For Instructors of English as a Second Language (ESL) Writers


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Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.

- Albert Einstein

esl writers

Students who speak English as a second language can be very broadly divided into two groups: international visa students and US residents. 

International Students

International ESL students usually completed several years of formal English language study in their home countries. They often have an impressive vocabulary and are quite familiar with grammatical rules and structures.

However, they may not be used to the complex language of university textbooks and journal articles. These students tend to emulate this language in their own writing, which takes them a long time and puts them in danger of plagiarizing.

International students might be unaccustomed to the linear, thesis-driven organization that is conventional in academic writing in the US. They may further believe that it is inappropriate for them to critically analyze an existing body of knowledge.

US Residents

Students who are US residents used their first and possibly additional languages in their home countries and usually speak a language other than English at home with their families. These students attended a United States high school and received their diploma before enrolling at the university.

Many of these students are comfortable with being bi- or multi-lingual and -cultural, while others may experience conflicts. They, like numerous native speakers of English, may not have been acculturated to using academic language structures.

Strategies that support English learners in your classes frequently benefit all students. Here are a few suggestions and tips:

1. Writing Assignments

Design assignment sheets that have consistent terminology. Students may not know that, for example, “in-text citations,” “citing sources,” “documentation,” or "provide references" are often used interchangeably.

2. Rubrics

Instructors of English learners often wonder if they need to lower their grading standards for these students, and the answer is “no.” Standards for all students’ work should remain the same. Yet, we might have to take a few different steps to get to the results.

First of all, we need to make sure that grading standards measure what we want them to measure. Almost all writing assignments evaluate language proficiency to some degree. It is important that we realize how much of our grading is about language v. actual content.

It helps to evaluate student work based on rubrics or checklists that have clear criteria, such as content, organization, thesis development, and grammar. This way, students whose language proficiency is not strong but who have great organization and ideas receive lower scores in the weaker categories and higher credit in others. 

Language mistakes can affect but generally should not “tank” a grade. However, for many writing assignments, expecting excellent language skills is appropriate. This includes those that focus on language itself or assignments for higher-level courses.

3. Comments

Write comments in sentences or phrases, such as “You need a thesis statement here” rather than just “Thesis.” Also, write comments about organization in clear, direct statements. This is not the place for rhetorical questions. For example, a comment like "This statement would be clearer if stated at the beginning of the paragraph” is more helpful than “Does this belong here?” Put comments on the margins at the places of concern. For instance, write “This needs a transition” right where it should be instead of commenting at the end.

Focus and comment on higher-order issues such as content and organization before looking at grammar. This approach allows you to concentrate on students’ insights and depth of thought while picking up on their language use. Likewise, encourage students to focus on content and organization when writing their outlines, drafts, and revised drafts. Only after that should they edit for grammar.

Point out language errors that occur in patterns and are easy to change, so students can experience immediate success. Examples include lack of subject–verb agreement, incorrect use of tenses, missing articles, or hanging prepositions. Language errors that are not rule-governed and harder to change can be corrected directly, for example prepositions, prepositional verbs, advanced article use, and idioms.

You may not have time for one-to-ones with the students. Suggest that students use the Writers’ Workshop or Mia O’Brien’s office hours at any stage of the writing process.

4. Plagiarism

The way sources are documented varies widely from one country to the next. The concept of intellectual property, along with the possibility of a lawsuit, is much more strongly developed in the US than in other countries.

Non-native students might plagiarize because they:
  • are not familiar enough with the expected citation techniques
  • consider other people’s work a contribution to the common good
  • see experts’ work as far superior to their own
At the beginning of the semester:
  • make a point of explaining plagiarism and citation style
  • include a section on plagiarism and its consequences in your syllabi
  • refer students to the Writers’ Workshop to learn about citations and bibliographies

If you suspect a student has plagiarized, have a one-to-one conversation to re-emphasize the issue.  Try to determine if the plagiarism was intentional or not.

Adapted from:

Jenson, J., O'Brien, M., & Woster, Emily. Supporting Non-native Speakers of English in Your Classes: Evaluating ESL Student Work. Workshop. University of Minnesota Duluth. March 29, 2016.
Shvidko, E., & Velázquez, A. (2016). Writing for a North American Academic Audience. Purdue University. Retrieved August 12, 2016.
The Writing Center (2014). Tips on Teaching ESL Students. The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Retrieved August 12, 2016.