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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

The Case for Providing Institutional Support for Student Writing at HUFS

For the great majority of people, writing touches upon at least one aspect of life, whether it is school, work, recreation, or general daily needs. Good writing is not only a personal need, it is a societal one. As a nation, Korea acknowledges the need for “global leaders,” and the mission of developing them has fallen on Korean educational institutions. For these institutions, developing good writers is also a primary concern. This is because a fundamental part of leadership is communication, and communication is both speech and writing. Therefore, if Korean university students are to become good leaders, they must be good communicators, and to be good communicators, they must be good writers.

Being able to write well in the English language may be considered to have a unique importance. Due to the influence of globalization, strict delineation of national and cultural boundaries has become a thing of the past. Trade, exchange of ideas, and overall contact with foreign countries have become essential to nations’ survival. People today recognize the importance of being able to communicate cross culturally and express their ideas clearly and concisely in a commonly understood language.

While Korean students receive ample opportunities for reading English passages and learning grammar, they often do not have enough writing opportunities in middle school and high school to feel confident in English writing. The serious problem is that this lack of writing opportunities continues in universities. Most Korean universities do not have a writing center or lab where students can receive writing advice without fear of being graded poorly. Good writing requires mentorship, but universities and society seemingly expect good writing from students without providing the right resources. In light of this matter, this paper will discuss the importance of writing centers in universities and suggest establishing one at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) in Seoul, South Korea.

A number of educational institutions have a writing center that provides students with free assistance on their papers, projects, reports, and other assignments that require academic composition. The key objective of writing centers is to assist students in writing better. Typical services include help with the purpose, organization, and structure of writing. Writing centers can accommodate writers of all levels and fields of study.

Most universities in Korea do not have writing centers, and in general, there is very little awareness of writing centers among Korean university students or educators. Reasons for this can be traced to the principles and practices of the Korean education system. While it enjoys a reputation for fostering talented, competitive individuals, and being at least partially responsible for the nation’s unprecedented rapid growth, this impression may have been successful in drawing attention away from some of the system’s serious deficiencies.


Process of becoming a good writer

The very first steps to becoming a writer, learning grammar conventions and basic writing formats, are relatively straightforward. Arguably, Korean high school education in its current state does not provide a sufficient basis in either English grammar or writing, a deficiency that follows students into university. Once the skill of writing is established, the learning stage is mostly complete, and the arguably more difficult stage of training begins. This is the stage at which talented writers may emerge, but the question of how to develop a good writer is difficult and complex. One thing we can know for certain is that constant practice is essential to the development of any skill. However, practice is likely to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, without proper guidance. Thus, it is the combination of practice with guidance that produces good writers; but without a writing center, students have no place to turn to for guidance, and professors have no place to send students who need additional, often rudimentary, help.

The best guidance for developing writers is complex and individually unique. While some writers improve better through direct feedback, others flourish through supportive environments. By nature, writing centers provide both feedback and an environment for writers, but vary in the degree to which one is emphasized over the other.


Need for Writing Centers in Korea

Every professor in Korea has had experience with improperly written student emails and poorly composed assignments. Most students fall short of their expectations for writing.

In college, Korean students face a serious challenge, one that they have never faced before. They are expected to write academic papers, essays, and resumes, and send emails in English. The sudden importance of their writing ability once they enter college cannot be overemphasized. Many professors have high expectations for student writing without realizing that many are still novices in English composition.

These problems can be solved if Korean universities create writing centers. Writing centers will enable students to gain knowledge and feedback to properly manage their composition assignments and other essential life tasks, such as writing resumes.


History of Writing Centers

Writing centers began to be established widely in the United States in the 1970’s, and today, they are considered a standard, even basic, feature for colleges. The trends in the United States that led to the ubiquity of writing centers there are reflected in the current status of Korean university education. One of the trends in America was increasing university attendance; this is also occurring in Korea, where more than 80 percent of high school graduates go on to attend university (Kim, 2010).

As American universities were faced with overwhelmingly large numbers of attendees, they realized the need for a means to deal with many students’ under-preparedness to write at a collegiate level. Even students who seemed better prepared for university education struggled to adapt to the requirements and conventions of academic writing. This is very much the case for Korean university students, many of whom have not received writing instruction equivalent to the American middle school level.

In America, the increasing number of students and their essential need, in combination with most students’ unwillingness to receive help from professional sources, such as professors or post-graduates, are what led to the widespread establishment of writing centers. Both of these factors are currently present in Korean university education, perhaps even more strongly due to cultural differences.


