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Supporting Writing Development

Working with multilingual students often includes helping them develop as academic writers in the university setting. To get a clearer sense of the distinct nature of multilingual writers and the texts they compose, check out George Mason University’s Valuing Written Accents. Many of the insights shared in the Faculty section of this website were developed by Gail Shuck, Coordinator of the English Language Support Program at Boise State University. Our thanks to Dr. Shuck and Boise State University.

On this page, we’ve collected a few strategies for enhancing your writing instruction, regardless of your discipline. Click on the headings below to learn more about a topic.

Creating Effective Writing Assignments

There are many ways to alter the types of writing assignments we provide students in order to help them produce the type of texts we want them to compose. Here are a few suggestions to consider when crafting or revising your writing assignments:

  • Break assignments into more manageable chunks. Create checklists that students can follow. Build in checkpoints for assignments (by X date, have ______) to ensure students are working on their writing over time.
  • Simplify. At times, faculty overcompensate based on previous negative experiences with student comprehension. Try simplifying and streamlining your writing assignment sheet (making it no more than 3 pages). This often helps students process what their focus should be and helps them engage with a challenging project earlier in the process.
  • Provide structures, patterns, and templates. Dedicate some time in class to going over these examples. Instead of lecturing, allow students to analyze these examples in small groups. Oftentimes, students will retain an understanding of expectations if they’ve deduced them themselves collaboratively.
  • Give options within an assignment. Allow students to select the prompt or focus of their writing within parameters that you set.
  • Allow for asynchronous responses. Giving students additional time to complete their work often helps them produce better writing in a less stressful context. Blackboard or Google Docs/Drive can be helpful for this.
  • Scaffold writing assignments. Learn more about scaffolding in this Inside Higher Ed article “Make a Better Writing Assignment by Design.”
  • Explain how the writing assignment will serve to evaluate their learning. Connect the assignment with specific learning goals in the syllabus to help students understand the knowledge or thinking that needs to be demonstrated. This may help to increase intrinsic motivation by helping students to determine the worth of the work they are doing in the course.

Creating Rubrics That Prioritize Student Learning

Rubrics are an indispensable tool when it comes to evaluating student writing. They make the grading process more productive and consistent. Additionally, rubrics can help students to understand both what their strengths are and what they need to work on. This invaluable tool allows students to keep track of your expectations as they write through the semester.

Want to learn more about rubrics? Listen to this podcast, Still Not Sold on Rubrics?, by Teaching in Higher Ed.

  • Prioritize the learning outcomes. In a rubric, the overall learning goals for the course and assignment should be top priority. Structure, mechanics, and grammar, while important, are often not the top learning outcome of a given course. This should be reflected in the rubric.
  • Review a sample rubric. Read through a few rubrics by composition faculty that are multilingual-student friendly.
  • Consider evaluating grammar based on how effectively meaning if conveyed. It is possible to phrase the grammar portion of a rubric in a way that accounts for linguistic variation. For example, a proficient category that describes grammar as the following: “There are occasional errors, but they do not impede the meaning of the writing. The sentences are well-phrased and offer some variety.” This is more multilingual-friendly than a category that establishes completely error-free writing as the benchmark for proficiency. Learn more about why this is important on our page about the value of linguistic diversity.
  • Go over the rubric in class well before they have begun to write. Ask students to analyze the rubric for learning outcomes and goals. Additionally, ask students if the language is confusing to them. Since the rubric is primarily a tool used to help their learning process, it’s important that the phrasing and terminology are clear to students. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate thoughtful revision by making some of the suggested clarifications.
  • Have students rank previous student texts. A class discussion helps students collectively understand and internalize criteria for evaluation.

