Toya S. - Class of 2019

Working with ESL and
International Students

Toya S. - Class of 2019

Students for whom English is not their first language face special challenges at any American university, and these difficulties can be magnified by National’s accelerated schedule. Though all international students are required to meet a certain standard of English proficiency, many still have difficulty writing in English. In addition to their writing problems, some ESL students have difficulty following readings, lectures, and class discussions in English.

Instructors also face a dilemma when it comes to assessing and grading these students’ written work. Some instructors feel it is unfair to penalize students who seem to know the material but who, have not mastered Standard Written English. Others, however, believe that it is unfair to pass or graduate students who do not have a basic skill which employers and graduate programs will expect of university graduates.

The problem is a difficult one, with no single satisfactory solution. Ideally, ESL problems alone should not prevent a student from being able to complete a degree, provided that they are not too severe and that the student can work to improve them. However, students must not be given the false impression that such skills are unimportant, and we should offer students every opportunity to improve their English skills. Strategies for responding to the needs of ESL students should be determined in part by the nature of the discipline and the requirements of the professions for which students are preparing themselves. The following suggestions may help instructors anticipate and balance these two concerns.

Typical Problems of Advanced ESL and International Students

The writing of ESL students can present a wide range of problems. At one extreme, they may be unable to write intelligible sentences, due to uncertainty over English syntax and/or vocabulary. ESL students who have largely mastered these elements of writing may still persist in certain errors, even while their English skills are otherwise quite sophisticated. Often students who are fluent speakers will continue to make numerous noticeable errors in their writing. Certain errors characteristic of such “advanced” ESL writers are among the most difficult to eliminate, because they tend to be idiomatic rather than rule-based: they are matters of convention, learned through regular use of the language rather than by learning and following seemingly logical rules. The more typical of these errors include

  • use of prepositions
  • use of articles (“a/an” vs. “the”)
  • use of auxiliary or “helping” verbs
  • verb tenses
  • idiomatic expressions

Course and Syllabus Design

There are several ways to design your course and your assignments to balance both goals:

  • If appropriate to the course, include some assignments on your syllabus which do not require writing, or require only informal written responses in which grammatical rectitude is less important (e.g., an informal course journal), in order to allow good students with writing problems to succeed on these.
  • Assign a short written assignment early in the month to allow you to evaluate student writing problems and to intervene by giving the student individualized assistance or refer him or her to the Writing Center.
  • Design paper assignments which include rough drafts to be handed in to you, or shown to the Writing Center instructor, before the final draft is due.
  • In responding to student writing, be sure that your comments explain how ESL problems interfered with the success of the writing assignment. Explain what worked as well as what didn’t work. You might use one of the grading methods suggested in this Manual which distinguish the different features of a piece of writing.

Grading the Writing of ESL and International Students

The University does not have a specific or uniform policy on the grading of students with ESL problems. In deciding how to resolve this dilemma, you might want to consider the following:

  • How important will a command of Standard Written English be in the student’s future courses, how are instructors in these classes likely to grade the student’s writing?
  • How important will a command of Standard Written English be in the student’s career?
  • How forgiving will future instructors or employers be of a lack of command of Standard Written English?
  • How important is the ability to communicate information in writing within the discipline?
  • How bad are the student’s ESL problems: do they make his or her writing hard to understand, are they a significant distraction to the reader, or do they simply reveal the student’s ESL background?

If ESL problems hinder the success or effectiveness of student writing, it is only fair to let those students know that these problems, if not addressed and corrected, will have consequences for their success in school or in their careers. Grades are the most persuasive way to make this point. In degrees or classes within disciplines where error-free writing is important-journalism, for example-it is only fair to students to hold them to strict standards. Students who still need to overcome significant ESL problems in order to succeed should not be encouraged with false expectations about their future success in fields where such problems are not tolerated.


The Little, Brown Essential Handbook specifically addresses certain common ESL errors, so you can refer your students to the appropriate section of this reference for help with particular problems.

The Writing Centers are an excellent resource for ESL students. Writing Center instructors have experience with ESL students and can offer them exercises targeting their specific needs. Recommend that such students make the Writing Centers a regular part of their writing process in all of their classes; it is only through repeated practice over time that ESL errors are overcome.

You may want to suggest that ESL students get assistance from friends in editing their writing, but warn them that they, not their friends, are ultimately responsible for the results. Any such help should be limited to checking for “surface-level” grammatical errors; any more substantial editing has the risk of changing the meaning of their text. They should also consider whether such help represents a “crutch” on which they may become too dependent, and which will not be available to them when they need to write in future classes or on the job.

Three Cautions

  1. Don’t expect ESL problems to disappear from students’ writing quickly. The most persistent ESL errors can only be eliminated through extensive experience with the language. One of the best things you can do for such students is to give them plenty of opportunities to practice the language through readings, writing assignments, and class discussions.
  2. Be aware that ESL students who have trouble writing may also have trouble with readings, especially longer reading assignments, and even with comprehension in class discussions. Such students may be very reluctant to admit to such difficulties and have often developed strategies to mask them. The earlier you can detect these problems, the earlier you can intervene to give such students whatever extra help they need.
  3. Finally, students with severe ESL problems should not be encouraged with false hopes. If a student simply does not have the English skills to produce college-level or professional quality written work, you are not doing that student a favor by passing him or her on to another instructor or an employer who may be less tolerant (or more realistic). Some students may be best advised to improve their English skills through ESL classes before attempting a university education conducted in English.