Evolution of Writing Centers

The many benefits afforded by writing centers cannot be fully understood without understanding the nature of them, which has evolved over the years and continues to change even today. Though writing centers became widespread in the United States in the 1970’s, they were introduced in the 1930’s. Since their introduction, writing centers have developed in three primary stages. These developments have been guided by the changing needs of universities and the ways writing centers adapted to meet them.

By the early 1970’s, writing centers were primarily thought of as writing “clinics,” where assignments were taken to have their errors identified and fixed. In the mid 1970’s, however, a debate arose over what the role of writing centers should be. This debate was influenced by educators’ changing views of the English language. As stated by Edward White in a report by the California State English Council, English was no longer thought of as “‘therapy’ filling its function by imparting correct spelling and other conventional forms of expression.” It became to be considered more important to help students develop and test their own ideas in writing than to make sure that they were adhering to language conventions.

This view was at the heart of the Progressive Response, which was influenced by the expressionist theory of writing instruction and the social construction theory of writing, which became prominent pedagogy in America in the 1970’s and 80’s. Expressionist theory emphasized the importance of one’s authentic voice in writing and viewed practicing writing as a process of personal discovery (Murphy & Sherwood, 1995). Social construction theory described writing as being dependent on the context in which it is written, and on the participation of the writer in discourse communities. Thus, the role of writing centers as places for the purpose of conducting such discourse was emphasized more than ever. Tutors were encouraged to facilitate conversations with writers about the context of their writing, and writing centers aimed to become communities where discourse on writing could be held. The individual and the context became the focus of writing instruction.

The student-centric approach to writing centers is the standard wherever they are established today, including in areas where they are just beginning. Differences between writing centers are more often related to their procedures than to their approach or theory underlying them.


English Writing Centers in Korean Universities

Though a relatively recent practice, some Korean universities have established writing centers of their own. Writing centers first began to appear outside of North America in the late 1990s. Universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore were among the first in Asia to establish their own writing centers. The first university in Korea to adopt the policy was Hanyang University, which traces its roots back to a proposal in 2003 by a foreign professor.

After conducting extensive research through phone calls, Internet searches, and student survey, we were able to compile the following information on English writing facilities currently existing in Korean universities.

Among the top universities in Seoul: Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University, Sogang University, Sungkyunkwan University, Hanyang University, and Ewha Women’s University have established writing centers. The University of Seoul, Chungang University, KyungHee University, Konkuk University, Kookmin University, Sejong University, Dongkuk University, KwangWoon University, Hongik University, and Sungsil University are among those that do not have writing centers. Notable characteristics of some of the existing facilities are described below:

Korea University - Writing center tutors must possess a master’s degree. To use the center, students must pay tutorial fees in proportion to the difficulty and length of their assignment.

Sogang University - The writing center at Sogang University can be considered to be one of the best-developed and well-maintained in Korea. Tutor-student interactions are observed by researchers to find ways to develop writing center practices to better benefit students. Two Directors, one Korean language professor and one foreign professor, supervise the tutors and researchers. Tutors are graduate students, and are selected upon passing a qualification test. Sogang University has assisted in approximately 1,800 student writing assignments this year. They also give lectures to students on how to improve their composition skills and lectures for professors on teaching writing courses.

Sungkyunkwan University - The writing center is small, and currently faces difficulties due to not being very well staffed. There is only one writing center for the two campuses, which are located at a significant distance apart from each other. Writing center staff members are required to move between the two campuses.

Hanyang University - Writing center services are available only to graduate students. Also, the writing center at Hanyang University is unique in that it has an online component–commonly called an Online Writing Lab (OWL).


Proposed solution

The most obvious benefit of writing centers is through helping students become better writers. There are other ways to develop writing, such as through classroom instruction or teacher evaluation, but the advantage of writing centers lies in two key characteristics of their approach: a student-centered environment and one-to-one collaborative peer tutoring (Yahner & Murdick, 1991). Writing centers also fulfill the writing instruction needs of students that busy professors cannot. There are also further academic and social benefits, aside from those related to writing, that students can gain exclusively at writing centers.

Constant and convenient accessibility of writing centers allows students to take full advantage of them. Writing centers are always located on campus and available to students daily. Though the centers are often run by a university’s English Department, they are available to students of every major, as all majors are likely to require compositions in English. Therefore, writing centers cannot be considered an amenity for English majors; they facilitate better writing across all disciplines.


