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Lets Focus on the Next Question

Utilizing Politeness Strategies in The Modern Writing Center
Veronica Freeman
March 22, 2016
Most college campuses today have a writing center of some sort, an area, commonly
employed by student tutors, that assists in all stages and all forms of helping students write.
However, the discussions that take place between tutor and tutee are much more than
informational sessions. The job of a writing center tutor is to not only assist, but also to aid
students by helping develop skills outside of writing. Building up self confidence, allowing a
student to feel as though they are interacting with a peer and not an authority figure, and creating
a space where students feel they are truly improving their writing are all important aspects of
tutoring. The Politeness Theory is a convenient and proven way to assist students through
building a rapport and allowing for students to feel more comfortable and praised in the writing
center. Multiple studies supporting the use of the politeness theory in tutoring sessions have been
conducted, however more recently politeness strategies have expanded into the digital world and
are being used to assist students more broadly through growing technology.
Brummernhenrich, Benjamin and Regina Jucks. He Shouldn't Have Put It That Way! How
Face Threats and Mitigation Strategies Affect Person Perception in Online Tutoring.
Communication Education (2015): 1-17. Web.
Working with the idea of face threatening acts and how politeness variance changes
students perceptions, Benjamin Brummernhenrich and Regina Jucks conducted an experiment to
test the influence of politeness in tutoring strategies. The researchers created several different
written conversations that employed different positive face threatening acts (violating self
esteem, such as insulting or disapproving) and negative face threatening acts (violating


autonomy, such as reminding or requesting). They differentiated the face threatening acts by
altering politeness strategies used, then had 141 participants evaluate the dialogues. The results
showed that participants perceived the tutors who used more politeness strategies, compared with
bald-on-record (straight forward) strategies, to be rated as more appropriate tutors. These results
essentially meant that the tutors were perceived to be giving the tutee more autonomy within the
tutoring session. It was also found that politeness was a naturally occurring strategy used by both
tutors and participants. This information could be particularly useful for new tutors when first
beginning work in the writing center as a way of utilizing conversation techniques that are
already learned.
Bell, Diana Calhoun, Holly Arnold, and Rebecca Haddock. Linguistic Politeness and Peer
Tutoring. Learning Assistance Review 14 (2009): 37-54. Web.
The politeness theory developed in 1987 by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson built
upon the concept of individuals having negative and positive face needs. Positive politeness is an
anti-confrontational aspect of interacting with others (I am an English major too!). Negative
politeness, on the other hand, involves trying not to impose on another individual (Maybe you
should phrase it this way...). Researchers Diana Calhoun Bell, Holly Arnold, and Rebecca
Haddock conducted a study to see if politeness strategies shifted in usage as tutors become more
confident in their tutoring process. The researchers found that when students first began tutoring,
positive politeness strategies were used in order to help tutors relate more effectively to students.
The second finding concluded that when new tutors, those with less than six week of experience,
were in positions that called for authoritative action they utilized negative politeness. The
researchers also discovered that after six weeks tutors generally moved away from positive
politeness and focused more on a communal and enveloping tone that involved a lot of we


talk. Lastly, the negative politeness term what do you think of that became more prevalent
during sessions as tutors gained more experience. Politeness methods used were most useful in
building up a rapport with students, in particularly short tutoring sessions (30 minutes) this could
help build a quick, trusting relationship with a tutee.
McLaren, Bruce M., Krista E. DeLeeuw, and Richard E. Mayer. Polite Web-based Intelligent
Tutors: Can They Improve Learning in Classrooms? Computers & Education 55.3
(2011): 574-84. Web.
McLaren, Bruce M., Krista E. DeLeeuw, and Richard E. Mayer questioned the need for
computer generated tutors to use politeness tactics in order to help students gain confidence
while being tutored. Computer generated tutors are artificial intelligence programs, commonly
used for tutoring in technical domains. The focus on Brown and Levinsons politeness theory
was used to address positive and negative face needs. Positive face is the self esteem of an
individual. Negative face is the need for a person to feel autonomous in a situation. The
participants included 132 U.S. high school students enrolled in a chemistry class and were tested
for low and high prior knowledge in chemistry. Once the students were assigned to one of the
categories they were given a set of computer generated questions. The first set used phrasing that
did not violate the students face needs. The second set violated face needs through direct
commands. The results of the study found that students in low prior information settings had a
higher learning outcome when paired with computers that used politeness strategies. In
conclusion, students who had low confidence in a particular area of learning benefited greatly
through politeness strategies. This strategy can be applied to writing centers when encountering
students who have low confident in their writing and employing politeness strategies as a