Best Practices for Providing Useful Feedback to Students 

Reading Student Writing

It’s important to respond to student writing in a way that motivates students to engage with the revision process. Providing feedback that elicits students to become better writers, rather than focusing the text of your response on penalizing the type of writing that you don’t want, is the overall goal of giving effective feedback to students. To respond effectively, however, it’s imperative to consider how faculty read and engage with student writing. An effective response begins in a thoughtful reading of a student text. Consider the following tips for a productive read-through:

  • Read it out loud. You might get a better sense of what the student is trying to say.
  • Pay attention to what the student is doing well. Resist the urge to think about “the long road ahead.” Make note of what the student can do as you read.
  • Try reading the piece in its entirety before beginning to grade or comment. This will allow you time to prioritize what the student should work on first.
  • Read compassionately. Since written communication is an interaction between the writer and the reader to make meaning, take responsibility for being an empathetic reader who works to understand the student writer. Give students the benefit of being a best-case situation reader.

Providing Useful Comments to Student Writers: Tips + Suggestions

Written feedback is one method to provide students with assistance for improving their academic writing. This type of feedback not only helps to clarify the evaluation of their writing, but provides a focus area for the student to work on in the coming assignments. However, providing effective feedback that inspires student motivation can be a challenge. The following methods can help you write more effective feedback.

  • Prioritize the feedback. Prioritize the aspects of their writing that need the most attention in order for a student to demonstrate their learning in your course. Aim to focus on concepts of writing that can be applied to future contexts (not simply retroactively).
  • Limit yourself to one or two comments per page. Resist the urge to respond to everything. If possible, address 1-2 major concerns present throughout the paper. This is a pattern that the student can address in their next assignment.
  • Avoid shorthand markings. Shorthand only works if the writer already knows how the grammar should work. They often only add another layer of intimidation and/or confusion that only further distances the student from understanding and applying the feedback.
  • Create several canned responses for a comment bank. Craft responses that provide detailed explanations of common student challenges (i.e. organization, thesis statement, transitions). These best explanations ensure that students get consistently helpful explanations each semester.
  • Provide resources for working on areas of concern. In your comments, provide a link or two to helpful resources that explain the concept you want them to work on. For example, link a student who struggles with developing effective transition sentences to a website that explains how to do this and provides examples. Basic resources are easy to find with a quick internet search.
  • Review your comments before sharing them with students. As a writer yourself, would you find this feedback productive and useful? Is it clear what are the writer should do next? Do they support student learning and prompt revision? If not, take the time to revise. Technology can be a helpful mode for providing feedback because it allows you to revise for clarity.

Helping Students Make Use of Comments

A final, yet often overlooked, aspect of responding to student writing is ensuring that students understand and apply the feedback you’ve provided. Here are a few suggestions that you may find help students to do this:

  • Be available to meet. This can be done in-person during a conference, via email or video chat. Be prepared to answer students’ questions about the feedback and provide clarification, examples, and resources. You are students’ first resource on comments and improvements for their writing.
  • Get students to speak back to the comments. For example, assign a brief bit of informal reflection writing asking students to apply your feedback to the next writing assignment. Additionally, you can ask students to write 1-2 thoughtful questions they have about their feedback that you can discuss informally in small groups.
  • Create a Blackboard Discussion Board for understanding feedback. They can use this space to post confusing comments or questions and get feedback from both peers and yourself.

Addressing Grammatical Error in Multilingual Writing

Issues regarding instruction of grammar often arise as faculty work to help multilingual students develop their writing skills. How do we best support students’ growing understanding of grammatical convention within the university setting?

During their university experience, students grow a repertoire of language structure. While this is happening, students will make errors. However, these errors are signs of learning. As second language acquisition expert, Dr. Vivian Zamel writes, “errors are inevitable in the process of acquiring an additional language (both English and the academic language of the course).” As a result, it’s imperative to limit the number and type of errors that you address in your feedback. Zamel suggests, “rather than trying to address or correct all errors, which is likely to overwhelm both you and the students, read through a student’s text and try to locate prominent or recurring patterns of error and help students understand those.”

To be an inclusive teacher, it is important to treat grammar as a pedagogical component of one’s writing instruction. An understanding of grammatical convention does not ensure thoughtful writing just as the absence of some grammatical convention does not undermine critical thinking present in the work. Generally speaking, penalizing student writing (like a point deduction) for grammatical error does not teach a student how to correct their error.

