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Quick suggestions for helping non-native writers

Eric S. Nelson
Minnesota English Center

Some of these suggestions are not specific to non-native writers. Those that apply especially to non-native writers are listed first.

  1. Keep in mind that your non-native writers are likely to be very diverse, including permanent residents who have graduated from U.S. schools as well as international students. Residents who are fluent in the spoken language may still have serious problems with both reading and writing in English.
  2. Remember that your idea of good writing may be fundamentally different from theirs. For example, in some other cultures, directness and conciseness are not highly valued. Use course readings or old student papers to show what you value in writing.
  3. Pay careful attention to the language of assignments. Sometimes simple words are less understandable to a non-native speaker than more "academic" words.
Less likely to be clear More likely to be clear
I want your take on the subject I want your analysis of the subject
What do you make of... How do you interpret...
Sketch the development... Describe the development...
In order to make it in politics... In order to succeed in politics...


  1. In assignment sheets, use culture-neutral terms when possible (for example, "six-year-old child" instead of "first-grader"). When you use culture-specific terms (for example, Rosa Parks or DFL), explain them or provide resources that explain.
  2. Keep in mind that interpreting handwritten comments is very difficult for many non-native speakers. One student from East Asia, for example, could not interpret the handwritten word "location" because it looked like the numeral "10" followed by the nonword "cation."
  3. Discuss how to use sources: summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, and so on. Different cultures may have different rules of academic honesty.
  4. Give assignment sheets that spell out what you expect: purpose of the assignment, length and format of the paper, use of sources, connection to course content, organization, evaluation, and so on.
  5. Make your criteria clear from the start. Consider including with the assignment sheet a criteria sheet that students attach to their work as the final page; design it so that it can serve as a checklist for the student and a grading sheet for you.
  6. If you have students work on papers in groups (writing or discussing), suggest structure for the activity. For example, in each group appoint a "summarizer" who periodically sums up what the group has said. This will lead to clarification that will benefit native-speaking students as well as non-native speakers.
  7. Try "paraphrase the assignment" discussions. Ask students to explain in their own words what they think is required of them.
  8. Provide examples of successful papers, partial or complete.
  9. Encourage students to turn in trial drafts. A quick read of a trial draft can save you time later.
  10. Suggest that students signal their moves in writing overtly, and show examples of language that can help them do this:

    "I will examine the consequences of..."

    "What conclusion can we draw..."

    "An example of this is..."

    "I have tried to explain..."

  11. Encourage the use of subheadings: "Background," "Discussion," etc.
  12. Form peer reading groups so that every draft is read by at least one reader before it reaches you.
  13. Read papers once through without marking.
  14. Be specific in suggestions for revision. Cryptic comments like "vague" or "unclear" are often hard to respond to. Fleshed-out comments ("Do you mean --- or ----?" "Are you trying to say that...?") take more time to write but get better results.
  15. Point out successful parts of a paper ("This example helps") as well as weaknesses.
  16. Consider devoting class time to allowing students to help each other interpret your feedback on papers.