Nash, Gail. Politeness in the Writing Center: An Analysis of NS Tutor and NNS Student
Discourse. (Native English Speaking Tutors and Non-Native English Speaking
Students). Writing Lab Newsletter 31 (Dec. 2006): 1-6. Web.
The writing center at Oklahoma Christian University conducted a survey to see if non
native speakers found politeness strategies to inhibit their learning potential in a tutoring session.
Gail Nash created a survey that utilized Brown and Levinsons politeness theory and used several
different statements that violated positive or negative face needs. The results found that non
native speakers actually preferred direct statements. Statements such as You dont have a clear
thesis were seen as incredibly helpful because they contained a clear and precise message.
However, bald-on-record statements such as there are a lot of mistakes were not seen as
helpful because they were vague. Nash concluded that Although all cultures have face as Brown
and Levinson claim, all cultures do not maintain face in the same way. Perhaps the NS tutors
concept of saving face is not the same as the NNS students (5). It was also important to note
that tutors surveyed felt that it would be rude to use directive strategies during a tutoring session.
When tutoring students, particularly ESL students in the writing center, fewer politeness
strategies aid in the communication barrier, allowing for a more effective tutoring session.
Person, Natalie K., Roger J. Kreuz, Rolf A. Zwaan, and Arthur C. Graesse. Pragmatics and
Pedagogy: Conversational Rules and Politeness Strategies May Inhibit Effective
Tutoring. Cognition and Instruction 13.2 (1995): 161-88. Web.
The difference in how politeness is affected depending upon the teaching domain is
addressed by Natalie K. Person, Roger J. Kreuz, Rolf A. Zwaan, and Arthur C. Graesse. The
researchers relied heavily on H. Paul Grices cooperative principle, which was developed in 1975
and furthered in 1978. Grice concluded that all participants in a conversation will make an


attempt to abide by four maxims within a conversation to the best of their ability. The four
maxims are quantity (required information), quality (truth), relevance ( necessary information),
and manner (being brief and concise). In order to see how politeness strategies used in normal
conversation can be converted into useful tutoring tactics, the researchers compared two data
sets. The first was college students being tutored on different research methods and the second
was seventh graders receiving tutoring in algebra. Through observing tutoring in different
domains of study the researchers were able to conclude that politeness strategies were utilized
more in teaching research methods. This observation showed great evidence that domains with
less restrictive and scientific rules, such as English, are more likely to utilize politeness strategies
in order to facilitate a normal conversation before and during tutoring sessions. Therefore, when
tutoring in the writing center applying politeness strategies seems more effective in English
papers, versus less effective when tutoring scientific papers.
Thompson, Isabelle. Scaffolding in the Writing Center a Microanalysis of an Experienced
Tutors Verbal and Nonverbal Tutoring Strategies. Written Communication 26.4 (2009):
417-53. Web.
A microanalysis conducted within a university writing center was sought to explain
scaffolding techniques (allowing a student to have needs addressed in learning situations) within
tutoring sessions, particularly through politeness theories and gestures. During a 28-minute
tutoring session scaffolding strategies were assessed to judge the successfulness of the session.
Politeness strategies were heavily utilized in the cognitive scaffolding strategy (prompts such as
whats the next step?). Within this particular strategy the student uses polite language, such as
Now, what do you think I am going to say? (427), many of the gestures that were provided
within this setting included smiling and pausing in order for the student to actively participate.


Motivational scaffolding also proved useful and utilized politeness strategies. Phrases such as
Oh, wow! Very good (428) provided feedback to the student and created a successful rapport.
Gestures accompanying motivational scaffolding included open hand gestures to display
friendliness. Tutoring in the writing center should incorporate motivational scaffolding
techniques to allow for a student to feel successful enough to continue trying.
Wang, Ning, W. Lewis Johnson, Paola Rizzo, Erin Shaw, and Richard E. Mayer. Experimental
Evaluation of Polite Interaction Tactics for Pedagogical Agents. Proceedings of the 10th
International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (2014): 12-19. Web.
Scaffolding allows for students to maintain a level of self esteem within classrooms while
being instructed. Cognitive and motivational factors were recognized in this study as the core
elements in assisting students and, while ITSs concentrate on cognitive factors, they often lack
motivational factors and ignore the state of a students well being. At the start of the experiment
the researchers observed an expert tutor, the researchers identified very subtle politeness
strategies that were used to engage students. These politeness strategies were used to increase
motivation through curiosity, challenges, reinforcing confidence in knowledge of the subject
material. A very small sample size was used to test the newly created tutoring system. However,
the results showed that students who experienced the politeness system showed a higher selfefficacy (a higher belief in personal capabilities); significantly more so than those who were
tutored with a direct method. Politeness strategy learners also showed slightly higher test scores
and students claimed that they felt that decisions were not made for them, further leading the
student to feel that they were in control of the tutoring session and allowing for a more
constructive learning environment. Therefore, utilizing politeness strategies in the writing center
will allow for students to have more confidence in their personal writing skills.


