Teaching Writing

Four Primary Considerations for Teaching Non-Native Writers


By: Jessica McCaughey

Jessica McCaughey is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she teaches and writes about the intersections of academic, creative, and professional writing. Previously, she taught non-native English speakers writing and research strategies at George Mason University. You can reach her at

Teaching non-native speakers is often the root of significant anxiety in writing-intensive courses. We get bogged down in sentence-level issues. We worry over—with good reason—issues of inadvertent plagiarism. We fear that these students won’t be able to demonstrate the learning we need to see, yet we often find ourselves lacking the substantial time we want to spend helping them.

While it can be difficult to implement more effective practices for teaching non-native writers, it’s also crucial to both your success as a teacher and the success of a significant percentage of your students in the classroom. This essay offers four concrete and essential strategies that I use when working with non-native writers, drawn from the research and from my experiences teaching international students.

Design Better Assignments

How much culturally specific background knowledge does your assignment assume? What do you want students to demonstrate through an assignment? These are key questions as you work to develop prompts that allow all students to thrive, but this is especially important in teaching non-native writers. Writing prompts that consider context and purpose explicitly in an effort to help non-native writers learn takes time, and you’ll likely improve iteratively.

Many experts suggest piloting these new prompts, asking students to discuss the prompt in class to see how they interpret it. You should also evaluate the prompt itself after the assignment has been completed, asking yourself: What was the result of this prompt? Did the students’ work meet my expectations? If not, where did they falter and how can I adjust my teaching or the assignment to better teach them?

For a great read on this topic, I recommend the chapter “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing Assignments for NES and ESL Students” by Joy Reid and Barbara Kroll, from Second Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. In this chapter, you’ll see a list of considerations that I find myself constantly returning to as I create assignments, in a figure titled “Contextual Considerations in Assigning Writing”:

  • “For what reason(s)/purpose(s) will the writing be assigned?
  • How will the assignment fit into the immediate context, and how in the overall objectives of the class? That is, how authentic is the prompt?
  • In what ways will the content of the prompt be accessible to students as it integrates the classroom learning with long-term goals?
  • Who are the students who will be responding to this assignment, and what are their needs?
  • How will the writing processes engage the students and further their knowledge of the content and skills being taught?
  • What knowledge should the students be demonstrating in their written product?”

One last consideration when developing better writing assignment prompts is to be as explicit as you can about the criteria you will use to evaluate student work on the assignment. Tell your students what you value most, and address how grammar issues or issues of clarity will be taken into account.

Teach the Writing Process—from the Beginning

Many of our students from other countries have succeeded in writing in their native languages, but struggle to do so in the American university system. This is not only because the writing products look very different from what they’re used to, but also because the writing process looks very different from country to country. If you’re reading this blog, then you no doubt build process into your writing assignments in some way, but there are specific considerations in teaching the writing process to international students that you might not have considered.

First, talk to your students about the assignment prompt, and teach them to decode it. How should they understand the term “evaluate” versus “explore,” for instance? What key phrases will help them understand how to frame their argument? Discussing the prompt (rather than simply reading it aloud) will not only help students produce work that meets your expectations, but it also sets them up to be able to work through the prompts they’ll encounter in future classes.

Talk About Academic Integrity

For many—even, perhaps most—international students, incorporating research into their writing looked very, very different in their native academic systems, and definitions of plagiarism in the U.S. can seem vague. (Who among us has not gotten bogged down in class with a discussion about the phrase “common knowledge”?) Further, the concept of ideas as “property” is a mostly Western perspective (Adiningrum and Kutieleh), and even those cultures that do place some emphasis on attribution do so in different ways than we often do. For instance, as Ling Shi states in her 2004 article “Textual Borrowing in Second-Language Writing” from Written Communication, Vietnamese college students aren’t required to incorporate citations within their writing “as long as students acknowledge all the authors whose ideas they have referred to in the bibliography.”

What this means is students learning about acknowledging and “ethically” incorporating outside work is a complex cultural shift, and, as professors, we need to have explicit discussions about why and how we cite things. We can ask students to show us their sources and talk about our own research processes. It will take more time than usual, but you’ll be a better teacher for it—of all students.

Note: If the cultural variations about academic integrity interest you and you’d like to find out more, I recommend the excellent documentary series Writing Across Borders from Oregon State University (all available on YouTube, with part I here).

Comment More Strategically

Best practices for commenting on the work of international students are really no different from those used to serve more traditional populations of students. But we sometimes, in the whirlwind of making our way through a huge stack of papers, forget these basic tenants:

  • Comment most on what’s actually most important. Your notes to students should primarily consider their argument and line of thinking. When reading papers with substantial sentence-level issues, it’s easy to get bogged down in commenting on word choice or sentence structure, but it’s more important to respond about those issues central to what you are trying to get students to learn or demonstrate.
  • Help your students prioritize your comments. Whether they’re staring at your handwriting or tracked changes in a Word document, students often struggle to make distinctions among comments and understand where to focus their revisions. Help them by explicitly guiding them with comments like, “The most important thing to focus on here is…” and “After you’ve taken care of the bigger issues…”
  • Consider editing one-paragraph only. One way to help students without overwhelming them is to line edit just one paragraph for grammar, usage, and punctuation issues. Choose a paragraph that’s representative, point out the issues you see, and provide explanations for your notes. Then limit your additional comments in the rest of the paper to those that affect the overall argument of the piece.
  • Include links to outside resources in your comments. Know a great website that explains “which” vs. “that”? Link to it.
  • Unexpected phrasing is not necessarily bad writing. Remember that international students often use language in surprising ways because they don’t have the tired clichés to rely upon—and this can be a good thing. Before striking through such phrases that may not sound “right” to your ear, consider whether they still get the student’s message across in a clear way.

 While the literature can be overwhelming, we must continue to develop as teachers of non-native speakers. I recommend seeking out one new professional resource each month on the topic. (I’d suggest starting with the CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers.) Overall, whether you teach biology or public policy, computer science or chemical engineering, the four strategies above are a great starting point for meeting non-native speakers where they are to help them develop into stronger writers.

Works Cited

Adiningrum, Tatum S. and Salah Kutieleh. “How different are we? Understanding and
Managing Plagiarism between East and West.” Journal of Academic Language &
5.2 (2011): A88 – A98. Web.

“CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers.” NCTE Comprehensive News.
National Council of Teachers of English, Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.

Reid, Joy and Barbara Kroll. “Designing and Assessing Effective Classroom Writing
Assignments for NES and ESL Students.” Second Language Writing in the
Composition Cla
ssroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Paul Kei Matsuda, Michelle Cox,
Jay Jordan, and Christina Ortmeier-Hooper. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins,
2006. Print.

Shi, Ling. “Textual Borrowing in Second-Language Writing.” Written Communication. 21.2
(2004): 171-200. Web.

Writing Across Borders. Oregon State University, 2010. YouTube. 13 May 2010. Web. 21 Sept.
2015. <>.