Skip navigation
Degree Programs


Working With International Student Writers


Doug Hesse
University Writing Program

Note: The following essay sets a context for its companion piece, "Guidelines for Responding to the Writing of International Students: Principles and Pedagogy."

I've led over a hundred faculty workshops at DU in the past seven years, and no topic comes up more often than how faculty might best work with writers whose main language isn't English. While there's an occasional whiff of "What are these students doing in my classes?" the common motivation is genuine concern for these students and a desire to do well by them. What is "fair" in terms of grading? What are reasonable expectations of ability and improvement? How kinds of instruction or response work? What responsibilities do professors have, especially when they perceive endless needs and opportunities?

University of Denver Campus on Winter Evening
Because 9% of the DU undergraduate student body is international—a number likely only to increase, to our great enrichment—I suggest that all of us need to think systematically about how we'll work with multilingual writers. That is, rather than considering these students as occasional blips on our course screens, we should acknowledge that will routinely be in our classes, and we should adopt some basic principles and strategies-- for both their good and our own.

Obviously, international students' writing can vary tremendously. I've had some who attended English-speaking high schools and did typical American writing assignments; their writing can be nearly indistinguishable from American students, in terms of content, strategy, and fluency. In addition, more careful admissions criteria and language screening at DU in the past two years has raised international students' abilities overall. Obviously, too, international students can come from cultural and educational backgrounds that produce learning behaviors and expectations that differ widely from those we assume for American students. I'm simply going to comment on writing matters, knowing it's tough to extract them from wider contexts.

I cast back to my own experiences studying a term at The University of Vienna. I was 20, already a highly successful student at the University of Iowa, someone who'd taken the full range of German language and literature courses, earning A's. And yet my writing in German was miserable; I'd spend hours writing papers I could have written in a third the time in English, and they'd come back strewn with corrections, each paper as problematic as the previous one. I remember the professor being encouraging and sympathetic. Surely, she'd have been justified to fail me—though the course wasn't graded—if the sole standard had been command of the language equivalent to the Austrian, Swiss, and German students in the course. Not many years afterwards, my German proficiency withered, something inevitable no matter how highly that Viennese faculty might have honed my abilities.

As I think most of us recognize, even years of serious language study by serious students rarely yields second language fluency, certainly not in writing, and certainly not for students grounded in "nonwestern" languages. Fluency generally takes 5-10 years to develop. The Guidelines that accompany this piece, produced by four colleagues in the writing program, encapsulates research on second language writing into a few statements and some best practices. I'll not replicate its content here but will rather make a few points.

First, a majority of international students will not produce error-free prose. If you insist, for example, that all prepositions must be correct and that all aspects of a paper must be idiomatic, then you may as well just write an F on the paper without reading it, because it most likely will contain enough flaws to miff you. However, doing so would be misguided and, I suggest, irresponsible.

Second, each piece of writing has at least three dimensions. 1. Aptness of content and approach to the task. Has the writer been able to render the content, ideas, and analysis salient for a given task accurately and appropriately? Does the writer convey the understanding and insight necessary for the task? 2. Rhetorical fit. Does the writer address readers in the ways they need to be addressed, in terms of organization, types of evidence and discussion, voice and tone, deployment of content (neither explaining too little nor too much), and so on? 3. Conformity to conventions of edited American English. How well do the surface features of the text (grammar, usage, and punctuation—matters like subject-verb or pronoun agreement, for example, or syntactic structures) conform to prevailing conventions of standard edited English (taking care to distinguish true error from mere infelicity)?

Attending to all three dimensions is crucial in teaching not just international but all students. Because grammar, punctuation, and usage irregularities are the easiest to spot, especially if a reader is determined to spot them, those elements may draw most attention. But focusing only on surface features may miss strengths—and weaknesses—in the other two dimensions, and that would be a mistake. It's tempting, even convenient, to have a bottom-up approach to writing, that imagines first words and sentences must be in order, then paragraphs, then ideas and so on. Writing, however, is importantly top-down, driven by the task at hand. What I'm saying is that everything matters, especially in teaching and learning situations.

Furthermore, acceptable writing strategies (what I've called "rhetorical fit" above) vary among cultures and education systems. Students may come from traditions in which papers are developed in ways more oblique or meandering than American readers expect. Papers may contain higher percentages of quoted or paraphrased material—less of the student's own ideas and analysis—than we prefer. Standards of citation or attribution may strike us as lax. Simply lecturing on the characteristics of American academic writing doesn't tidily flip a rhetorical switch that has been years in development—though it's indeed reasonable to share such advice.

