Issues Specific to Multilingual Students

Writing in English is a challenge for native speakers and writers, and poses an even greater challenge to our multilingual students. Think about the process needed to produce a publishable journal article in your own fields of interest. What can we do, then, to facilitate the process for our students? It is possible to help them to achieve success in their writing if we take several small steps – steps that are not too time-consuming – to help them understand assignments, evaluate our expectations, and follow the process that will help them produce what we, ultimately, hope to read!

The Assignment

As you plan your assignment, consider the language you use to describe what you expect.

  • What are the key words in the assignment, the ones you hope students will focus on and extract meaning from?
  • What does it mean to research, evaluate, compare and contrast, report, analyze, etc.?
  • Provide an exact definition of what these mean to you and what you expect each of these processes to yield when the student has completed the tasks at hand.

The Task

How many steps do you imagine students having to take in order to accomplish the task you have set before them? If you see that there are potentially seven steps in the process, delineate them for the students. You needn’t give all of the steps, but if you offer 3-4 suggestions, and stress that this is only the beginning, it will help students focus on the tasks that they need to follow to arrive at the expected conclusions. For example, if students are asked to compare/contrast two pieces of music or the works of two different composers or works from two different time periods (or a piece played by two different soloists/conducted by different conductors), help students imagine how they should break down the tasks. You might begin by emphasizing the difference between comparison and contrast. In order to complete an assignment accurately, it is helpful to briefly analyze the two words and be precise about the expectations. Will there be more contrast than comparison? How much attention should be given to comparison of the two selections as compared to highlighting the differences? This need not take much time, but a few minutes of explanation/reminder will give students ideas to think about even before they approach the assignment on their own.

The Process

A solid piece of writing is one that is developed with several drafts and over time, a resource that our students often lack. Multilingual students must be reminded that the draft process is a good way to bridge some of the language gaps that exist between them and their native English speaking counterparts. Just as we write drafts of our own works, be it writing a journal article, book or musical composition, we need to provide our students with opportunities to do the same. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Ask students to keep a journal of their research findings, discoveries about the work they are exploring, responses to questions posed in class that relate to the assignment. These can be a minimum of one or two pages, or longer.
  • Assign students “Low-Stakes” writing assignments (not graded or not graded for grammar). These assignments can take a number of forms: a short reaction to or analysis of the piece they are studying, a informal compare and contrast pieces, a simple description of how they will go about preparing for a concert, an exploration of a musical piece, reflections on a composer or period, etc.
  • You can use Blackboard to get a discussion going about a topic (piece of music) students will be asked to evaluate. This will help to promote critical thinking and strengthen students’ English skills, all in a non-threatening (read: not graded) environment.
  • Assign due dates for various parts of an assigned paper: the thesis proposal, an initial draft of the paper, an edited draft of the paper, and a final draft.

Journals and low-stakes writing assignments can be collected at various points in the semester and read, perused, or simply counted.

  • If you assigned six entries, let students know that you will make sure all of them are there.
  • You can choose to read one entry per journal or just provide a check for having completed the set of assignments.
  • Drafts of papers (usually one) can be attached to the final draft and used for reference if you wish to understand the evolution of the paper.
  • Drafts can be peer edited. This can be done in 15 minutes during class or as a homework assignment. This is a valuable step in that it requires students to get an outside reader (a classmate/peer) to read the paper and offer comments and suggestions about the content, readability, clarity, and accuracy of the paper. Not all students are equally able to revise and edit their own papers easily (adequately), but they more easily recognize when someone else’s paper is unclear, illogical, or inaccurate. Peer reviews also provide students with the opportunity to see how others approach a similar topic and develop an assignment.
  • You may consider meeting with a student for a brief conference to review content or grammar issues. If you choose this option, make 2-3 suggestions about the content. To help students improve surface errors (grammar issues), focus on the 2-3 errors that interfere most with the smooth reading of the essay and review that with the student. These students can also be referred to the Writing Center in Kiely 229, or one of the other writing services for QC students.

For multilingual students, drafts are crucial not only for clarifying ideas but for separating content revision from sentence editing. Too often, multilingual students edit for errors and consider that an adequate revision, whereas we expect a revision to reflect changes and improvements in content. Editing, the last step in the writing process, focuses more on sentence style and grammatical issues. (Interestingly, often, as a student’s content improves, so does the grammar!)

Research and Plagiarism

Once students have left their freshman year courses, they are expected to know all about how to research and write a paper. However, this is truly a learning process that is ongoing (even for faculty) as students are exposed to different content areas, new resources, the next level of expectation (think BA vs. MA, for example, or Gen.Ed. level courses vs. courses in the major) and different professors. Review what plagiarism means in your course and mention ways it can manifest itself in a student’s paper. In China, quoting the great philosophers by heart in written work without exact sources would be evaluated very differently from the way we might evaluate such a paper, and our Chinese international students are often puzzled at the seemingly rigid way we designate this as plagiarism – stealing! We assume that our students know and easily process everything that constitutes plagiarism and, to a large extent, they do. However, they need continual guidance as to the nuances that shade how we use the works of others. You need to be part of that process. Help them evaluate less obvious forms that might fall into the category of plagiarism. (We are not referring to the obvious lifting of papers off of the Internet although we need to warn students of the consequences of this as well.)

Tips for Reading Multilingual Students’ Papers

  • Read the paper through once without a pen in hand. In other words, read for content. To what extent does the student show facility with the research material? Does the student demonstrate the ability to synthesize/reason/think/evaluate the material in an organized manner?
  • Read past the errors. Again, focus on content. Determine the extent to which the student has followed the assignment adequately even if the language and grammar are lacking. Is the paper well organized? Are the ideas innovative? Is the student able to discuss ideas or provide a well-developed narrative?
  • Once you begin to grade the paper, offer specific suggestions for revision. What should be added? What might be eliminated? What is relevant? Irrelevant? Where appropriate, say why. A directed suggestion becomes a crucial learning tool, especially for a multilingual student who is still acquiring the finer nuances of the language (and who may even be translating directives into another language.)

Grammar Tips

It’s important to realize that, while student certain errors will persist for longer than anyone wishes, there are ways to help students improve and perfect their written English.

  • Differentiate between errors that interfere with the writing and those that don’t interfere with the flow of what you are reading. For example, an error in subject-verb agreement (“One of the composers are…”) is less likely to break the flow of reading than an error in sentence structure (using “Consequently” instead of “Moreover”).
  • Help students focus on the three most serious errors in their writing. Marking up an entire paper with endless corrections serves more to confuse and distract students than to guide them. Focusing on several main errors only (a difficult task that takes practice and control!) helps students focus on the most severe errors first and move on to the next group afterwards. Again, for additional help, students should be referred to the Writing Center in Kiely 229.
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