Most instructors encounter non-native speakers of English or ESL students (students with English as their second language) in their classes at one point or another. Although native speakers of English also have problems with writing, non-native speakers' problems can be quite different, and the approach taken by the instructor needs to be different as well. The following list of ideas and suggestions will help you recognize and respond to the typical problems for ESL students. Some services are available on campus to help non-native speakers, but the majority of the improvement will need to come from comments made by the instructor. Although standards for grading must remain the same for native and non-native speakers in a class, the instructor may need to alter the approach of teaching and commenting slightly for the non-native speaker.
Generally, instructors find non-native speakers' papers overwhelming because there are several issues that need to be addressed. It is sometimes difficult to determine if the student is simply a weak writer, or if too little time has been spent on the draft, or if the kinds of mistakes stem from a lack of knowledge and experience of U.S. academic writing standards. While their American peers are usually satisfied and sufficiently directed with a few well-worded comments, most non-native speakers expect and need more extensive commenting. In fact, the role of the teacher in most countries is to correct everything, so even the comments the American instructor gives may seem inadequate to many of the international students. Most ESL-trained teachers say that they take the following approaches with their students.
The most obvious problem for virtually all ESL writers is grammar.
Recognizing grammar problems is so easy that it tends to mask the more serious problems of the ESL writer. It may also mask the good points of the paper and cause you to overlook the depth or insights presented in the paper. Writing grammar corrections all over a paper causes a student to focus only on grammar and not realize that "fixing the grammar" may not significantly improve the other problems. Most ESL writers cannot focus on both grammar and development of ideas at the same time. They must first write their ideas and then edit for grammar.
Possible alternative approaches:
Sometimes for cultural reasons, non-native writers may have fewer written connections between ideas.
There will often be jumps between ideas with fewer written explanations of how the ideas are connected. Many cultures, particularly Asian cultures, would not insult the intelligent reader (especially a professor) by stating the obvious connections between ideas. American readers, on the other hand, want all connections of thought and transitions stated in black and white, not between the lines. Comments on papers must be more specific than "This is not clear." Another aspect of this problem is the lack of examples or specific explanation for ideas. Compared to other cultures, students often say we "beat a dead horse" with explanations, examples and other evidence.
"Logical development" is very culturally defined.
Possibly the most difficult problem to diagnose relates to the logical and thorough development of ideas as they relate to cultural training. What an American considers logical in an academic paper may not be logical in another culture. Because of cultural training, some internationals will have trouble sticking to a thesis, narrowing a thesis sufficiently, or proving a thesis concretely enough for an American audience. You may find that the point is difficult to find or understand because of the difference in presentation. Of course, this is not true of every writer from other cultures. Some students have had a lot of practice writing for an American audience, while others have simply translated styles as well as language. Comments on logical development should be abundant in a non-native speaker's papers.
Many ESL students do not recognize that the American style is very direct and very narrow (in comparison to their style). For example, look at the last paragraph of the last page to find a thesis in many Japanese writers' papers. It is often stated quite clearly there, but you may have had to guess throughout the paper what the student has been trying to say or prove. For another example, many cultures admire the beauty of the language as much as the message. A South American may want to put too many flowery words into an academic paper and will often report that American writing is very boring. They may also appear to be straying from the initial thesis as the paper progresses. Many writers educated in other cultures have never been trained to write in a direct (or, as they say, "blunt and colorless") style.
How another person's cultural style differs from an American's style is new knowledge to many non-native writers, even very experienced ESL writers, and it takes practice to recognize and change the style to fit an American academic audience. If you help the student understand that an American audience often expects a thesis statement to come early in academic writing, and that all other points would need to prove the thesis in a very direct way, it will help the student become a better writer for an American audience. (There is much discussion of late about whether to change the American audience's expectations or whether to make others change to fit our traditional style. I believe that ESL students should at least be aware of the variances in expectations within an American university setting.)
What constitutes solid evidence in the U.S. is different from some other cultures.
