Academic Writing and Assessment

How might written English be different from other languages?

In some cultures, the educational system is set up to transmit knowledge, not to promote critical thinking, form arguments, and support them with outside sources. For some international students, this style of writing is new and a different rhetorical structure than they are used to. Honestly, many international students find linear English writing to be babyish, formulaic, and insulting to the reader for its direct style and upfront thesis. English is writer heavy, whereas in other cultures, writing may be reader heavy (meaning, the writer is less direct and the reader has to work harder to understand what is written). Other languages may value digression and indirect arguments, use of proverbs to give lessons, and enjoy flowery language. When an English speaker reads these in a student academic paper, he/she may think the writer is unable to state a point and an argument, wrote a messy paper, or didn’t understand the assignment. It takes some time before students can really understand the linear argumentative style in English. While some may think ESOL class is all about grammar points - this is only part of the class. 


What type of feedback should I be providing on multilingual papers?

Many students are overconfident in their English writing ability and may be shocked at a low grade. Remember that many have been studying English for ten or more years. Putting that knowledge to use in an English speaking environment can be challenging. Typing students a letter with clear thoughtful feedback about their paper will go a long way. Giving feedback and showing good student samples is similar to giving rules and will help improve writing.

  • Giving feedback though such as “awkward”, “sounds weird”, “not how we say it” – is rarely helpful, as are comments such as “improve your adjective clauses” and “improve parallelism”. Students are likely to just ignore these type of comments because they are not helpful. How about “do you mean to say this ________________?” or “you can use this word ___________instead” (instead of the five words he/she might be using (that is a vocabulary issue)) or “are you sure you want to end the paragraph like this – how about a transition?” or “Do you mean now or in the past?” (verb tense issue). I am a huge fan of asking questions instead of just marking errors.  Focusing on logic, argument, and support through a rubric like McLaughlin and Moore’s Critical Thinking Writing Rubric (2012) can help pull student attention to the most important parts of writing. This rubric is for college level writing - no matter what the student’s first language is (was written for English speakers, however).
  • Sometimes the first paper a professor/staff may see from a student who is struggling to write in English can be shocking. Unusual phrasing, nonidiomatic language, confusing verb tense, difficult word order/word choice – can all be present. What does one do? Focus on content, argument, logic, and support. If grammar and sentence level errors are distracting, decide what can be ignored and what must be commented on.  Does the wrong article (a, an, the) mess up the meaning? If not, can it be let go for now? Maybe the student doesn’t have a grasp of collocations and word use – but you know what they mean – can some of that be ignored for now? Please though make sure students are not running the entire paper through a translator – I’ve seen it done and it will produce the oddest paper one has ever seen. If you have a class with many international students, encourage them to use a translator for a word ONLY, not a phrase or…..a whole paper! 

However, language expression is not an indicator of intelligence, we just all need to remember students are working in a second (or third or fourth) language.  The paper probably sounds like it was not written by a fluent English speaker. That is okay for now. Do students make huge progress in their four years here? Yes, but this takes time and support from all of us at SLU.

I would like to share some excerpts from an article titled Generous Reading: Seeing Students Through Their Writing by Lucy K. Spence and published in The Reading Teacher, 2010 International Reading Association. There are many challenges to assessing ESOL writers and many instructors wonder about where to focus – Grammar? Vocabulary? Organization? Argument? It isn’t always easy but sometimes taking a step back to try to first hear what a student wants to say can help.

A few excerpts:

  • Generous reading highlights meaning yet many may not look beyond mistakes in spelling and grammar to hear a student’s message.
  • Generous reading expresses an act of uncritically reading a text…teachers of writing have adopted a practice of reading student texts closely, yet respectfully, treating the student as a writer and examining their logic.
  • Students who speak more than one language draw from multiple cultures and language practices as they write (Coady & Escamilla, 2005) which influences many aspects of writing. Generous reading focuses on analysis by searching for influences on the written text and uncovering how the student is relating to the world through language.
  • Generous reading permits a deeper understanding of the student, of their writing process, and of the writing itself.
  • Generous reading looks beyond superficial mistakes to see what the student is doing with language and offers an opportunity to think about students as people who are developing ideas, making connections, and supporting arguments.

The original article was written for younger writers than those at SLU but the theories (Bakhtin, Vygotsky, sociocultural theory) align with advanced ESOL in combination with other assessment measures. In short, generous reading means understanding your student’s message first before judgment. If positive feedback is given on ideas/thoughts/argument first and encourages a student to revise and work on organization, grammar, and vocabulary in order to share those thoughts, some students become more motivated to revise the paper.

From the CCCC’s website:

The evaluation of second language texts should take into consideration various aspects of writing (e.g., topic development, organization, grammar, word choice). Writing instructors should look for evidence of a text’s rhetorically effective features, rather than focus only on one or two of these features that stand out as problematic. We endorse the idea that best assessment practices use multiple measures…In addition, we echo the call that “best assessment practice [that] respect language variety and diversity and [assess] writing on the basis of effectiveness for readers, acknowledging that as purposes vary, criteria will as well.

It may take more time for an instructor to “hear” what a second language writer is attempting to communicate through a piece of writing.  Second language students may require more conferencing time with their teachers, so that teachers can discuss global issues first, and then attend to local issues. Teacher preparation should include discussion on how the prose second language writers produce can violate their aesthetic expectations for academic English; instructors, instead, should look for the textual features that are rhetorically effective, and prioritize two or three mechanical or stylistic issues that individual second language writers should focus on throughout the duration of the course.


What are some cultural beliefs that may influence writing?

Teacher preparation should include information about cultural beliefs related to writing.  Second language writers often come from contexts in which writing is shaped by linguistic and cultural features different from their native English speaking peers. Beliefs related to individuality versus collectivity, ownership of text and ideas, student versus teacher roles, revision, structure, the meaning of different rhetorical moves, writer and reader responsibility, and the roles of research and inquiry all impact how student writers shape their texts (CCCC website).

One text to spend time reading is Asao Inoue’s work on antiracist assessment (2015) – it will give you A LOT to think about. A few notes from this work on valuing language, even variations of English commonly deemed unacceptable in academic writing (p. 29):

We should acknowledge and value the “linguistic facts of life” that linguist Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) identifies. These are long-established linguistic agreements in the field:

  • All spoken languages change over time.
  • All spoken languages are equal in linguistic terms (Inoue goes on to discuss why they are not equal otherwise)
  • Grammatical and communicative effectiveness are distinct and interdependent issues.
  • Written language and spoken language are historically, structurally, and functionally fundamentally different creatures.