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Supporting ESL Writers

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Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.

- Albert Einstein

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

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.


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. For example, write “This needs a transition” right where it should be instead of commenting at the end of the paper.

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 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 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. Students are also welcome to meet with the ESL Specialist in KAML 217 during office hours or by appointment ( 

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
  • 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.

Adapted from:

Jenson, J., O'Brien, M., & Woster, E. 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.