Yates, Lynda. Negotiating and Institutional Identity: Individual Differences in NS and NNS
Teacher Directives. Interlanguage Pragmatics: Exploring Institutional Talk. New York:
Routledge, 2008. 67-92. Print.
In an attempt to view politeness strategies within classroom settings between native and
non-native speakers, Lynda Yates conducted a study to test the use of politeness strategies. The
participants were newly graduated students beginning teaching. Nine of the students were of
European descent and nine were of Chinese descent. Yates observed the participants as they
began teaching within school systems and observed the tactics they used to interact with their
students. The study revealed that when politeness strategies were involved with students it was
seen as a formal behavior and therefore a socially distancing behavior (removing socially from a
group) to the students. In particular, please and thank you were used more prominently by
teachers of Chinese descent. The European participants used a different form of politeness
known as positive politeness hedging, such as like and sort of. It was particularly significant
that politeness strategies were used by both sets of participants when experiencing uncomfortable
situations, such as when a student answered a question incorrectly. In the writing center tutors
can be socially aware of hedging strategies that may be signaling a delay in communicating
negative feedback and can use politeness strategies to overcome these delays.
Although most of the studies conducted are based in subjects that have more definitive
rules, such as chemistry and algebra, politeness strategies are still proven to be useful within
English. Tutors have proved to be most successful in expanding a student's learning by allowing
the student to feel less authority within tutoring session. In addition, raising a students self


esteem within a tutoring session proves to be a useful method across all disciplines. However, it
is possible that politeness can cause students to not clarify when they dont understand a topic
and can cause the tutor to not be aware when a student may not fully comprehend a concept. In
addition to utilizing politeness strategies it is also useful to continue to ask clarifying questions to
check the students understanding and clarify any questions that may not have been addressed.
Within Hawaii the cultural differences can also cause communication problems, such as when
tutoring English as a second language (ESL) students, in which case less politeness may be a
better option for a more successful outcome.
Politeness and Tutoring
Defined terms relating to politeness theory and the utilization of these terms within tutoring.
Subtopics or
Theory (Brown
& Levinson)
Positive face

Negative face
threatening acts

The attempt to not violate
another's face needs when

Tutoring Implications
Useful in all tutoring situations to
build awareness of tutoring tactics that
may violate another's face needs.

Protecting another individual's self Useful when tutoring writers with low
self esteem; employ positive face to
i.e. Not insulting or belittling
not negatively affect writing esteem.
Allowing an individual to have
full autonomy.
i.e. Not ordering or requesting.

Useful when tutoring students who

have chosen to lead a tutoring session
or have a lot of knowledge on a topic.


Messages that adhere to an

individual's desire to be approved
of socially.
i.e. Im an English major too!

Useful for creating rapport; allows for

a tutee to feel comfortable and


Messages that adhere to an

individual's desire for autonomy.
i.e. Maybe you should phrase it
this way...

Useful for suggesting changes to a

paper, particularly in negative phrasal
situations and for asking questions to
build ideas.

An attitude that an individual hold

about him or herself.

Useful to keep in mind when helping

to revise papers and keep a tutee

Self esteem

engaged and motivated.
The theory that all participants in
principle (Grice) a conversation will abide by four
maxims (quantity, quality,
relevance, and manner).

Useful to keep in mind when

conversing with ESL students who
may violate a maxim incidentally,
allowing for a tutor to realize this and
clarify with the tutee.

A strategy for providing structured

support to students in regards to
idea generation and revision
i.e. Whats the next step?

Useful for working with returning

students, building upon tutoring
sessions from what has worked in past
tutoring sessions and prompting
students to develop answers on their

An individual's belief in their

ability to achieve success.

Useful when working with students

who are unsure of how to begin a
paper, self-efficacy can be built
through politeness strategies.


Removing oneself socially from a

group, can be due to cultural

Useful to keep in mind, too many

politeness strategies may allow a
student to feel indifferent to


A negative politeness strategy that

delays a response.
i.e. I think, maybe...

Useful for situations where an answer

may negatively affect a student's self
esteem, allows for a conversational
pause to rephrase a response.