The CSUSB English Language Support Center

The CSUSB English Language Support Center (ELSC) is a great resource for all students who are learning to write in academic contexts. At the ELSC, specially-trained graduate tutors will help your students understand assignments and work towards meeting instructor expectations, without taking over the students’ writing. They will engage students in a conversation about their writing and learning and work to address some of the challenges that the student has with writing in a 30-60 minute consultation. Additionally, the consultants can help students identify patterns of error and learn to fix those mistakes, when it distracts from the overall meaning.

It is important to allow students to self-identify or come to the decision themselves that they would like support from ELSC tutors. Compelling a student to visit the ELSC may prove ineffective and could result in a negative impact on a student’s confidence. It is also important to manage our expectations about what ELSC can do within a given consultation. The ELSC does not work to make a multilingual student’s writing sound like a native speaker nor do they ensure error-free writing. That being said, the ELSC offers meaningful support for students as they develop as academic writers. Learn more about what students can expect during a session with an ELSC tutor.

Exam Accommodation

Writing and reading in a second language can take considerably longer than writing and reading in one’s native language. As exams aim to evaluate student learning of course content, this can, at times, be a barrier. As such, faculty can make exam accommodations for multilingual students. The English Support Program (and second language acquisition specialists, generally) recommend several forms of language support including exam accommodations.

Why Should I Consider Exam Accommodations for Multilingual Students?

  1. Even fluent bilinguals rely on their knowledge of both languages when reading in one. This often results in slower text-processing, to a lesser or greater degree for different students (Carlo and Sylvester, National Center on Adult Literacy Technical Report TR96-08).
  2. The Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC) Statement on Second Language Writers and Writing states that “second language writers are still in the process of acquiring syntactic and lexical competence – a process that will take a lifetime.” As such, exam accommodation allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of course content without unnecessary limitation based on acquiring language conventions that take a lifetime.

How do I Make Exam Accommodations?

  • Allow nonnative English speakers some extended exam time. 20-30 minutes for every hour that the test is normally scheduled is usually enough, although it can take some students significantly longer than that.
  • Arrange a different room for testing. Allow nonnative English speakers to take exams in a separate room. Some students find it helpful to read questions and multiple-choice options aloud as a way of processing the language.
  • Bilingual dictionaries can also be a helpful accommodation. Most students recognize that using such dictionaries too much during their testing cuts their test time short. It is helpful for them, however, to quickly remind themselves of the meanings of crucial non-specialist vocabulary like “exception” or “model” or “demographic.”
  • In writing intensive courses, we do not encourage the use of translation software, since it can radically alter the meaning, and a person with limited fluency in English would not only not catch the difference but also not be challenged to use his or her language knowledge to come up with a creative solution to expressing the meaning they want.

How Can Exam Accommodations Be Included In My Course Design?

  • One option for time accommodation is to ask a smaller number of questions per exam. This may allow a native speaker of English might finish in a fraction of the allotted time but allow a nonnative speaker of English to complete the exam without additional time.
  • Create take-home exams or group exams for all students. With the latter, students collaborate as teams, with each member of the team responsible for a different set of material.

If you have further questions about exam accommodations, or if would like to consult with the English Language Support Center, please contact us.

How Do I Get to Know Students As Writers Outside of Formal Assignments?

Assign a short piece of in-class writing early in the semester. For example, they should spend no more than 5 minutes summarizing that day’s lecture or activity. (This quick, in-class summary can also help you determine if a review of the material is necessary for the whole class!) You can then talk to those students whose writing might reveal some second-language needs.

  1. First, confirm by determining whether they are indeed second-language users, rather than students who write in a nonstandard variety of English. Students should not simply be sent to a tutor.
  2. Have a brief conversation with them asking them how they are doing in class. You notice that they’ve made some errors in their writing, and you wonder if there is anything you should know about their educational or language background, or if those errors were a result of the short period of time allotted for producing a sample writing piece.
  3. Simply opening up the dialogue can pave the way for directing the student to appropriate campus resources or for providing important support as an instructor.