The Tutoring TARDIS: Higher, Lower, and Later Concerns

I wanted to see if you knew the correct answer before I trusted you with my ideas.
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Over the course of my career, I have encountered the concepts of higher-order concerns (HOCs) and lower-order concerns (LOCs) more often than I can count. In the writing center world, higher-order concerns are global issues that affect a piece of writing as a whole. One might think of thesis statements, structure, organization, and voice. In contrast, lower-order concerns “are matters related to surface appearance, correctness, and standard rules of written English” (McAndrew and Reigstad 56). Our old nemeses comma splices, dangling modifiers, and passive voice are a few examples of lower-order concerns.

In The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring, Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner refer to such grammatical issues as “later-order concerns,” issues that a writer can address after tackling higher-order concerns (17). While maintaining a clear distinction between different types of writing issues is in many ways necessary, an anecdote from my time as a private writing tutor in New York City begins to blur the line – as well as the timeline – between HOCs and LOCs.

During a session with a student working on a cover letter for graduate school applications, I found myself eager to address many higher-order concerns. The draft lacked a clear structure and did not accurately express the student’s dynamic voice. I tried to guide our conversation towards issues of structure and sequence; however, the student had other ideas. He repeatedly asked me whether or not he needed commas around his current supervisor’s name. In the draft, there were no commas. I asked him if he currently had just one supervisor.  With a sly smile on his face, he said, “Yes, Randie, just one.”

A little perplexed by his Cheshire-cat like grin, I asked him what he was smiling about. I will never forget what he said next: “I knew the rule for appositives and essential or non-essential information. I wanted to see if you knew the correct answer before I trusted you with my ideas.” In this case, a lower-order or later-order concern became a right-now concern. Also, and most importantly, I had to demonstrate knowledge of a lower-order concern before the student believed I would be able to assist with any higher-order concerns.

This anecdote is far from unique. During my time as a private tutor and in my current position as writing center coordinator, I have seen students approach the composition process in a multitude of ways. For instance, students in the developmental writing program here at WCC frequently approach early assignments in terms of lower-order concerns. Some students whom I work with describe their work as a succession of rules or concepts. For others, their paragraphs are comprised of a series of clauses in different places in order to emphasize some ideas over others. Some students even think, at first at least, more locally, breaking down a sentence to an introductory modifying element followed by a comma and an independent clause.

Similarly, multilingual learners – especially international students – can see lower-order concerns as integral to expressing their own writerly voice. One student I worked with in the spring semester, for example, wanted to make sure that she had “used subordination correctly to emphasize my main point.”

In these instances, the line separating lower and higher-order concerns blurs, and later-order concerns are addressed before or concurrently with higher-order concerns.


Works Cited:

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring. Pearson, 2008.

McAndrew, Donald A., and Thomas J. Reigstad. Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences. Boynton/Cook, 2010.