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Responding to non-native speakers of English

Sheryl Holt
Writing Studies

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.

Suggested approaches:

  • Put more direct, instructive and extensive comments on papers, for example, "You need a thesis statement at the beginning of this paper." The instructor might even find such a statement later in the paper and tell the student where the American audience would expect to find it.
  • Try to focus on the content and ignore the grammar at first, so you can determine what else needs work.
  • If only one draft will be seen, put comments about both the grammar and the organization, but don't just correct the grammar. The exceptions are articles, prepositions, and word choice or idiomatic expressions, which need to be corrected because there are few rules or patterns or, as in the case of articles, they are very complex in English.
  • Try to put more marginal comments instead of just end or front comments. Even if the paper looks filled with comments, it will help the student to see comments at the place of concern. Few non-native speakers have ever told me that they were overwhelmed when they saw all the comments. Many, however, have told me that the comments were too brief and not instructional enough. Remember that most non-native speakers have not had years of American-style writing instruction and need to have more direction.
  • Make sure the assignment sheets spell out organizational expectations and guidelines. Non-native speakers often depend on printed materials instead of their listening skills.
  • In class, write more on the board than you might for an all native-speaker class. It will help non-native speakers understand better and will reinforce what has been said in class discussions. (Often, non-native speakers have a hard time understanding their peers because of the students' poorly organized statements and the ESL students' poor listening skills.)

Specific approaches to typical problems for non-native speakers


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:

  • Comment on grammar only after the organization and content of the paper are reviewed, so you will avoid the trap of over-correcting the grammar and ignoring the content.
  • Put a lot of written comments about organization and ideas and only circle grammar errors (if they are minor).
  • Ask the student to hand in another draft for grammar comments after the ideas are more organized.
  • If there are some consistent problem areas (ignore article problems, since they are so complex in English), then correct or provide a rule for that area and ask the student to correct THAT mistake throughout the paper. An ESL specialist at Student Writing Support can help with article usage.
  • Decide what is tolerable WRITING ACCENT—ideas are understandable though the paper still contains minor errors such as singular/plural agreement problems and article errors.
  • Suggest that the student use Student Writing Support with a trained ESL specialist.


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.

Suggested comments:

  • Directed comments about what the student needs are usually most helpful. Try comments like, "You need more explanation or another example here."
  • Provide some examples of connective sentences for ESL writers. Some teachers will revise one or two paragraphs, providing the transitional words, phrases and sentences for the student so he or she can see good examples of our connective devices. (This will be a very hard concept for many ESL writers to learn and change because it takes time to change one's thinking process—especially if the student has been a successful writer in his or her own language.)
  • Talk to the student about the differences in cultural styles and ask about his or her cultural expectations of writing. Some students will be unaware of these differences, but many are very insightful and will help you understand their background.


"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.)

Suggested comments:

  • Comments about logical development should, as much as possible, be formulated in clear, direct statements. Although there is a place in papers for comments given in the form of questions, when it comes to thesis statements and logical development, questions like "Does this belong here?" can be more confusing than "This statement would be clearer if stated at the beginning of the paragraph (for an American audience)."
  • Help the students come up with an outline before writing the first draft. It is frustrating for students to spend a lot of time writing a paper just to find out that they need to start over with a more narrow thesis.
  • Some instructors will give the opportunity for any student to submit a plan (not a draft) via e-mail so they don't feel like they are singling out the ESL students. Others approach the weaker students (ESL included) and ask them to submit a plan.


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.

Suggested responses:

  • Instead of assuming the student has not done enough research, tell the student what type of evidence is expected for an American audience and where to find that type of evidence.
  • Encourage summarizing or paraphrasing instead of quoting long sections of authorities' ideas, being especially clear about why this is important in U.S. writing.


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.

Suggested comments:

  • Ask leading questions like, "Why are they saying this?", or "Why do YOU think....?", thus giving them permission to make inferences about the author's thoughts.
  • Make it very clear to students that you expect them to form an opinion about a piece instead of simply summarizing it.
  • Make comments or give examples about how to connect personal opinion/viewpoints and other sources. Most internationals have not had a lot of practice with these connections.


