Supporting ESL Writers

Let our writing consultants help support your students whose home language is something other than English. The consultants are trained to work with writers from all backgrounds, but several have specialized experience and background working with ESL speakers and writers.

Strategies that support English as a Second Language (ESL) Learners

  1. Build consistent assignment instructions: Use consistent terminology across your course and assignment instructions. Students may not know that, for example, the terms "citing sources" and "giving credit," or "bibliography," "Works Cited," and "References" are often used interchangeably.
  2. Use rubrics: Check to be sure that your evaluation tools measure what you want them to measure. Are you primarily interested in students' ideas and content (writing to learn)? Or are students being asked to demonstrate knowledge of a particular kind of writing in your discipline (learning to write)? Be sure your rubric clearly reflects your priorities. It helps to evaluate student work based on rubrics or checklists that have clear criteria, such as "content," "organization," "thesis," and "mechanics and punctuation." This way, students whose language proficiency is low, but who have other strengths, can receive high scores in some of the categories. 
  3. Give clear feedback: Write comments in sentences or phrases, such as “You need a thesis statement here” rather than just “Thesis?” Comment in clear, direct statements; this is not the place for rhetorical questions. 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.

    Focus 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 you edit for grammar. Point out language errors that occur in patterns and are easy to change, so students can experience immediate success. Examples include subject-verb agreement, articles, tenses, or sentence structures. You may not have time for one-to-ones with each student. Suggest that students visit the Writers’ Workshop at any stage of the writing process.
  4. Help students understand plagiarism: The way sources are documented varies widely from one country to the next. The concept of intellectual property is much more strongly developed in the US than in other countries. As a result of these differences, non-native speakers of English might unintentionally plagiarize because they are not familiar enough with the expected citation techniques, consider other people’s work a contribution to the common good, or see experts’ work as far superior to their own. 

    At the beginning of the semester make a point of explaining plagiarism and citation styles, 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.