The writing of international students, who are largely–but not always--English language learners (often labeled “L2” students by specialists), can be a central source of anxiety for instructors. On the one hand, instructors--particularly those teaching courses that are not writing-intensive--may feel that their focus should be on ideas and might be uncomfortable putting too much focus on grammar or mechanical correctness. On the other hand, many instructors feel that if they do not correct the errors, no one else will, and the development of those skills will go unaddressed, leaving the students unprepared to communicate effectively in writing. Both groups of instructors struggle with the decision whether to comment on L2 students' sentence level language, and if so, how.
It is important to remember, however, that L2 students, whatever their fluency, bring a host of language skills as multilingual learners to their writing, and are certainly capable of developing proficiency in English, especially if given the time, patience, and support to do so. As instructors might expect international students, as well as domestic students from across the country, to speak with an accent, they might also expect international students may write with an accent as the students' language develops gradually throughout the course of their study. Well-considered feedback, while unlikely to produce writing that perfectly meets established conventions in the scope of a semester, can move students to make significant gains in language fluency. Furthermore, this feedback does not need to be work intensive on the part of an instructor.
The following advice is meant to give instructors a perspective on how to effectively offer feedback on student writing, particularly those who are English language learners.
What to consider addressing
Focus on furthering your core learning goals: As we suggested on our page about curriculum design and classroom practice, feedback strategies should focus on addressing central objectives for the course. For example, if your goals are to further students' critical thinking skills in your field or to help students develop compelling ideas about the subject matter, insofar as students’ surface errors don’t impede those goals, you might worry less about surface-level mistakes in language (though this in no way means you should ignore language development entirely).
Focus on giving feedback to help students develop their ideas: When students--international or domestic--are grappling with new, challenging ideas, their normally competent command of language may break down. Mechanical mistakes, in this case, can be a sign that the students are thinking. In fact, correcting their language could be counter-productive, since the students might correct the sentence-level errors, rather than work on developing their ideas. Guide them in their meaning making before you focus on the correctness of their sentences.
Focus on identifying wider, more easily fixable patterns of error: Look for the most common mistakes and set manageable goals for students to correct over time. Some kinds of error--mostly associated with fundamental grammatical conventions for English, like verb tense or pronoun/antecedent agreement--are relatively easy to correct because they involve relatively fixed rules for usage. Many L2 students, having learned English as a foreign language, will have significant knowledge of grammatical terms and rules, even if they seem to be confused sometimes about how to put those rules into practice. Other issues, such as conventions of usage or appropriate style in particular contexts, are hard to learn in a short amount of time, and simply require long-term practice beyond the scope of a 15 week semester or perhaps even four years of higher education (though see below for advice on how to begin to address these issues).
Focus on teaching students to self-correct error: While it is important to identify examples of common errors you find in student writing and to provide resources to help students correct their work, it’s important to give students the space to learn strategies for editing their work. Instead of correcting every example of an error you find, you might consider pointing to a few key examples and giving feedback on how to correct the error. You can then ask that students proofread to correct further instances. You might help them along (especially early on) by highlighting errors in a minimal way, giving students the responsibility to correct them.
Focus on developing student fluency over time: Allow students to revise their work over a semester, picking a few key goals to address by the end of a term. Give students an opportunity to experiment with language in a particular context: free to make mistakes, but open to develop strategies for learning the conventions of language use in your field. Inasmuch as you can, you might meet with students regularly to support their language development and to learn more about their ideas, interests and struggles with learning in your course.
Addressing more difficult issues in language use
We recommend against expecting students to develop fluency within a short period of time and overly focusing on sentence-level errors within a course. We provide here some strategies for instructors to help students improve their long-term language learning. The first step, we’ve argued, involves patience. Suresh Canagarajah, a prominent researcher in the field of ESL Composition, writes that instructors should expect and tolerate a "written accent" in student writing as we would a spoken accent. Students already come to the table with advanced language skills, proven by their ability to grapple in foreign social contexts in a language in which they are only gradually gaining fluency. Canagarajah argues that writing classrooms can become a safe place where students are able to use existing language strategies to develop their thinking, even if their initial attempts seem clumsy and non-standard.