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.

Suggested approaches:

  • Use the international students in the class as cultural (international) informants. Many American students could benefit from a wider world view of historical events.
  • Invite the ESL student to your office hours to discuss assignment expectations.
  • Suggest that ESL students hand in a preliminary draft so the teacher has a chance to discuss any misinterpretation problems before the assignment is due.
  • Describe the audience and the needs of the audience.


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.

Suggested approaches:

  • Define plagiarism clearly and thoroughly in your syllabus. Don't assume all of your students will understand what it is.
  • Be a suspicious reader—not with the intention of punishing the student, but with the intention of addressing plagiarism before the student writes papers for another class and is reported for scholastic misconduct. (85% of all scholastic misconduct reports of plagiarism at the U of M are against ESL students.)
  • Once plagiarism is suspected, have a frank one-to-one discussion of what constitutes plagiarism in the U.S.
  • In most cases, give an opportunity to rewrite a paper, unless it has been a thoroughly copied paper or other very blatant example of plagiarism.
  • Student Writing Support is prepared to spend extra time explaining the expectations of documentation in an American university.


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.

Suggested approaches:

  • Be prepared to spend time individually with students for explanations of the concepts presented in a reading.
  • Possibly, assess the readings more closely for cultural implications before assigning them. Does a reading assume too much mainstream cultural knowledge? If so, maybe you can spend time individually with the student explaining the readings.
  • If the ideas of the readings are discussed in class, try to review what has been said at the end of the hour. Many ESL students can't pick up the main ideas from a loose discussion-based class.


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.

Suggested approaches:

  • Some instructors will allow the non-native speaker to take more time.
  • Other instructors assure the student that they will be focusing on ideas and will mostly ignore grammar mistakes in timed writing.
  • Hand out writing assignments early enough in the semester so the non-native speaker has ample planning, writing, and rewriting time.


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:

  • One approach is to categorize what you are grading. Try using a written or mental checklist that categorizes several areas such as organization, critical thought, narrowed thesis, and grammar with the heaviest weight of the grade being critical thought and organization. Less weight should be given to categories such as grammar and sentence structure. In this way, if the student has very good organization and ideas, he or she is given credit in those categories, but is graded down for sentence structure only in one area. This helps the student realize that the paper has several aspects that are worth looking at. Most teachers using this method will grade down only on areas that interfere with understanding of thoughts. Minor problems such as subject-verb agreement, article usage, etc., are usually overlooked or viewed as tolerable writing accent.
  • Another method is to grade primarily on content, but to circle types of errors on the final draft and ask the student to correct and hand in a clean copy now that the ideas are clear (or at least graded). This ensures that the subject has not had someone else change the ideas along with the grammar, or if you expect the student to get help at all, that should be clearly stated. If you expect the students to have someone else "fix" their drafts before handing them in, then this should be clearly stated at the beginning of the semester. If this type of help is seen as a form of plagiarism (another person doing work that should be done by the student) then this should also be clearly stated, but some consistency should be established for the whole class.
  • Some instructors prefer another method. Students hand in final drafts for a grade on the due date (which does not include any penalty from grammar errors), but when the paper is handed back, the student may take the paper to a writing center and work with a tutor. The goal should not be a completely corrected draft, but a reasonably changed draft. If you expect an absolutely clean draft, you are forcing someone else to simply go through the paper and correct it. The tutor can help the student in a few major areas instead of simply correcting the draft with the student. The corrected version does not change the grade, but is simply an additional step the student may take before receiving the grade. In other words, an additional draft is required of the ESL student, but the student has not been penalized for grammar errors on the final draft. (It also seems that the same strategy could be suggested for native speakers with poor grammatical or mechanical skills if you suggest it for the non-native speaker.)

Final advice

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,
Coordinator, First-Year Writing (Non-Native Speaker Sections), Writing Studies