Editor’s note: We would like to thank Dr. Jose Lai for introducing us to the Peer Tutor Scheme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Check out our podcast interview with Dr. Lai and her colleague, Dr. Allen Ho to learn more about their efforts in localizing writing center praxis!
About The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)
The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), a comprehensive research university was established in 1963. It is the only university in Hong Kong that adopts a bilingual language policy whereby both English and Chinese are considered official languages on campus. Depending on the nature of the programs, faculties are free to choose their medium of instruction and students are given options to operate in either language at will. To date, CUHK enrolls around 18,000 undergraduates and 4,000 postgraduate students per year with the majority of them being local Chinese, and the rest, international and mainland students. In recent years, the challenges of globalization have encouraged increasing cross-cultural exchange and internationalization at home. The importance of English as an international language thus becomes paramount. In the midst of such currents, more government funding has been injected to enhance students’ English language proficiency and cultural awareness.
Formal English Language Provision at the English Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) of CUHK
At CUHK, language enhancement has primarily been implemented through a formal curriculum whereby students are required to take a series of credit-bearing English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English for Specific Purposes (ESP), and English for Professional Purposes (EPP) courses over a three-year span unless exempted based on attainment.
Non-formal English Language Enhancement Opportunities at CUHK
In addition to this formal curriculum, our university has also launched several large-scale projects to complement the said provision. Among them, English Across the Curriculum (EAC) and Peer-Tutoring Scheme (PTS) are two additional non-formal provisions that are relevant to the topic in question. Both EAC and PTS were formally launched in 2016 with funding coming from the University Grants Committee (UGC) in the form of Teaching Development and Language Enhancement Grant (TDLEG). While EAC is an institutional movement that extends the acquisition and use of English in formal English course settings to other subjects and disciplines by setting up Communities of Practice (CoP) collaborative projects with content teachers, PTS is an extension of EAC by providing opportunities for CUHK undergraduates and postgraduates to enhance their speaking and writing skills in an informal setting, one-on-one.
The ELTU Peer Tutoring Scheme (PTS) provides similar individualized support to students the way that Writing Centers do in North America. Yet, its implementation may differ in some way due to differences in context. Firstly, Peer Tutors are current students recruited from different academic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds to provide a friendly and supportive platform to cater for a wide range of students with diverse needs. These Peer Tutors comprise local and international students with not only high language proficiency, but also passion for service, confidence and competence, sensitivity to cultural issues, and open-mindedness. As novice peer supporters, they will receive a series of training in peer tutoring pedagogy, academic writing feedback literacy, pronunciation and presentation skills, intercultural communication skills etc.
Secondly, PTS at CUHK is implemented in an English as a Second Language (ESL) setting. Unlike conventional writing centers, our service covers any areas of support requested by tutees, literally from academic writing to academic presentations, to public exams such as IELTS and TOEFL, and to social English. Regardless of backgrounds, the request for academic writing often tops the list, and followed by academic oral presentations and social English skills. It is worth noting here that possible language transfer and empowerment in learner autonomy are key concepts to embrace in our context. To achieve these goals, rich online resources are made available for use.
Thirdly, to address the issue of student diversity, PTS at CUHK strives to be as learner-centred and learning-centred as possible. Consequently, three modes of support are offered to peer tutees: face-to-face, Zoom, and online feedback (without direct interaction). Peer Tutees are also free to identify suitable Tutors to consult based on their short video introductions showcasing their stellar abilities and passion for the work. Since Peer Tutoring is a service rather than a paid job, Tutors are only expected to serve at least an hour (i.e. one session) and up to 17 hours per week as stipulated by the university. As for Tutees, they can return for support with any Tutors as long as the number of sessions will not exceed four one-hour sessions per week. We are indeed fortunate to have an average of some 50 Peer Tutors per year, and they come from all eight faculties and around 15 countries/regions. This diverse profile has inarguably contributed to the attraction and success of PTS. To date, on average, the scheme serves around 200 peer tutees per year through 600+ appointments.
The success of PTS is due to collective efforts; that of the project team, our Honorary Advisors (Professor Terry Myers Zawacki and Dr Susan Lawrence), and all the Peer Tutors. Based on survey evidence, all sessions were extremely well-received reflecting tutees’ satisfaction of the service and their uptake of learning. The Peer Tutors also shared similar sentiments stating that PTS is a mutually beneficial process whereby tutees can seek help using the platform and they themselves can experience personal growth in the process.
It is our sincere hope that the PTS will contribute to the fulfilment of vision of CUHK in some way: To be acknowledged locally, nationally and internationally as a first-class comprehensive research university whose bilingual and multicultural dimensions of student education, scholarly output and contribution to the community consistently meet standards of excellence.