Student-Centered Environment: Developing Self-Awareness

Writing centers differ in many ways, but they generally share one common goal: to create better writers through self-awareness. In other words, the creation of better writers, not better essays, is the ultimate objective. This objective is holistic, and in fact, writing centers can be considered a part of the holistic education movement that is gaining momentum around the world today (Wildman & Gidley, 2003).  In holistic education, developing the student’s whole self, not merely improving their performance on tests or assignments, is the central focus. Developing the “self” includes nurturing vital skills such as writing and critical thinking, and extends more broadly to the shaping of personal values, emotional capabilities, and outlooks on life. All of these can be part of the processes at a writing center, where being a part of a discourse community helps students develop not only as writers, but also as thinkers, learners, and community members. Students who are remedial in their writing are not the only ones who make use of writing centers. Those who have mastered basic writing conventions are able to receive guidance and support when they write as well. Students at any writing level are capable of developing more self-awareness as writers. Developing writing is a process without end. Confident writers, not perfect writers, are what writing centers aim for.

Writing centers are process-oriented as opposed to being product-oriented. Gathering quantitative evidence of the value of writing centers is difficult, though several studies have been conducted that correlate the number of students serviced and the number of improved grades on essays. Educators are realizing the value of process-oriented teaching methods over product-oriented ones; though this outlook has penetrated North America and Europe more than other parts of the world. It is definitely an important part of writing centers, and the proliferation of writing centers in Asia may play a significant role in promoting the principles of holistic education.

As a holistic institution, writing centers are not editing shops, but places where students come to discuss their thoughts about writing. Though it is the tutor’s role to guide students in their writing, students maintain ownership of what they write. In fact, surveys of American students who made use of writing centers generally show that they were most satisfied when they were “active participants in finding their own criteria and solutions” (Hall, 1995).

A variety of writing issues can be dealt with at writing centers, from smaller aspects such as the clarity of specific sentences to broader aspects concerning content and organization. The fact that students tend to make use of writing centers when they are at the beginning or middle stages of their writing, rather than at the end, indicates that they find the centers useful in developing the broader aspects. Students feel comfortable there working on the beginning stages of writing, brainstorming and outlining. Interestingly, this is contrary to how feedback is generally understood – as a corrective last step. By undergoing the most important stages of writing under guidance at a writing center, students can gradually alter the very thought processes and skills they are accustomed to using when they write, and thus become better writers overall.


Peer tutor role: A Non-Directive Approach

One of the most important features of writing centers is peer tutoring; one-on-one interaction between tutors and writers. Generally, both undergraduate and graduate students can be tutors, though some writing centers restrict this role to graduate students. As noted by Paula Gillespie of Florida International University, “peer tutoring in writing instruction has earned a well-respected place in higher education.”

As peers, not professors, writing center tutors provide a more comfortable environment for students to work on their writing. Tutors are not authorities, assignors, or evaluators (North, 1984). Rather, tutors respond to students as collaborators or interested readers, and the student makes the final decisions in all writing matters (Rogers, 2008). Students’ relationship with tutors is noted to considerably decrease their stress during the writing process. Writing can be a sensitive area for many because it is a creative process that involves the writer’s inner thoughts, ability to communicate, and personal identity. Eliminating stress in the learning environment has been proven to be conducive to more effective learning (Richards & Rogers, 2001). As increasingly noted by education analysts and researchers since the mid-20th century, affective and emotional factors are just as important as mental processes in learning. Writing centers play an important role as one of the few, if not only, places students can go to work on their writing without stress.

Furthermore, tutors act as a connector between students and professors. Studies show that there will always be communication gaps between authority figures and those subordinate to them (Richards & Rogers, 2001). Students rarely go to professors to talk about their writing, because they believe their professors would be too critical, or even too busy to give feedback. Through the vantage point of tutors who have experience with collegiate writing, students can gain insight into what is expected from them in their compositions.

The main purpose of the tutor is to work together with the writer to negotiate meaning in their composition by beginning and guiding a conversation about the writer’s work. In a practical sense, the bulk of tutors’ work involves facilitating collaborative discussions and conversations about the assignment at hand.