Third, as a consequence, read charitably. Read for content and rhetorical strategy as much as—or, actually, even prior to—reading for surface errors. If the prevalence of error really and truly interferes with comprehension, of course, that's a huge problem. However, my own experience reading international student writing is that I can follow the majority of it; it may have logical shortcomings or lack of depth that some American writing has, but I can understand what the writer is saying. Of course, I can be distracted, even annoyed, along the way, but I try to dial that down a little and pay attention to other levels of the text. If a text resists my best charitable reading, then, of course, I have to convey that to the student, including with a grade.

A real warning sign is the inability to generate enough writing to approximate the length requirement of a given task. I'd worry much less about a student who, on a 500 word assignment, produces 500 words that have all sorts of errors but in a comprehensible text, than I would about a student on the same task who produces but 100 words, however error-free they are. The latter students' difficulty might be not understanding readings on which the assignment is based, or it might be not having a sufficient vocabulary or syntactic sense, but it's a problem. In any language learning situation, teachers primarily encourage students to produce words and sentences in the language. Premature correctness, often motivated by efficiency, can stymie that production. Of course, the rub in a university psychology or accounting course is that the term marches on, in ten week fashion. Stopping the clock to let a student develop generative productivity is rarely possible.

Fourth, be judicious in providing feedback. An awful lot of us professors exhibit a kind of savior/hero behavior when it comes to student writing. We see so many problems or so much promise that we want to—even feel obliged to—note everything. One problem with that approach is that it's unsustainable; we get tired and burnt out, perhaps even to the point of not making assignments at all. Furthermore, there's plenty of research that says, beyond a point, we're not doing students much good as we work ourselves to exhaustion or cynicism. Short, directed feedback, perhaps with editing just a page or so (and not the whole paper) can be even more valuable because it focuses students' attention. You can find some tips to responding to student writing in Writing Beyond Writing Classes: Resources for University of Denver Faculty, especially pages 18-34, also available in print from the Writing Program.

A somewhat related fear for some faculty is one I frequently hear phrased, "But I don't have enough expertise to teach writing." Generally, not true. What most faculty seem to mean is that they don't have explicit knowledge of names and rules; they're aware that there are things called gerunds and dangling modifiers and subject verb complements, but they don't know the terminology. I have two consolations. First, there is "performative knowledge" and "declarative knowledge." Anyone teaching at DU has the former, amply demonstrated in their own writing and reading. The proof is in the performance, not in the recitation of a rule. Second, "declarative knowledge," the ability to name or define is limited use in performance. I can tell you what a Higgs Bosun is, but I can't do a lick of meaningful physics. I can name the muscles involved in shooting a free throw, but Ty Lawson is going to have a much higher shooting percentage than I ever will. Having a terminology can be efficient in looking things up in reference books (such as The Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers, of which I'm a co-author and wrote a 100-page section for second language learners, by the way) or in solidifying an emerging structure. But rules aren't vaccines. Generally the knowledge you need to be useful to students is along the lines of "This is unclear" or "Here's my reaction" or "I'd write the sentence this way." In any event, no rule is going to help you master the use of prepositions in English—or any other language.

Fifth and finally, make your peace with grading. A paper by an international student that receives a B from me may look little like a B paper from a native speaker and writer. I'd expect the international student to be of B quality in terms of what I called above "aptness of content and approach." I'd expect it to be mostly successful in terms of "rhetorical fit." But it may be only of C quality—perhaps even lower—in terms of conformity to edited American English, as long as those elements don't inordinately interfere with the reader's understanding the content as solid and the approach as satisfactory. Conversely, an error-free paper that is minimal in terms of content or flawed in terms of rhetorical approach is not going to get higher than a C from me, international student or native speaker.

Is this "fair" to native writers? We can debate the ins and outs. But this approach strikes me as pragmatic, ethical, and realistic. If we want to insist that an A is ever and always an A, for all students, then we probably should just massively ramp our admissions criteria and screening for international students, dropping the number admitted to 1 or 2% of the student body perhaps. However, I think there would be enormous costs of doing so, and I don't simply mean the loss of tuition income.

Now, I encourage you to see "Guidelines for Responding to the Writing of International Students Principles and Pedagogy."



Contact: Doug Hesse | | 303-871-7447 
The University of Denver Writing Program, 282 Anderson Academic Commons, Denver, CO 80210