In some cultures, the more passionately a point is argued, the more it is believed. In others, personal experience would never constitute good evidence. In still others, quoting "the masters" is the most reliable evidence. In the U.S. academic setting, we highly value research statistics, personal experience or observation, and words of current authorities. Without these types of evidence, papers are considered weak. Furthermore, logical reasoning is highly valued, but that reasoning is usually from an American perspective and assumes knowledge of the counterarguments.
Teachers frequently complain about non-native speakers' lack of critical thinking.
Although this is the biggest complaint I hear from university instructors about all students, international students may be displaying a different problem than Americans. Culturally, many non-native speakers have a very high regard for what is written by someone else. They are taught that using someone else's words in a paper is more important than their own interpretations or opinions. In some cultures, they are seldom asked to (publicly) criticize, evaluate, or think deeply about an authority's written words. Questioning and evaluating are intricate parts of U.S. culture, but many cultures have been taught to accept, not question—at least in writing. For South East Asians educated in American high schools, the problem may include some cultural conflicts, but there is an added problem as well. Depending on when they arrived in the U.S., they may not have had a chance to develop critical thinking skills in American high schools. They were often busy trying to pick up the English language in mainstream classrooms at the age when their native-speaker peers were concentrating on developing critical thinking skills. However, after some extra help and practice, ESL students often are able to formulate unique and insightful opinions that many Americans lack the world experience for.
Teachers often report that their ESL writer has totally misunderstood the intentions of the assignment.
Although listening and other language skills often enter into the misinterpretation of an assignment, there may be other factors. The assignment may include a lot of cultural or historical information that is beyond the knowledge of the ESL student. For example, asking a student to analyze a certain event in U.S. history will probably be more difficult for a foreign student than for someone who has lived in the U.S. all his or her life. Students in first-year writing courses may have special difficulties because so many of the topics are approached from an American viewpoint. They may also lack knowledge of the audience's needs and expectations surrounding style, tone or background knowledge.
Plagiarism is often interpreted culturally.
What and how sources are documented varies widely around the world. What may appear to be blatant plagiarism could be a lack of knowledge of American documentation techniques. Also, because others' words are deemed more important than the student's, it may seem that there is an overuse of other sources with little of the student's opinion or ideas established. Furthermore, in many cultures, students work together on projects, so identical papers could be turned in to you without the student knowing how an American teacher would view this practice. Also, "sharing" of papers from past semesters is commonly practiced in some cultures, so students should be clearly warned what the consequences of such sharing should be. Explicitly stating expectations early in the semester regardless of all issues of plagiarism can often help avoid major confrontations later.
Many teachers encounter problems with ESL students' lack of understanding of an assigned reading.
Although it is most often assumed ESL students don't understand readings because of the English vocabulary, this problem is also likely to result from some other sources. There may be some cultural assumptions in the reading that most Americans would easily understand, but there may be numerous subtle ideas that would not be easily recognized by the non-native speaker. Because of the differences in organizational patterns in the US, even picking out the main idea of a piece can be difficult for some students.
Because of the lack of experience with other ESL issues, non-native speakers will usually need a lot more time to write and rewrite.
When students are faced with in-class, timed writing such as essay questions on a test or first-day writing samples, the non-native speaker will always be at a disadvantage.
Although many instructors have learned by trial and error how to work with ESL students, grading is still a confusing task. How can you grade the ESL student fairly when the paper still has grammar errors? No one approach is the RIGHT approach, but here is a collection of ideas that work for some instructors.
Possible alternative approaches:
The worst possibilities are to correct the draft completely for the student, to ignore the grammar totally, or to pick out an area of insignificance for the student to work on. There needs to be a balanced approach when working with the student.
I am available to look over a draft or discuss how to work with a student's grammar errors or other aspects of the paper so you can have a reasonable, balanced approach to working with your non-native speakers.
Sheryl Holt (612) 624-4524, firstname.lastname@example.org
Coordinator, First-Year Writing (Non-Native Speaker Sections), Writing Studies