Reading between the lines: Blugold helps build literacy skills

Student develops language program to connect to foreign students


Cheryl Wetterlind (center) stands with two students who have utilized the ALS program, Kodai Noguchi (left) and Hiroki Kanai (right). (Submitted)

It all began by simply observing a problem.

To become a writing assistant for the Center for Writing Excellence (CWE), fifth-year senior Cheryl Wetterlind took English 397 (Writing Center Theory & Practice) last year and finished the class with a final paper.

For her topic, the English education major studied if the writing center was more accommodating to traditional students than non-traditional students, specifically focusing on Japanese international students. Through her research, Wetterlind found the writing center was not reaching all students.

Wetterlind decided to breach this gap by creating the Assisting Literacy Skills (ALS) program. She said the ultimate goal of the program is to form connections between the CWE writing assistants and the students that weren’t coming in.

“Every writer is different and not the same practice works for every student,” Wetterlind said, “so we need to differentiate the way we tutor depending on the student.”

However, Wetterlind’s curiosity began with her experiences with the Japanese Cultural Society.

Building bridges

Wetterlind has been a member of the Japanese Cultural Society (JCS) for all five years of her time at UW-Eau Claire, holding offices like treasurer and president in the past.

JCS serves as a way Japanese and American students can build relationships by sharing in each others’ cultures and languages, she said. They also participate in many activities including trips, cooking nights and the International Folk Fair.

Many times during JCS meetings, the Japanese students would ask Wetterlind to help them with their homework assignments, as Wetterlind spoke both English and a little Japanese. However, Wetterlind said when she suggested the students make an appointment with the Center for Writing Excellence, many students were hesitant to go because they were unfamiliar with the writing assistants.

Current co-secretary/treasurer for the JCS, Anna Myers, said Japanese students have asked her for help on homework assignments this year as well. She said it’s intimidating for these students to make an appointment at the writing center because English is not their first language.

Myers, a fifth-year senior studying Spanish linguistics, said the ALS program is necessary because it caters more to international needs than native English-speakers, as it can focus on any facet of the language, including pronunciation.

It was this realization that Wetterlind said sparked her curiosity, because even after helping the students with their homework, they still did not feel comfortable going to the writing center. Therefore, Wetterlind made it the subject of her paper for her English 397 class.

After surveying the Japanese international students, Wetterlind found three of the 11 have gone to the writing center and only one of those three would go back.

“When they came in (to the writing center) they really wanted to focus on grammar,” Wetterlind said, “because they thought that grammar would help them become better writers but current practices of the writing center went against that.”

The writing center typically tries to focus on “higher-order concerns” like generating thesis statements or forming arguments, Wetterlind said, but these students did not feel their needs were being met.

In addition, she said her research demonstrated the writing center is not reaching all the students who need assistance. Traditional English-speaking students are more comfortable making appointments than non-traditional students, including students whose first language isn’t English.

Assisting Literacy Skills in action

The Assisting Literacy Skills program, Wetterlind explained, is a program that meets the needs of all students who want to improve their English skills and make them feel more comfortable asking for help at the CWE

However, ALS functions very differently from the writing center, Wetterlind said. Students are not limited to hour-long sessions; they are able to work on assignments with an assistant or work on their own with an assistant at hand for help.

Students can also come in simply to socialize, practice their conversational skills, play games or even plan activities outside of the meeting place in McIntyre Library.

Hiroki Kanai was one student who utilized ALS for the first time on Thursday.

Kanai is studying elementary education and he will stay at Eau Claire for the academic year. He said he is especially excited to teach physical education and English, because English education in Japan has been improving over the past years. Now elementary students learn English from the time they are 10 years old.

After working with Wetterlind and the ALS program, Kanai said he would go again. He was able to speak English one-on-one, and if he was unsure how to say something, Wetterlind was able to explain it in Japanese.

Wetterlind explained this phenomenon as translingualism; she is able to use both English and Japanese to help students understand certain concepts and make connections between the two.

Looking to the future

As ALS is a relatively new program with little awareness, Wetterlind said attendance has been low. There is a missing link, she said, between ALS, students and professors, which is necessary for the program to thrive.

Julie Adler, English as a Second Language (ESL) senior lecturer and interim ESL coordinator, said other ways in which students can improve their English skills is by taking ESL courses or participating in the Intensive English Program.

Eau Claire currently has two levels of ESL coursework: intermediate and advanced. The former works with studying short academic discourses, forming good paragraphs and more.

The latter allows students to work on notetaking, conducting research and writing short essays.

The Intensive English Program allows students to meet with tutors, who are trained to help students apply what they have learned in ESL classes to their work. Their goal is to ensure the students learn as much as possible.

Although Adler had not heard of ALS before, based on the program description, she said it would be a useful addition to the resources available to international and ESL students, although she thinks assistants should undergo some training in linguistics and cultural differences.

Wetterlind said she has considered the possibility of creating a course which students would take to work for ALS but as a student-driven program. ALS will only survive if writing assistants want to help out, as Wetterlind is graduating at the end of the year.

“It’s a very little-known program, but it’s also rather necessary,” Wetterlind sai. “because it’s reaching out to those students that aren’t coming into the writing center, that they have a space that they’re comfortable enough to go to receive help.”

For anyone interested in utilizing the Assisting Literacy Skills program, assistants are available from 5-7 p.m. on Thursdays and Sundays in the CWE space on the second floor of the McIntyre Library.