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Responding to Multilingual Student Writing

When responding to Multilingual (ML) students’ writing, keep in mind two widely recognized and empirically confirmed observations about ML writing.

ML writing may have style issues and grammar errors.

Style issues are nonidiomatic writing or writing with a foreign accent due to uncommon word choice and/or strange phrasing as in example 1.

Example 1: It is said that in Japan writing one’s name well presents how intelligent people are.

Grammar errors are morphological, syntactic, and lexical forms that deviate from rules of English, violating the expectations of literate native speakers. Example 2 violates the agreement rule between the subject 'she' and the verb 'like' in the present tense.

Example 2: She like books.

ML students can rely on grammar rules to correct grammar errors, but there are no rules for correcting style issues in order to make the writing more idiomatic. Therefore, comments on style issues will not result in idiomatic (native-like) writing.

ML students continue learning English while also learning how to write in academic English.

Your feedback on grammar rule-governed issues in addition to content, development, and organization will help them improve both academic writing skills and language proficiency.

Students Speak: What Multilingual Students Wish Their Professors Knew (video), by the Sweetland Writing Center. University of Michigan. This 4-minute video shows multilingual students talking about the feedback that they consider helpful.

Field-Tested Feedback Strategies

Even though disciplinary expectations vary, the strategies below can be used for responding to writing in all disciplines. Many of these strategies can also be applied to monolingual student writers.

Read a paper two times

First, read the whole paper to get a sense of its content and organization. When rereading the paper, mark those features/elements that seem strange or unexpected.

Use oral feedback

If a paper is incomprehensible, oral feedback can be more effective. Invite the ML student to your office to discuss the paper. If the student can't explain what the draft is about, work with the student to write a reverse outline. Then give feedback on the content.

Reverse Outline Instructions

  1. Copy the thesis statement. Then copy the topic sentence of each body paragraph in their order. Write a one-sentence summary of your conclusion.
  2. Copy the thesis statement, write a sentence or two summarizing the main point of each paragraph.
  3. Ask the student to visit the ELLWC before turning in the revised draft.

Align feedback with assignment requirements

  • Create a hierarchy of writing issues based on the assignment requirements and address them in order of their importance.
  • Consider giving feedback through a rubric. In addition to being a time saver, a rubric shows students visually which of the problems are top priority.
  • Consider using model texts as a feedback tool to help ML students learn more about linguistic features of the field and incorporate them into their writing.

Avoid indirect comments

ML students find indirect comments unclear in terms of identifying and addressing writing issues.

Examples of Direct/Indirect Comments

Examples adapted from Hewett, B. (2015). The Orneriness of Language. In B. Hewett, The online writing Conference: A guide for teachers and tutors (pp. 112-129). Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Example 1

  1. Indirect: Would it be more logical to pull all the description together …?
  2. Possible student’s reaction: No, I don’t know. You are the teacher; you tell me.
  3. Direct: It is more logical to pull all the description together because … .

Example 2

  1. Indirect: Can you identify and correct the comma splice errors in this paragraph?
  2. Possible student’s reaction: No, I can’t.
  3. Direct: Identify and correct the comma splice errors in this paragraph.

Example 3

  1. Indirect: The meaning of this sentence may not be clear.
  2. Possible student’s reaction: It’s clear to me.
  3. Direct: This sentence is unclear. You need to revise it.

Offer specific directions for revision

When commenting on content, structural, and meaning-related issues, provide the student with meaningful directions for correction of errors.

Adapted from Hewett, B. (2015). The online writing Conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Example Direct Comment with Directions for Revision

Your essay does not have an introduction at this point. [Inform] An introduction to an argument like yours should "hook” or "grab” the reader’s attention right from the start. [Inform] Not having an introduction is a problem because readers may not be drawn into the reading immediately and because readers expect some initial information about what they are going to read. [Inform]

One way to get the reader's attention is to provide hints, or ideas, about possible solutions to the problem in the introduction paragraph. [Inform] These ideas also help to orient, or guide, your reader through your argument. [Inform] Then, the rest of the essay discusses, supports, and justifies these ideas. [Inform]

The conclusion repeats or rephrases those solutions for the reader. [Inform]

Your key job, though, is to figure out what those "solutions to the problems are. [Inform] Very often, you won't know what you think those solutions are until after the first or second draft! [Inform]

Next steps: [Inform]

  1. After you write the first draft, review the essay to see whether you've come up with "solutions" or possible "actions" for the problem. [Direct] Use a colored marker to highlight those solutions or actions. [Direct]
  2. Then, revise your introduction to include one or two of these highlighted solutions. [Direct] At the very least, write a statement that indicates solutions do exist. [Direct]    

Your essay will become more interesting to your reader. [Inform]

Avoid too many comments

They overwhelm and demotivate students. Moreover, they are time consuming. Prioritize higher-order issues and grammar errors that impede meaning.

  • If content, development, organization are problematic, mark two-three issues, e.g., thesis, topic sentences, support.
  • If content, development, organization are not problematic, mark two-four error patterns, e.g., verb tense, verb forms, sentence structure.

Use a pattern-oriented approach

Don’t correct each grammar error. This does not result in a significant improvement. After responding to the content and organization, take the following steps:

  • Reread any two paragraphs and mark the elements that seem strange/unexpected and/or jar the reading process.
  • Identify 2- 4 error patterns. A pattern means that the same error is repeated 3 to 4 times in those paragraphs.
  • Mark ONLY the first instance of an error pattern using the appropriate code. State/name the error and correct it. Then tell the student to find and correct similar errors in the rest of the paper. Include the link to ELLWC Grammar Tutorials.