There is an inherent ambiguity in the role of tutors, especially in the non-directive approach, and researchers agree that no two tutors operate in the same way, and that tutoring cannot be scripted. There are many different roles that tutors can adopt: coaches who diagnose and direct, commentators who guide and suggest, or counselors who offer more general advice about life issues that may be indirectly related to the student’s struggles with writing. There are also three stages identified in the development of tutor-writer relationships that demonstrate the multiplicity of tutor roles. In the first stage, the pre-text phase, the tutor and writer get to know each other, building trust and confidence in their relationship. The second stage, the textual stage, is where the student’s writing is addressed. In the last stage, the post-textual stage, the tutor summarizes and offers a model of learning for the next time the student needs to write (Murphy & Sherwood, 1995).

Though tutors are traditionally expected to take a minimalist, hands-off approach, some tutors may play a more active role by modeling sentence structures or editing techniques (Clarks, 1995). The general consensus, however, is that tutors should take a less obviously authoritative role while maintaining hidden authority over the tutoring session. Tutors accomplish this by asking questions, which is widely acknowledged to be their main task. This task is not as simple as it may sound. Tutors have to refrain from making any comments of their own, as much as possible, while allowing writers to describe their thoughts extensively. Most importantly, tutors maintain awareness of and thoroughly understand the different varieties of questions, so that they know when and how to ask further questions to effectively engage the student at any given moment. Tutorial success often depends on the ability to integrate questions effectively into the tutoring session. In one study of writing center sessions, 473 questions asked by tutors were identified, which were organized into 16 sub-categories that could be divided into two main categories. These two categories of questions are described:

The first category is Interpersonal Tutor Questions, and it contains the following types: process, consent, rapport, gauging, filler, distracting, refocusing, and orienting. Effects include the ability to manage tutorials, gain permission, establish rapport, check writer understanding or mood, participate in chat, distract writers, refocus writers, and inform tutors. The second category is Making Meaning Questions, and it contains the following types: clarifying, verifying, transferring, suggesting, prompting, modeling, drawing, and exploring. The effects are the ability to clarify tutor understanding, verify that tutor understanding is correct, transfer expertise, suggest change, lead writers through discovery, model thought processes, draw out information from writers, and challenge and stimulate writers’ ideas and views. (Cook, 2006, p. 7-8)

Tutors also encourage students to ask questions. Other important abilities for tutors include maintaining a controlled balance of time, controlling discourse, assessing students’ meaning according to specific standards, and diminishing the appearance of authority.

Adaptability is another essential trait for tutors. Writing center services are sought by a diversity of students who come from very different backgrounds and possess varying abilities. Adapting to different students’ needs is considered more important for tutors than their own skill in English writing. Tutors do not have to be English majors. Also, there is no necessity to provide tutors of a similar major to students who come to the writing center. Tutors who have no prior knowledge of the topic of the writer’s assignment have an advantage as judges in that they are forced to focus on the logic of the student’s ideas while reading the unfamiliar content (Harris, 2001).

Though writing is largely a collaborative process, it also has an autonomous component. Tutors play a role in both parts by providing motivation for students to write on their own. According to studies, student motivational quality depends partially on instructional style (Richards & Rogers, 2001). Perception of style includes how the teacher is perceived with regards to involvement, caring or accepting attitudes, and competence in providing challenging activities and good feedback. Thus, through careful adjustment of their tutorial styles, tutors can play a part in influencing writers even when they are outside the writing center.

Tutoring can be beneficial not only for those who receive instruction, but for the tutors as well. Benefits to tutors include development of their own writing approach, enhanced sensitivity to other people’s needs, and increased intellectual maturity. Nearly all tutors report their experiences at writing centers as being an “enriching intellectual experience” (Alsup, Conrad-Salvo, Peters 2008).


Alternative peer tutor role: A Directive Approach

Though the non-directive approach is favored by writing centers in native English-speaking countries, ESOL writing centers in other countries have shown a tendency to take a more directive approach. In the directive approach, students come to the writing center to receive suggestions about their writing in a straightforward manner that they can easily follow. Tutors are expected to find problems in tutee writing and provide solutions. In fact, L2 writers have shown a strong tendency to prefer tutors who give them direct advice. L2 writers are also more likely to perceive tutors as behaving authoritatively even if they are not, as it has been shown that writers who think of themselves as “poor” writers often attribute a more directive role to tutors than the tutors themselves ascribe (Clark 2001).

Researchers of ESOL writing centers have often found that the non-directive and collaborative approach emphasized in American writing centers does not work well for ESOL students (Blau & Strauss 1998). There is a need for a more flexible approach to tutorial roles that take into account students’ different learning styles when it comes to ESOL writing centers.


