This is a companion article to ‘ESL’ Writing: Frequently Asked Questions in the Working with Student Writing section of the Teaching Guide. Please read that article before this one.

GSIs often become concerned when they read student papers that don’t seem to address the rhetorical intent of the assignment or that have pervasive linguistic errors. In R&C courses, and in other writing-intensive courses for which improving student writing is a major learning objective, how can GSIs best work with NNS (also referred to as “multilingual”) writers? What level of intervention is realistic or sustainable, given the limits of the GSI’s job description and time?

Academic English
Sorting Error Types
Strategies for Improvement

Academic English

Like some native-English-speaking student writers, some NNS writers seem to miss the intent of an essay assignment because they are unfamiliar with academic language and writing conventions when they start at Cal. Students’ expectations align with their previous education and experience.

Some expectations appear to be culturally defined. American English academic essays are said to follow a linear path of argumentation that lays things out clearly for the reader. In some other literary traditions, the path may seem serpentine or recursive, and more demands may be put on the reader to make the connections and inferences. The best English academic writing tends toward conciseness and plain style; some other rhetorical traditions strike one as more florid or allusive or lyrical. (It is possible, of course, to be lyrical as well as concise in English.)

Two kinds of learning activities that address rhetorical expectations and make those expectations clear to students are are contrasting passages that treat the same topic in two different modes, and making full use of pre-writing, drafting, and revision.

In a Celtic Studies course, students were given three one-page excerpts about ancient chariot warfare. One was drawn from a popular book, the second from an introductory textbook for a college audience, and the third from a research article in archaeology. Students noticed similarities in factual content, but also differences in tone, treatment of evidence, citations, degree of analysis vs. description, and ease of reading. Close attention to particular signal words or linguistic features, ones that shape the tone or signal a specific turn of an argument, can help NNS students or any student learning how to write in an academic register. The gains of this exercise can be extended by then having students try to write paragraphs in the first two modes, then describe their strategy for making each of the two paragraphs distinct. Having a few volunteers share their paragraphs and strategies with the class, along with other students’ comments and your commentary and wrap-up, can bring the lesson further into students’ way of writing and talking about writing.

In teaching pre-writing, drafting, and revision, you can give students permission to write initially in the forms and language that are easiest for them (pre-writing as thinking on paper), then to translate their forming ideas into an increasingly appropriate academic register in later stages. Once they have a draft or sketch of their paper, they can specifically reconsider the shape and linguistic register of their essay, making the parts of it better fit the expectations of academic writing.

For more information on orienting students to your expectations for academic essays, please see Writing in a Genre.

Sorting Error Types

Two pieces of advice up front: First, resist the urge to “correct” your students’ writing. Students can learn to pick up linguistic patterns, but total correction is not effective for learning. (It also takes up far too much of a GSI’s limited time.) Second, try to hold realistic expectations for progress. Becoming fluent in a foreign language and becoming proficient as a writer (even in one’s first language) are both highly complex activities requiring many years of effort; in one semester students are likely to make significant gains only if they receive targeted instruction and feedback on a limited number of significant writing issues.

There are a couple of ways you can prepare yourself to give students effective feedback and well focused instruction. One is to learn to apply a basic response “triage” for marking errors. The other is to target patterns of error that are more amenable to change within a short term.


Just as first-aid providers with limited resources sort (triage) injuries and treat the most life-threatening conditions first, before moving on to less grave problems, GSIs with limited time and energy can help students out by addressing the gravest of their writing issues first and leaving other issues for later. Or, to put it positively, concentrate on the changes that will yield the biggest gains for the student’s future academic writing. This approach is also recommended with native-English speaking students’ writing. Composition specialists often recommend the following ranking of issues:

  • Stigmatizing errors (the reader perceives the writer as an outsider on some level — e.g., social or professional — and becomes less likely to find the writing persuasive)
  • Errors that interfere with coherence (the reader becomes confused or misunderstands the writer’s point)
  • Errors that may irritate readers but do not necessarily stigmatize or interfere with coherence (many instructor pet peeves fall into this category)
  • Other errors that do not stigmatize, interfere with coherence, or irritate readers

When you run across a pattern of error, before marking anything, consider why it bothers you and which category it fits into.

Amenability to Correction

In addition to sorting out the severity of error patterns, consider which ones are relatively easy for students to change. (Early success with one pattern can help motivate work with other, more difficult patterns later on.) In general, patterns that are easier to change are rule-governed, are relatively easy to explain, and don’t have a lot of exceptions.

Examples of errors that are amenable to change
(the writer can make quick, recognizable progress)

  • Subject-verb agreement (plural with plural, singular with singular)
  • Sentence structure and boundaries (basic subject-predicate pattern bounded by capital and period)
  • Disciplinary terms or other very frequently used expressions about a topic
  • Use of the wrong form of a word (noun-verb-adjective-adverb, e.g., ease-ease-easy-easily)

Examples of errors that are difficult to change
(student and instructor effort are not so quickly rewarded with obvious progress)

  • Prepositions. These don’t translate consistently from language to language and are notoriously difficult to learn for non-native English speakers (see Prepositions for Time, Place, and Introducing Objects). Tip: Often a verb is associated with a particular preposition, so it can be helpful to think of some preposition errors as phrasal verb errors (see Phrasal Verb Dictionary).
  • Count/noncount nouns. “Chair,” for example, is a count noun; more than one requires a plural, “chairs.” “Furniture” is a noncount noun and can refer to any number of items. These often have to be learned rotely, one by one (see Count and Noncount Nouns).
  • Absence or misuse of articles, i.e. a, an, some, and the (see Using Articles).
  • Idioms. These expressions or set phrases have to be learned individually, by rote.

Strategies for Improvement

Once you identify a pattern of error, you have a choice of strategies to recommend to students to learn to correct their writing.

  • Suggest that students keep a log of errors or error patterns they are working on (just a few things at a time); this log can also function as a checklist for student proofreading. A student might make an entry, for example, of a particular sentence or group of phrases you marked on his or her paper where the error occurs.
  • Suggest that students look up rules about a pattern you have marked, in a reliable reference work, and to apply the pattern correctly to the marked sentences.
  • Suggest that students work with a tutor to master particular patterns that you have marked in their paper. Working through a pattern with an instructor or tutor has been shown to increase the likelihood of student self-correction. Tutoring for R&C students is available from the Student Learning Center, Academic Services in the Residence Halls, and the Athletic Study Center. (Please see the Additional Resources page.)

In general, students can also catch errors by reading their papers aloud and correcting parts that don’t sound right, before turning them in. Often writers don’t notice an error unless they hear it. They can also ask a friend or roommate who is unfamiliar with the essay to read it aloud. For an even more objective voice, they can have their computer’s speech synthesizer read the paper aloud. Whereas humans tend to automatically gloss over mistakes when they read aloud, a computer will read exactly what the student has written, so errors are more obvious.

Note that while the some of the issues that commonly arise may be different between multilingual and monolingual student papers, many of the strategies that are effective with non-native English speakers’ writing are also effective with native English speakers’ work; the converse is also the case.

For a list of resources available to GSIs and to their students, please see the Additional Resources page.)