A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Ben Rafoth’s Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers

Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers by Ben Raforth, Utah State UP, 2015, 168 p.

PD Arrington, Georgia State University

(Published April 8, 2019)

The January 2016 special issue of College English dedicates ten essays to transligualism, the position that, as John Trimbur writes in his contribution “Transligualism and Close Reading,” “...monoligualism is not a possible linguistic condition at all, for everyone speaks and understands a variety of dialects, registers, and genres, even if they appear within a single language” (220). In the volume’s introduction, Min-zhan Lu and Bruce Horner identify transligualism as “an occasion for labor” and promote a call for “scholars of transliguality to take up long-term studies...to explore precisely the various kinds of engagement of writers (and the scholars studying them)...” (216).

Strikingly, although the special issue features writing center directors as contributors, it includes no discussion of writing center work. Yet the writing center—with its focus on one-on-one communication about reading and writing—has always been perhaps the ultimate site for paying attention to translingual interaction in the academy. 

Ben Rafoth’s Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers resounds in the well of this rich conversation surrounding translingualism, even in light of the warning against conflating L2 scholarship and translingualism iterated in “Clarifying the Relationship between L2 writing and Translingual Writing...” (Atkinson et. al.).

Rafoth’s volume deserves a wide audience of composition scholars, for indirectly it speaks to the lack of inclusion of writing center scholarship in the “translingual” conversation and to the great potential of the writing center as a place for attending to the research called for by Lu and Horner, as well as L2 writing specialists.

Make no mistake; this book is intended for specific audiences, writing center directors and tutors, and for specific purposes unique to the exigencies of writing center work. This is most evident in Rafoth’s framing of his practical argument and advice with current facts about the increasing population of multilingual writers at US colleges and universities. Drawing on enrollment figures from the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Association of International Educators, among other sources, Rafoth illuminates the international and multilingual nature of writing centers today. “Growing numbers of students from around the world turn to writing centers to learn to write in their native languages and in English, and at advanced levels” (19).

Rafoth’s concise volume—including five chapters, a glossary, references, and an index—functions as resource material. It calls for tutor training specifically in the area of second language acquisition (SLA): “...while skills needed for collaboration and interaction are a component of all teachers’ knowledge, these skills alone cannot make up for whatever tutors lack in conceptual knowledge” (4).

Although this work speaks directly to the writing center community, the scenarios and suggestions throughout would serve any composition instructor or writing program director well, particularly considering, as Trimbur notes about the “transligual turn,” “...it calls into question the unmarked hierarchies in US college composition that have long assumed basic writing and second language writing were ancillary activities and institutions at the margins, orbiting around the mainstream English at the center in first-year composition” (226).

Rafoth’s introduction positions him solidly as an advocate for multilingual writers seeking currency in realms where academic English reigns the standard. He poses this rhetorical question: “Given how intent so many students are on learning advanced English, are today’s writing centers ready for them?” (19) Then he offers compelling reasons, if not evidence, for preparing tutors and centers for multilingual interactions. Rafoth writes: “...multilingualism has begun to define what it means to teach and learn in a writing center” (23). He calls for writing center directors to draw from SLA scholarship in order to build tutor knowledge, increasing tutors’ abilities to help multilingual writers—and all writers, ultimately—achieve their goals. “I hope members of the writing center community will see in this book an optimism about the future of writing centers as well as a call to invigorate the preparation of tutors and directors for the multilingual futures that await us all” (17).

His readers familiar with the day-to-day workings of writing centers will recognize Rafoth’s depiction of them as richly multilingual and translingual spaces. This introductory chapter serves as a strong resource starting point for writing center researchers and directors to draw from in defense of funding and investment, particularly as it pertains to training and resources for monolingual tutors.

Rafoth establishes early the use of anecdotes as a means of illustrating ways multilingualism plays a central role in the success of tutor-tutee interactions. And while perhaps not directly intended for such use, these would serve as illuminating sources of discussion for tutor and instructor staff meetings and trainings. The introduction also begins what is a consistent offering of linguistics-specific terms, such as “cohesion” (7), “output,” “comprehensible input,” “negotiated interaction and recasting” (8), and “scaffolding” (10) as tools for achieving greater tutor understanding of interactions involving multilingualism and for achieving greater success in these interactions. 

Also established early are the volume’s boundaries: “I do not claim to pursue a formal research design, representative sample, or methodical analysis...The book offers neither a comprehensive plan nor a method for tutor education. Instead it offers an informed invitation for writing center directors and their tutors, especially advanced tutors, to make greater use of the theory and research from the field of second-language acquisition, particularly as it relates to one-to-one interaction, academic discourse, and providing corrective feedback” (3).

Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers is grounded in the scholarship of Mina Shaughnessey, Paul Kei Matsuda, Nancy Grimm, Barbara Toth, Suresh Canagarajah, applied linguist Dana Ferris, and many other scholars in the field of linguistics, second language acquisition, and composition studies. And consistently it offers specific suggestions for future research concerning multilingual writers in the writing center.