Grammar Error Codes

Error codes are shorthand that are used to mark errors in ML student papers. If you consider using them, share them with the students.

  1. Verb tense: vt
    • Most people are doing exercises after work.
  2. Verb form: vf
    • He has write five novels.
  3. Word order: wo
    • Matt bought for me a present.
  4. Fragment: frag
    • After they finished practice.
  5. Run-on: ro
    • In our lives teamwork is very important we should turn into unification so as to make our work more efficient so we must be honest to tell the truth and loyal to any member.
  6. Comma-spliced: cs
    • In addition, I believe that different circumstances can make people have different personality, and everyone could see different things, some are hope, others are despair, hope is determined by a total of goals, so that people could working on that goals and finally get achieve them and to achieve success.
  7. Incorrect singular or plural noun: s/pl
    • The Taiwanese government invests money in designing trash cans with four color that indicate differenttype of recycling materials.
  8. Subject-verb agreement: sv
    • Everybody on the buses know its route.
  9. Article: art
    • There is desk in the room.
  10. Word form: wf
    • Students acquisition a new language at the university. (The noun is used instead of the verb acquire).
  11. Word choice: wc
    • The negative side effects that the GMO technology brings to us still cannot be ignored.
  12. Preposition: prep
    • The students in this university are usually very studious.
  13. Pronoun reference: pro ref
    • My supervisor has revised my work schedule several times. This has made organizing my study time difficult.

Sample Pattern-Oriented Comments

The following sample student paper shows 19 grammar errors (they are underlined); however, ONLY three marginal comments on the first instance of the three error patterns (5 verb-tense errors, 4 pronoun-reference errors, and 4 article errors) are sufficient for the ML student to improve the paper by correcting 13 errors.

After five weeks of studies at this university, I learned (vt) [COMMENT 1: vt The verb tense you use does not fit the time you want to express. Use ‘have learned.’ Check all verbs in your paper for tenses. For more information about these errors, click ELLWC Grammar Tutorial.] many skills from (art) [COMMENT 2: art Use ‘the’ with ‘English 25 course.’ Check your paper for article errors. For more information about these errors, click ELLWC Grammar Tutorial.] English 25 course. One of the most important is writing (art) term paper. I would like to write something about my term paper right now. I scheduled (vt) my term-paper writing progress (wc) into ten parts: (1) deciding topics (s/pl), (2) collecting reference papers/books, (3) briefly reading those papers/books, (4) writing down (wc) the outline, (5) reading the papers/book carefully and taking notes, (6) write (vf) (art) first draft, (7) revising the draft, (8) asking my tutor to comment on my paper, (9) typing it, and (10) finally checking the paper. So far I finished (vt) the first four steps and is (sv) proceeding to the fifth step. I hope I can speed up; otherwise it (pre ref) [COMMENT 3: pro ref The reference of ‘it’ is not clear. Use ‘I’ to refer to yourself. Check all pronouns in your paper for their reference.] will be very busy on (prep) the end of November because it is due on December 4.

In order to type my term paper, I must learn how to operate Macintosh or IBM compatible computers because I never use (vt) them before, especially two kinds of word processing packages (Word for Macintosh and WordPerfect for Windows). As a result, I attended (vt) several lab classes offered by (art) computer center. It (pre ref) is really interesting and I enjoyed it very much. It (pre ref) is useful for my future career too, and I think it (pre ref) is most challenging to me in writing my term paper.

The sample student paper is adapted from Lane, J., & Lange, E. (2012). Writing clearly: Grammar for editing. (3rd ed.). Heinle Cengage Learning.

Hold ML students accountable for self-editing grammar errors.

  • Help students understand that working on errors does not only lead to a grammatically correct paper but also improves their overall language proficiency.
  • Remind them that ELLWC consultants can assist them in finding and correcting errors

Recommended Readings

Readings Discussing Feedback through Rubrics and Model Texts

  • Goen-Salter S., Porter P., & vanDommelen D. (2009). Working with Generation 1.5: Pedagogical principles and practices. In M. Roberge, M. Siegal, & L. Harlau (Eds.), Generation 1.5 in college composition (pp. 234-259). Routledge.
  • Hewett, B. (2015). Instructional rubrics. In B. Hewett, The online writing Conference: A guide for teachers and tutors (pp. 155-159). Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  • Kang, E. Y. (2020). Using model texts as a form of feedback in L2 writing. System, 89, doi:10.1016/J.SYSTEM.2019.102196.

Reading Focusing on Strategies and Activities for Self-editing Writing

Readings Focusing on Pattern-Oriented Feedback and Typical Grammar Error Patterns in ML Writing

Readings Discussing ML Students Reaction to Instructors’ Feedback

  • Lee, I. (2008). Ten mismatches between teachers' beliefs and written feedback practice. ELT Journal, 63(1), 13-22.
  • Leki, I. (1991). The preferences of ESL students for error correction in college level writing classes. Foreign Language Annals, 24(3), 203-218.
  • Leki, I. (2006). “You cannot ignore”: L2 graduate students’ response to discipline-based written feedback. In K. Hyland & F. Hyland (Eds.), Feedback in second language writing (pp.266-286). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Merry, S. & Orsmond, P. (2008). Students’ attitudes to and usage of academic feedback provided via audio files. Bioscience Education e Journal, 11(3).

English Language Learner Writing Center

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