teaching with writing
to non-native speakers of English
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
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
- 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.
sure the assignment sheets spell out organizational expectations and
guidelines. Non-native speakers often depend on printed materials instead
of their listening skills.
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.)
Approaches to typical
problems for non-native speakers
The most obvious problem for virtually all ESL writers is grammar.
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.
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
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.
comments about what the student needs are usually most helpful. Try
comments like, "You need more explanation or another example
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.)
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.
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.
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")
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.)
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)."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
- 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.
it very clear to students that you expect them to form an opinion about
a piece instead of simply summarizing it.
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.
often report that their ESL writer has totally misunderstood the intentions
of the assignment.
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.
- Use the
international students in the class as cultural (international) informants.
Many American students could benefit from a wider world view of historical
the ESL student to your office hours to discuss assignment expectations.
that ESL students hand in a preliminary draft so the teacher has a chance
to discuss any misinterpretation problems before the assignment is due.
the audience and the needs of the audience.
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
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.)
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.
- Be prepared
to spend time individually with students for explanations of the concepts
presented in a reading.
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
- 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.
instructors will allow the non-native speaker to take more time.
instructors assure the student that they will be focusing on ideas and
will mostly ignore grammar mistakes in timed writing.
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.
- 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.)
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