Chapter one, “The Changing Faces of Writing Centers,” offers specific language, particularly in the notions of lingustic variety (28) and transligualism (29), and concrete tools in the form of lists for use in building tutor knowledge and awareness in their practice with multilingual students: Matsuda and Matsuda’s “five useful principles for tutors” to “understand the dynamic nature of multilingualism” and Dana Ferris’ “useful list of descriptors for second-language writers” (30). The chapter serves, too, as a springboard for discussing the implications of Ferris’ “descriptors” for instance, and other potentially controversial issues that might emerge from any particular approach to understanding writing center clients and tutors.

Chapter two, “Learning from Interaction,” functions directly as a resource for tutor training. Rafoth discerns and defines “engagement” and “interaction,” identifying these as “the lifeblood of learning” (40), and then offers anecdotes anchoring discussions about these concepts as they apply to multilingual interactions in writing centers. Some of the topics include “idiomaticity” (43) and “native-speaker privilege” (44), “negotiated interaction” (48), and “miscommunication” (59). The chapter offers a clear and concise discussion of the variety of language learners and speakers, and how this variety shapes or should shape tutor training and awareness. It also offers a detailed transcript of a tutor/client exchange illustrating the productive learning that can come from conversation surrounding a lack of understanding. Rafoth makes interesting distinctions between “misinterpretation” and “incomplete understanding” (63) and argues that fine distinctions like this can create in tutors the awareness needed to capitalize on learning opportunities in exchanges with writers. The chapter concludes with a list and discussion of SLA terms—such as “input,” “output,” “modified interactions,” and “interlanguage”—useful for heightening tutor awareness and skill. Included is a list of practical questions and scenarios that can be used directly for training, offering “...tutors a set of concepts they can use to demystify, reflect upon, and discuss the differences they see in multilingual students’ proficiency with English” (73).

The nine sections of chapter three, “Academic Writing,” open with a discussion about vocabulary and student needs in academic contexts. Rafoth cites big data analyses concerning word frequency and grounds in the scholarship of Mina Shaughnessy his calls for a greater focus on helping students increase vocabulary (78). In following sections, as in the book as a whole, Rafoth offers vocabulary that can help tutors understand multilingual writers’ relationships with academic discourse, terms such as “English for General Academic Purposes” vs. “English for Specific Academic Purposes” (82) and “code glosses” (89).  He challenges writing center directors and tutors to rethink notions that have become assumptions, and perhaps most valuable, Rafoth advocates for increased awareness and understanding on the part of teachers and tutors of the larger context of a variety of academic discourses and students’ desires within those contexts.

Chapter four, “Corrective Feedback,” offers a brief historical overview of attitudes about error and correction in first year writing and the teaching of English abroad. Rafoth cites research in ESL and his own interviews with tutors to support the claim that “Ignoring or contravening writers’ requests for feedback on their errors has opened writing centers to criticism for failing to take seriously multilingual writers’ requests for help with language and grammar, and for succumbing to the monolingual bias that treats errors the same way for native speakers, who can fall back on their intuitions about what sounds correct, and nonnative speakers of English, who cannot” (110). He then offers concrete moves—“noticing” (112) and “recasting” (114)—tutors can employ in sessions for achieving greater success with multilingual writers. Rafoth’s treatment of these is nuanced; the scenarios presented and his analyses of them caution tutors against feeling satisfied that a session has been successful just because it seemed to run smoothly. He writes: “...a tutor’s job is to give the answer to the student in a way that stores the information in the brain” (120).

Chapter five, “Preparing Ourselves and Our Tutors,” also cautions against “...easing into the comfort zone of nondirectiveness, collaboration, and confidence boosting, which comes readily enough to native speakers of English in a monolingual environment” (136).

In this concluding chapter, Rafoth takes an interesting if distracting turn, critiquing the roots of Kenneth Bruffee’s theory of collaboration by suggesting that collaboration as a method of learning works only if collaborators are knowledgeable and skilled to begin with. The author’s intention is to support his claim that tutors and directors must be trained to support the growing numbers of students whose writing reflects a variety of Englishes. The point is a rather different one, however, than the one Bruffee makes in his fundamental texts; that collaboration yields a valuable kind of learning need not imply that it is the only kind of learning. And Rafoth ultimately acknowledges and values the collaborative nature of the writing center experience, whatever the skill and knowledge level of the tutor. His point—to call for more, better training of tutors, particularly in the servicing of translingual and multilingual writers—crystalizes in the space beyond his closing question: “...who benefits more—tutors or the writers they assist?” (139).

Ben Rafoth’s Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers is worth a read, and a spot on the shelf for future reference. It serves composition studies and writing center studies not only with informed, useful resources and discussion points that put into practice a “transligual orientation” while simultaneously calling for specific SLA training for the purposes of aiding multilingual writers; it serves as a reminder that we haven’t yet pulled writing center work out of “the basement.” As this book demonstrates, conversations emerging from composition scholarship would do well to consider the labor of writing centers.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Dwight, et al. “Clarifying The Relationship Between L2 Writing And Translingual Writing: An Open Letter To Writing Studies Editors And Organization Leaders.” College English 77.4 (2015): 383.

Lu, Min-Zhan, and Bruce Horner. "Introduction: Translingual Work." College English 78.3 (2016): 207. Print

Rafoth, Ben. Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2015. Print.

Trimbur, John. "Translingualism And Close Reading." College English 78.3 (2016): 219. Print