Supporting ESL Writers

Our writing consultants are trained to work with writers from all backgrounds, including non-native speakers of English. 

Strategies that support English as a Second Language (ESL) learners in your classes frequently benefit all students. 

1. Writing Assignments: Design assignment sheets that have consistent terminology. 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. 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 vs. 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 low but who have other strengths can receive high scores in some of the categories. 

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 and 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.

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 each student. Suggest that students visit the Writers’ Workshop 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 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, 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.

Helpful Links

International Student 101, International Student Services, UMD
Supporting Non-Native English Speakers, Minnesota English Language Program, UofM
Linguistically Diverse Students, The Writing Center - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing by Helen Fox
The Third Language of Academic English by Jeff Zwiers