Supporting International Writers

You will probably have some students in your classes for whom English is not the first language. There are around 800 international undergraduates enrolled at the Oakland campus (more than half enrolled in the Dietrich School), and 200-300 or more arrive each fall with varying levels of English fluency. More than 50% come from Mainland China, 2% from South Korea, and a small percentage from India, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and other countries. 

It is important to work out ways of helping international students carry out the work of the course. Most of the accommodations (making sure assignments are written out, giving some advance preparation for and ways of breaking down a difficult text, working closely on particular kinds of sentence issues and on the reading of complex passages) are actually good for all students. Above all, don’t let the appearance of errors related to English as a Second Language (ESL) distract you from also paying attention to these students’ ideas, content, arguments, and critical positions. Learning to write in English—a difficult and quirky language—and learning to do US-style academic work takes practice and immersion. To some extent, we all need to teach ourselves to be more responsive to many forms of Global English and to be open to competing cultural forms of argument and representation of ideas.

Below are some strategies that you can try when you are working with international writers.

Suggestions for Teaching Practices 

Give important information via multiple modes: speech, paper, chalkboard. Important information might include due dates or expectations, for example. Never just say it. Not only will your written communication clarify what you just said for international students, but it will also engage both visual and aural learners. 

If you do find yourself saying something profound or important in class, or if you change due dates, follow-up with the whole class via email or a handout to clarify your speech. 

Invite the student to office hours, or schedule conferences. Individual instruction is powerful. 

If you notice a student has particular trouble with the assigned reading, consider giving the student a reading aid in advance so they don’t flounder in complex prose. This aid can be as comprehensive or simple as time allows: an outline of the essay, a theme or key passages to focus on, or key words. 

International students are frequently quiet in class. Encourage them to talk, but consider alternative requirements because it might be all they can do to follow the conversation. Participation might entail writing a paragraph about what they thought about class discussion after class. Or it might involve taking notes in class and engaging with the tasks at hand. Use their discussion board, blogs, or other responses to help them enter the conversation. 

Email ESL students your discussion questions in advance so they have time to comprehend the questions and formulate responses. 

Consider assigning grammar presentations. Pair students and ask them to give a 5-minute presentation on a grammar concern or an unusual sentence structure. 

For group work, prepare your group/partner configurations before class. Pair ESL students with classmates who are articulate and on-task. Be attentive to whether ESL students are engaging with their native partners. They may feel marginalized; both cultures may need prompting. 

Suggestions for Responding to Student Writing 

Read the writing of international students for content as much as possible. You may have to address grammar that obscures meaning, but remember that grammar acquisition comes through practice. You are giving students practice, so look past grammar deviations to the arrangement and ideas. 

When commenting on student work, focus on errors that impede your comprehension and that open up possibilities for the student’s thinking, rather than distractions such as omitted articles, inconsistent verb tense, or inappropriate prepositions. Look for common error patterns in the essay and point out only one or two patterns per essay. You will waste time if you correct every grammar error because second language writers cannot absorb a wide variety of edits. 

Keep in mind that the rhetoric and structures of essays vary in different languages, so international writers may need guidance with rhetorical and structural conventions of academic English. 


Thanks to Marylou Gramm for allowing us to adapt and share the guide she developed for teachers in the English Department.