The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Honors students and Writing Center work with ELL students

6 min read

The Writing Center is on the fourth floor of the Hurley Convergence Center. | Kenya Carter / The Weekly Ringer


Senior Writer

Four students in the UMW Honors Program, in collaboration with the Writing Center, are working on a service learning project to provide resources for English language learner students at UMW.

Academic Support Centers Manager Heather Guhl has noticed an increase in English language learner students seeking support on campus. 

“In the Writing Center, since the start of the pandemic, we noticed an uptick in the number of ELL students seeking assistance, not only with papers, but with personal English grammar workbooks, conversation and reading comprehension,” said Guhl. She oversees multiple campus-based programs and centers providing direct student-facing academic support, such as the Writing and Speaking Centers. 

In response to this increase in English-learning students seeking assistance from the Writing Center, Guhl came to Director of the Honors Program Kelli Slunt with an idea for honors students’ service learning project that would help English language learners.

According to an article on the UMW website, “more than 50 students from across the globe—twice as many as this time last year—are studying at UMW this semester.” 

Between the four students working on the project, some are working with English language learner students to mentor them and provide opportunities to practice and enhance their written and oral English communication. Others are working on finding resources to create a website for English language learner students.

Thomas Pulsifer, a senior communication and digital studies major, is one of the four honors students collaborating on the project. Pulsifer is optimistic and hopes their efforts will put in place the foundation for a successful program at UMW where any English language learning student can turn to for help.

“Dr. Slunt reached out to me to see if I was interested in helping with this up-and-coming program to assist ELL students, and I couldn’t say no,” said Pulsifer. “Online, I have several ELL friends that I frequently play games with, and I often find myself helping them understand English whenever they’re struggling. Helping someone, even in such a small way, is a really great feeling.” 

Junior theatre major Nathaniel Huff is another honors scholar collaborating on the project by mentoring English-learning students one-on-one and assisting in research. 

“At first, I was mostly interested in collaborating with the Writing Center because I believe their service is beneficial to many students, but I quickly realized that the ELL student population is in desperate need of resources,” said Huff. “While we’re happy to serve our fellow students, I wish there were more advertised, widely available resources from the University for ELL students.” 

Honors scholar Abigail Tank, a junior undeclared major, is a seasoned tutor and believes positive self-esteem is one of the building blocks of school success.

“Everyone deserves to earn an education without barriers and with the support they need,” said Tank. “The fact that students are able to do it in a language that they are not native in is even more impressive and should not be treated as nor viewed as a disability.”

Layla Barnes, a senior creative writing major and lead consultant at the Writing Center, is the fourth scholar student involved in the development of English language learner resources. 

“This issue first came to my attention last semester while working in the Writing Center,” said Barnes. “We had a huge influx of students for whom English was not their first language who were requesting more from us than we were really trained to provide, so I spent a lot of time working with Heather to try to find support systems to refer them to, but we realized those support systems didn’t exist.”  

Senior communication and digital studies major Madyson May is also one of the lead consultants at the Writing Center who has worked with multiple English language learner students.

“I actually wasn’t aware of any kind of lack of resources for ELL students until I began to work with ELL students regularly,” said May. “I would have certain students come in almost every day to ask me for help with reading class materials, making presentations and other school-related activities that were outside my wheelhouse as a Writing Consultant. When I looked for any kind of outside help for my clients, I would either be directed to ODR (which is unrelated to ELL services) or told there was nowhere at all for the students to get help specific to their needs as English language learners.”

In the past, the University has offered specialized language assistance services for these students through a bridge program with the International Language Academy. However, according to Guhl, the University is no longer partnered with this academy despite its presence on the university website. 

As stated on the Writing Center’s website, their mission is to “support undergraduate and graduate students in their disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies as well as research through one-on-one tutorials with trained tutors.” These student consultants aim to offer assistance with all types of writing projects such as reports, papers, cover letters, resumes and research projects.

While the Writing Center is successful in assisting all students with their writing, its consultants are not equipped to advise English-learning students. 

“The honors service project participants are working closely with two ELL students,” said Guhl. “They are compiling research and collaborating to lay the foundation for a Canvas module specifically meant for the professional development of Writing Center consultants regarding ELL students’ challenges with writing and other aspects of academics at UMW.” 

Barnes is one of the students creating these resources for peer educators.

“The final product right now is going to be a canvas course for peer educators in general, though it will likely have a writing focus,” said Barnes, “My intention is that it would be an online, fully asynchronous course that peer educators would be able to take to prepare them to better serve ESL [English as a second language] students. This will incorporate theoretical readings as well as practical applications and resources, though a lot of the finer details are still being ironed out.”

In addition to the creation of accessible resources for English language learner students, the Writing Center is working towards integrating a specialized appointment type for consultants who undergo the English language learner training process.

“Teaching our consultants and other tutors across campus general strategies to feel more comfortable and confident when there is a language or cultural barrier could very well be beneficial and may help ELL students to feel more welcome in our community,” said May.

As a requirement of the honors program, honors scholars in their second year at UMW must complete a semester-long course called Honors Service Learning (HONR 201). The course involves proposing a service project and working on that project for a minimum of 20 hours throughout the semester.

“I collaborate with the Center for Community Engagement to determine potential service partners for the students in the class or students can propose their own projects,” said Slunt. 

The honors scholars are still in the early stages of planning with six more weeks of work ahead of them. Students in the program are continuing research, outreach and collaboration with the goal of not only providing a permanent resource for English language learners.

“Setting up an in-depth training module that leads to ELL assistance certification is our goal,” said Pulsifer. “Every English language learner has different needs, so rather than simply going over the best ways to teach English, the module will provide strategies for finding what it is the learner needs and how the consultant can best accommodate them.”