For many L2 students, learning English as a foreign language means that they probably know grammatical terms better than many domestic students. At the same time, their experience as non-native speakers means that they are likely to struggle with using English in newer, unfamiliar contexts. Certain kinds of error, like errors of usage or inappropriate stylistic choices, are specific and contextual. Addressing these errors requires small, iterative steps over time.
Contextualize written feedback on usage and style: Rather than treating issues of usage and style as a set of fixed rules, frame them as appropriate choices in specific contexts. For instance, in scientific discourse, the use of the active voice is often discouraged in order to establish objectivity in procedure and analysis of data. However, this preference is changing among some writers in scientific fields who feel that dogmatic adherence to passive voice obscures readability and objectivity can be demonstrated in a range of ways (see, for example, the APA Publication Manual (6th ed), p. 77, and Booth, Colomb, and Williams, pp. 262-4). Help students understand how context determines the choices writers may make in your field, as well as some of the reasons behind these contextual preferences.
Meet with students face to face to discuss particularly noticeable usage issues: Conferencing with students allows you to follow up on written feedback and class discussion. This is extremely helpful during the students' writing process. It allows students to ask questions based on, or in addition to, the written feedback provided. It also allows instructors to expand on their feedback and set long term agendas for learning, thereby preventing any miscommunication about paper expectations and promoting development over time. Furthermore, these meetings give students an opportunity to practice how to communicate with course instructors, as well as learn academic American culture.
Focus on issues most relevant to the context of the course: There are three main components to consider when thinking about the students' writing process within the discipline:
Help students understand the often subtle use of language involved with disciplinary 'stance': Stance is the “subtle ways that writers in the disciplines go about evaluating evidence and positioning the reader toward their views” (Lancaster, 2014, p.269). Understanding how different disciplines use language in varying contexts is difficult for all students; it is often a challenge to make the discursive context transparent for both domestic and international students because it is often tacit knowledge. Lancaster (2014) and Soliday (2011) explain that understanding stance within a discipline is often found through trial and error - and L2 students may have a more difficult time because of the nuances involved. How an argument is formed in one discipline will be different in another. Those differences often involve the use of different types of hedging - usually “accomplished through low-probability modal expressions (may, might, could), appearance-based evidential verbs (seems, appears, suggests), low-certainty adverbs (perhaps, possibly) and other linguistic resources” (Lancaster, 2014, p.296).
Allow for multiple drafts and low-stakes writing activities: In order to increase student fluency (e.g., the flow of ideas on paper), students need the opportunity to practice. While fluency does not mean accuracy, it may help students to structure their arguments and organize their writing. Accuracy takes time over multiple semesters to master. Having a chance to practice crucial thinking skills in writing helps students develop this fluency, as does the opportunity to revise their work.
Provide samples for students to draw from: Samples allow students to develop their own writing style. It grants them further exposure to academic language and disciplinary conventions, allowing them to compare and contrast it with their own. It gives you an opportunity to call attention to discipline-specific ways of using language and talk about how writers in your field use disciplinary conventions.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th Ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Booth, W., Colomb, G., & Williams, J. (2008). The Craft of Research. 3rd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Canagarajah, A. S. (2006). The place of world Englishes in composition: Pluralization continued. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 586-619.
Canagarajah, A. S. (2013). Translingual practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Ferris, D. (2011). Treatment of error in second language student writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2nd ed.
Lancaster, Z. (2014). Making stance explicit for second language writers in the disciplines: What faculty need to know about the language of stance-taking. Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Cox, Michelle. (Eds.) WAC and Second-Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press. Available at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/l2/
Soliday, M. (2011). Everyday genres: Writing assignments across the disciplines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.