Role of directors

Though tutors are considered central to and at the forefront of writing centers, Directors, too, play an essential role. The Director of the writing center is typically a professor or other faculty member. As with peer tutors, there are several different roles that the Director can take, but in general, they are described as having a dual role of administrator-teacher. This is because their duties involve both logistical organization, the task of administrators, and fostering academic scholarship, the task of teachers.

When it comes to more specific roles of Directors, it is generally agreed that their main educative role is to, “teach students a form of critical literacy that begins with acknowledging the difficulties in negotiating ingrained and systemic institutional-ideological assumptions about what it means to be a student and a literate citizen” (Ferruci, 2001). In other words, though the Director will not directly help students in their writing, they can influence their approach to writing. Also, the Directors trains other faculty members on how students learn to write and on writing itself, and uses their administrative powers to allow the faculty to participate in and benefit from the center’s services. There are many diverse tasks that fall under the realm of the Director’s authority, which include organizing writing workshops, distributing handouts on proofreading, involving faculty members in the hiring of tutors, and overseeing peer observations of tutoring sessions. The Director’s vision for a writing center can be instrumental in shaping its development.

Both directors and tutors must balance multiple roles at once, and their roles require constant evaluation and alteration in relation to the changing mission of the writing center.

Every culture has its own codes of conduct and system of values, which will inevitably influence the institutions established in that culture. Writing centers being no exception, are more likely to be affected by cultural considerations due to their dependence on person-to-person interactions. Some elements of Korean culture, which has been strongly colored by Confucianism since the 16th century, can present obstacles to the traditional Western style of writing centers.  Equal-footed peer feedback conferencing goes against the Confucian concept of natural inequality, where even age differences of only a year must be respected. Though the purpose of the peer tutor model is to have someone without authority over the student give them feedback on their writing, in Korean writing centers, tutors, who may be older than the tutees, may be perceived as authority figures by the students. How this will affect the efficacy of Korean writing centers compared to North American writing centers is a topic for more research.

Also, Korean students’ relative lack of English proficiency compared to students in English-speaking nations and the manner in which they were educated causes them to strongly prefer a more directive approach to teaching. They want and expect strong feedback and directives, not free and open discussions, from writing tutors. Discussing their inner thoughts in academic settings is not a familiar activity for many Korean students. Requiring that they talk extensively about their writing, especially their English writing, could actually increase Korean students’ stress rather than decrease it. The non-directive Western approach of writing centers where tutor-student discourse is the theoretical focus and primary practical activity may not be immediately feasible for Korean writing centers, which is further support for taking the directive approach.


Practical considerations for instituting a Writing Center at HUFS

With a writing center at HUFS comes the additional benefit of a great leadership opportunity for many of our students. Students who show proficiency in English writing could engage in fulfilling work at their own university, seeing inexperienced writers gradually improving and receiving positive feedback from tutees. Some universities offer the incentive of payment for student tutors. An alternative incentive is offering credit toward graduation. A writing center could provide students in the college of English Education and the TESOL departments teaching practicum, a part of their certification process as teachers.

Writing centers have very few operating costs. Even in times of fiscal constraint, most universities that have writing centers have never shut them down as they are inexpensive to operate and highly efficient. After the initial costs spent on deployment, writing centers are up and ready to go.

Once an on-campus writing center is operational, students will finally have somewhere to go to take their writing. Direct feedback from other sources such as professors, friends, or classmates is often unavailable or ineffective. Professors are typically busy with research, and may only have the time to determine grades while giving minimal feedback. Peer reviews on essays are not always available or beneficial. In class, professors rarely ask students to evaluate each other’s writings. Even in the cases that they do, some students are not equipped or comfortable enough to provide constructive feedback to others.

A writing center can offer a less costly, more convenient alternative to private tutoring for students. Student tutors in writing centers would be as qualified as private tutors, if not more so, and their help would be free of charge to students. There are only a few procedures needed to use a writing lab. Typically, students only have to send an email or signup on the writing center’s website to make an appointment. Students can save time by not having to search for qualified tutors or travel to meet them.

Writing centers have been successful in America for two reasons: emphasis placed on writing through educational standards and a general awareness in the student population of what writing centers are and can do. Recreating these conditions in Korea can result in similar success. Writing Centers are a highly beneficial institution considered vital to the institutions that support them. We hope that HUFS students can experience the innumerable benefits a writing center will bring.



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