Supporting International Student Writers

For faculty who integrate writing into their curriculum, the extra challenge experienced by students who are not native English speakers can cause some concern and uncertainty. Here are some tips for how to support your multilingual students!


  1. Get them connected to resources. The CEW works one-on-one with writers to help them to develop their written English proficiency. Many international students have found that regular, ongoing appointments at the Center are crucial to their success.
  2. Comment strategically, focusing upon writer development rather than “product fixing.” Make sure that the writer knows that the substantive, content level of their work is the most important thing and that you are identifying strengths and areas to work on on that level, just as you would any of your students. To help students make progress on the mechanics of English, prioritize your comments. Multilingual writers will become overwhelmed trying to address every editing issue at once. Overwhelm is never a good state of mind for learning. If grammar and mechanics are interfering with meaning, focus on one or two specific issues to point out to them in the draft. (For example, verb tenses are probably a lot more interfering than non-standard article choices.) You might notice that many of the issues in a paper written by a multilingual writer are not simple grammatical errors, but rather syntax issues that may be related to the translation process or the structures of the writer's native language. In such cases, underlining the problematic phrase and having them address it in conference or in the Writing Center is better than trying to figure out what grammar rule it violates.
  3. Develop a tolerance for differences in English proficiency.  Every day, consultants in the CEW work with international students on the sentence mechanics in their writing among other facets of the writing process.  Many students come into the Center highly concerned about the level of correctness of their text.  When feedback and grading is primarily focused on editing skills, then the student will be in a panic to get each paper “fixed” as if the sentence level mechanics are all that matters. In such cases, they will often come into the Writing Center open only to a line by line edit rather than presenting in a state to work developmentally on their English proficiency, which requires focus, prioritizing and individual effort. In such cases, they are also far less likely to be willing to work on global issues such as use of research, organization and argument development.  In other words, when it comes to grammar, punctuation, syntax, and style, we hope you will join us in encouraging progress rather than perfection. It won’t siginificantly help the writer along their language acquisition journey to just have their paper proofread and fixed for them.
  4. Familiarize yourself with cultural differences that might affect writing and rhetorical styles (as well as classroom behavior!). For example, the directness favored in the academic writing of U.S. universities might be seen as disrespectful to the reader in some cultures. Also norms related to plagiarism vary significantly from culture to culture. International students may need direct cultural information to be able to adapt to the writing conventions of U.S. academia. Your assignment sheet might be transparent to a domestic student, but very confusing to a student who has been educated in another culture. 
  5. Work with us! The good news is that CEW consultants are trained in research-based methods for helping non-native English speakers make progress in writing. Regular one-on-one collaboration not only is the best way to accelerate progress, but it also provides valuable space for international students to make connections and get oriented, ask questions they may not feel comfortable asking in class, and to practice their spoken English with a native speaker. If faculty can help us by not expecting that writing products will be scrubbed of all inconsistencies after visits, this will contribute to our ability to work meaningfully with international students. An expectation of perfect products significantly short-circuits our ability to help writers make lasting progress. Our mission is to focus on writer development. 
  6. And finally, prepare to be impressed! Can you imagine doing college level work in your second (or even third or fourth) language? Through immersion, instruction, and practice, these students gradually improve, but their current ability level as well as their motivation and willingness to put in the extra effort that international study entails, continually impresses us here in the CEW!