Strategies for Working with Multilingual Writers

Author: 
Writing Across the Curriculum
Description: 
Based on teaching experience and research in applied linguistics and writing studies, the following strategies are best practices to follow when working with multilingual students at any stage of the writing process.

Preparing students for writing assignments

  • Try to make your expectations for successful writing in your course as explicit as possible. You can make expectations explicit in your syllabus, assignment handouts, evaluation criteria, and in the way you present all of these materials to students in class.
  • Incorporate models into your curriculum. For example, if you’re assigning a thesis-driven paper, supply your students with models of thesis-driven essays from your course or discipline. If you’re assigning a lab report, make sure students have seen what a successful lab report looks like. Models may be articles that you’ve already built into the syllabus or anonymous samples obtained from students who’ve given you permission to use their essays as teaching materials.
  • Spend time in class discussing and critiquing features of the models, and be sure to remind your students that, when using models, they are to emulate conventions and form—not the specific content.

Evaluating and responding to writing

  • Focus first—in your reading, in your comments, in your conversations with student writers, and in your grading—on content and global concerns. (See page 55.)
  • Remember to respond as an interested and expert reader, not just as an editor. A brief acknowledgement of how much time and effort it must take to write in another language also can motivate and encourage multilingual writers.
  • If there are many problems with grammar and they interfere with students’ communicating their meaning or ideas, choose a selected portion of the paper to comment on language issues. Explain to the writer, in an end-note or in-person, why you chose to comment in that way.
  • Rather than commenting on all grammatical problems, try to identify just two or three of the most common kinds of problems that make it difficult for you to understand a sentence. Treat these as patterns you help the writer begin to see for him or herself. When commenting on these patterns:
    • Try not to simply cross out and write in the correction—use your mark to teach the student why it is wrong and how they can fix it.
    • Use the same kinds of marks (checks, underlines, circles) for the same kinds of errors so that students can see the patterns you are showing them.
    • Use these marks to show how the parts of the sentence work together (an arrow between the subject and the verb, for example).

Working with writers in one-on-one conferences

  • Students who learned English orally—through their friends, the TV, or the radio—have strengths as orally fluent learners and can depend on their ear to hear what is wrong in their writing. One-on-one conferences are an opportunity for you to encourage that work. For example, you can read a student’s sentence out loud to them and ask, “How else could you say that?”
  • Other multilingual writers are very fluent in the vocabulary of English grammatical rules (sometimes more than native speakers) because they have learned English in classrooms or from textbooks. During conferences, encourage this skill by letting students take the lead in grammar work as you watch, stepping in only when they can’t see a problem.
  • Keep grammatical handouts from the writing center website or from style guides at your desk to refer students to as you work together on their writing. Have students look up a rule themselves and practice fixing the error in the conference.
  • Encourage your multilingual students to keep a personalized list of their own error patterns. Have them add to this list as they write and revise and proofread their own writing according to their own common mistakes. This list could include such common errors as idiomatic word choice, article use, or counter-intuitive spelling.