Writing Needs of International Students
by Lissa Petersen
International students need the guidance and understanding of all of us as they gradually work toward mastery of academic English. Our expectations need to be reasonable yet rigorous. We hope the following suggestions for assigning and responding to the writing of international students will be helpful for you. If all of us give common messages to international students, making our expectations explicit, we may be able to help them reach higher levels of proficiency in American academic English sooner.
For many international students, timed essays are extremely challenging assignments. As the complexity of the thinking involved in the task increases and the processing time decreases, grammatical and syntactical forms the student can normally control tend to break down. Some students under this stressful situation resort to thinking in their native language and translating into English, which results in noticeably awkward phrasing. As the student then tries to control the language, he may lose control of the focus, logic, or structure of the paper.
On these assignments, you may want to be more lenient with grammatical errors than on untimed papers. You may also want to consider allowing international students to enter into an agreement with you in which they will prepare an additional assignment for the course if you will give them extra time (15-30 minutes) to complete timed essay assignments.
The best way to improve student writing is to encourage revision. You might invite students to submit an outline or working draft to you a week or more before the deadline; then briefly confer with those who do or make a few written suggestions. You can also encourage students to take their drafts to the Writing Center. A more radical idea: you could collect drafts from all students a week early and just check them in and return them without comment. By doing this, you encourage students to write early and rework the draft later with a more critical eye. Or you could encourage (not mandate) small writing groups where students review each others' drafts before the final paper is submitted to you. Students benefit greatly from interacting with an audience and considering alternative approaches to a paper they are working on.
Sometimes an international student can orally explain an idea clearly while in her writing it is confusing. In such cases, you might invite the student to meet with you and explain the unclear point. Often all you have to do is tell her, "Write down what you just said." (Students from Asian cultures, especially, are hesitant to approach a professor individually.)
To help you understand how your students view the writings they are submitting to you, ask for a short cover memo in which they explain their writing process, evaluate their paper, and raise any questions they may have for you.
In responding to international students' papers, you may make more helpful comments if you are aware of the sources of the problems you find.
Reading Comprehension Difficulties
International students are usually slow readers in English and have problems with vocabulary and with underlying cultural assumptions. They may, therefore, not have finished reading or not have fully understood the texts. If you detect such a problem in a writing assignment early in the semester, you might encourage the student to join a study group or work with a course tutor.
Cultural or Rhetorical Differences
In written comments on papers, it is helpful to show students the American academic expectations. Instead of my old habit of putting a label in the margin ("Irrelevant," "Disorganized," "Supports!" "Vague"), I now try to write a sentence or a question. For example:
a. "Answer the question directly. Assume I am already familiar with this historical background."
b. "This paragraph contains three main ideas. Develop them one at a time in separate paragraphs."
c. "You won't convince me of this assertion until you cite research findings that support it."
d. "What is your purpose? Tell me in the introduction so that I know where you're going."
Be alert for plagiarism, and be aware that it may be inadvertent since some cultures do not censure it as highly as we do. Also, some students rely too heavily on a source's wording because they do not fully understand the author's concepts, or they lack confidence in their ability to express themselves clearly in English. One warning, however, should suffice.
International students who have taken English for Graduate Studies have learned our standards regarding plagiarism. Others may confer with you or with a Writing Center tutor if they need more guidance. Our multiple documentation forms can be confusing: APA, MLA, or Chicago? Traditional footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references? Students appreciate it if you specify the form you prefer.
You can certainly expect international students to edit their papers adequately, but don't expect perfection. Occasional errors are almost inevitable even with the most sophisticated non-native speakers/writers, but a large number of errors means the student has not edited carefully or has not availed himself of the resources available in the Writing Center. Several professors have expressed concern about how to handle English errors when they are grading papers: should they ignore them, correct them all, or correct some? If a paper is submitted in one draft, your spending a lot of time rewriting sentences and editing all the English errors will usually be fruitless. For the student, the paper is finished. She may only glance over your remarks. Furthermore, if there are many miscellaneous errors, she cannot absorb too much information at once.
Your goal, instead, could be to point out the kind of errors the student should look for in future papers or the kind of editing she needs to do. If you decide to correct errors, only correct some, perhaps using one of the following strategies:
a. Rewrite a few awkward phrases, idioms, or word choices, offering alternatives.
b. Edit one paragraph or a half page completely to indicate the extent of the language problems.
c. If you can identify a pattern of error, such as run-on sentences or subject-verb agreement problems, mention it in a marginal note. Instead of marking further instances of the problem, encourage the student to hunt for them and to edit for them in the future.
If a one-draft paper is submitted with many errors, you have some alternatives besides ignoring them, none of which is flawless.
a. You may return the paper, refusing to read it until it has been more carefully edited and directing the student to the resources mentioned below. To be fair to your other students, you could lower the grade since the paper was not adequately completed on time.
b. You might give a double grade (A/C) for content and form, weighting the form grade 1/4 or 1/3 of the whole.
c. Or you might simply lower the grade, explaining that it would have been higher with better editing.
However, the best solution is to anticipate the problem. You might warn students in advance that you expect papers to be written in clear and accurate English and that the form and communication style will affect their grade. Encourage students to use a spelling checker, to read their papers aloud with a Writing Center consultant or a well chosen friend, and to use a good composition handbook like Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference (St. Martin's Press), which has an ESL chapter. Grammatical checkers on computers are often misleading.
Probably the best approach to evaluating the work of international students, then, is the moderate one: expect good control of the academic rhetoric in this country and in your field and adequate control of English grammar and pronunciation. The two extremes - expecting perfect grammar or ignoring language difficulties - tend to require too much or too little of the student. By using the strategies outlined above, we can work to familiarize international students with our standards for graduate work as rapidly and effectively as possible.