (I admit, I can’t keep up with your pace!) because you look at things in a refreshing way and WRITE NICELY!
    So give yourself credit!

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