GSIs often want to know more about working with multilingual writers — students whose first language is not English. Although people often use the term “ESL” (English as a Second Language) to refer to students whose first language is not English, professionals in the field now usually prefer “non-native [English] speakers” (NNS) or “multilingual students.” The term “multilingual” respects both students’ ability to function in more than one language and the challenge they face when writing in English. “NNS” and “multilingual” are often more accurate expressions than “English as a Second Language” because English may be a person’s third or fourth language or beyond.

This page addresses questions that often come from GSIs who work with multilingual students in courses that require a substantial amount of writing, but in which developing writing skill is not necessarily a primary learning objective. GSIs who work in courses that are designed to improve student writing should read, in addition to this page, Working with NNS Writers in the Reading and Composition section of the Teaching Guide for GSIs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is there such a wide range in student writing at Cal?
How can I deal with a multilingual student’s writing when I’m not an ESL specialist?
Do I need to correct all the errors and let the student learn from my corrections?
Should I make special accommodations for multilingual students?
Should I grade the work of people with language difficulties differently?
What about plagiarism? I’ve heard that copying is considered a good practice in some cultures.
What if I’m finding a student essay really, really hard to read?
How can I learn more?

Why is there such a wide range in student writing at Cal?

Linguistic variety in a world language such as English is inevitable and normal, and UC Berkeley students come from a vast array of linguistic backgrounds.

International students bring the varieties of English they learn in other English-speaking countries (for example Australia, Canada, or India) or in their previous schooling in non-English-speaking countries. International students who come from non-English-speaking countries show evidence of English proficiency through standardized testing before being admitted to Cal. For many of these students, the volume and sophistication of the writing expected in their classes here may present a new order of challenge.

Students who have difficulty composing in Standard Written English may be international students from non-English-speaking countries. Or they may be students from English-speaking countries for whom the language of the home was not English, or they may be students whose first language is English. People in the latter two groups often share in common that they have learned the language well by ear but are still working to become fluent on paper.

Of course there are many accomplished English-language writers among multilingual students. It’s best not to generalize or prejudge students’ abilities or needs based on linguistic background.

How can I respond to a multilingual student’s writing when I’m not an ESL specialist?

GSIs are not asked to perform like ESL professionals. What GSIs are generally tasked to do is to evaluate students’ mastery of specific course materials or awareness about a topic based on their writing assignments, using an appropriate grading rubric (a specific set of standards).

More helpful than singling out multilingual student writers for special attention is to consider all student writing as falling somewhere along a continuum from very correct, elegant, and effective to ungrammatical, awkward, or incoherent. Almost all of our students’ writings will fall somewhere along this spectrum, and within a single paper there are often passages that differ in quality.

Should I correct all the errors and let the student learn from my corrections?

No. A GSI’s markings and comments on student papers should primarily help students understand the degree of their achievement and how they can improve their knowledge and performance in the future. Usually when an instructor sets out to correct errors, he or she is merely copyediting surface mistakes without attending to patterns of error or even the quality of the students’ thought .This can distract students from the main learning objectives that the piece of writing is meant to assess. Correcting errors can also take up an inordinate amount of a GSI’s time.

Students can’t really process comprehensive error marking, but they can understand a pattern to correct if the GSI can help them learn to identify and work on it themselves. If improvement of student writing is a major course objective, please see the page Working with NNS Writers for further elaboration and productive strategies.

Should I make special accommodations for multilingual students such as allowing them more time than other students on writing assignments?

No. “Accommodation” is a technical term for specific measures stipulated for individual students with specific mental, physical, or other disabilities, and these measures are formally determined case-by-case by specialists at the Disabled Students Program. Multilingualism is not a disability.

Should I grade the work of people with language difficulties differently?

No. The grading standards for all students’ work should remain the same. Grading, however, is not the only thing GSIs do with student papers; they also respond with comments. The response and commenting strategy can vary: you can for example comment on the paper’s features based on the grading criteria, and also comment on one or two prominent kinds of writing error for a student to work on.

What about plagiarism? I’ve heard that copying is considered a good practice in some cultures.

There are several reasons a multilingual student or someone raised outside the US might try to fill a written assignment with other people’s material. Many of the reasons are the same ones native English speakers might have for plagiarizing: the stress of thinking their own written English is not good enough; getting desperate at the last minute before an assignment is due; not understanding that merely cutting and pasting from the Internet is an unacceptable practice; not sufficiently understanding the norms for acknowledging sources in U.S. academic culture. Cultural difference could be relevant in some cases: for example, in some cultures certain texts may be regarded as so authoritative or so well known as to render citation, and student analysis, trivial. However, even if cultural difference does enter in, all college students in the US need to understand and follow the norms of the academic community here. Any paper a student turns in as his or her own work must in fact be the product of the student’s own intellectual labor; if students use other sources, they are required to give proper citations. GSIs are in a great position to help all students learn about this issue. For more information on plagiarism, please see the Teaching Guide section Academic Misconduct: Plagiarism.

What if I’m finding a student essay really, really hard to read?

When a GSI feels that a student writer’s work is so problematic that the GSI really can’t tell how much the student has learned or what he or she means to say, there are several options.

  • The GSI can put it back into the stack of ungraded papers and look at it again later; often when a GSI first reads a paper it seems incomprehensible, but with some patience and a second read the GSI may understand it more fully.
  • The GSI can consult with other GSIs in the course and the Instructor of Record for perspective, tips, or instructor policies on how to proceed.
  • The GSI can invite the student to office hours and discuss some of the difficulties the GSI had as a reader. It is best to choose just one or two major difficulties, preferably as patterns. An office-hour conversation is also helpful because sometimes just getting used to a student’s manner of speech helps a GSI understand the writing.
  • The GSI can suggest that the student take advantage of tutoring to work specifically on writing skills. Note that students cannot be required to use the tutoring programs. The following campus units provide tutoring:

GSIs needn’t feel like they are putting a student off or singling a student out by suggesting outside tutoring; it’s actually a great resource. Research shows that one-on-one instruction with a tutor is an extremely effective strategy for students to improve their writing.

How can I learn more?

If you would like to learn more about working with multilingual students on their writing, please see Working with NNS Writers in the Reading and Composition section of the Teaching Guide.

If you would like to see a list of resources for student writers and their GSIs, please see Additional Resources at the end of this Teaching Guide section, or the Additional Resources page in the Reading and Composition section of the Teaching Guide.