Working with Multilingual Writers

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The Teaching and Learning Center is always glad to consult with faculty on questions and concerns about multilingual students in their classes or in general. Faculty are encouraged to get in touch with our English Learner Specialist, Kelvin Keown, at, or x24724.

Who Multilingual Writers Are

It is important to distinguish between international students, on one hand, and Americans for whom English may not be their primary language on the other. Don’t assume that a student is not American because English is not their first language. Understand that some multilingual students have felt stimatized by the label “English Language Learner” during their schooling, and may resist being identified that way.


Language learning: Not on a quarter schedule

Language learners benefit from explicit instruction about language, which need not be attempts by instructors to correct every written error, and can include vocabulary instruction in discipline-specific terminology. Because there are no courses at UW Tacoma that focus specifically on teaching English, language learners need the support of all of us.


On Grammar

Grammar is essential to making meaning, but “perfect” grammar is not. Errors that irritate us as readers are not necessarily errors that interfere with our understanding. Simply put, we can read through accented writing if we want to, just as we can typically understand speech that is accented. Instructor correction of every written error is unlikely to teach learners to not make those errors in the future (Bitchener & Ferris, 2012), and attempts to correct every error in student writing are a poor use of instructor time (Brown & Larson-Hall, 2012). Our recommendation is that the faculty take the long view, as we do in the Writing Center. In grading written work, rather than penalizing grammar errors, incentivize edits in a subsequent draft (Matsuda, 2012). Grade on addressing the prompt or assignment questions. If a student’s writing does not address the prompt because you can’t understand what they’re saying, then we suggest focusing the grade on the lack of prompt fulfillment rather than grammatical accuracy.

To be clear, we are NOT saying that faculty should have no expectations for language learners. We believe that learning more about the languages we use, in the academic and professional contexts in which they are needed, is a desirable outcome for each university course and writing center consultation.


Learning to Use Sources

Telling students that plagiarism is analagous to stealing does not teach them how to use sources effectively: there is no learning among thieves. Crime and punishment rhetoric succeeds at instilling fear, but fear is not equivalent to understanding the values that animate source attribution or the conventions of the Anglophone Academic Discourse Community. Writing researchers have shown that synthesizing and citing sources in rhetorically effective ways is a difficult, high-level skill that takes practice (Moore Howard, 2001; Pecorari, 2003). Moore Howard’s research also shows that developing academic writers emulate the style of texts they read by using chunks of it, called patchwriting. This commonplace learning stage is also a logical outcome of trying to learn the vocabulary, rhetorical moves, and genre conventions of a new discipline. Are we really asking students to invent new terminology and ways of writing about our disciplines? In most cases, we probably are not, so we should expect them to use the key terms in our disciplines in their writing and take a teaching approach to attribution mistakes.

Multilingual students face some particular challenges in learning to use sources effictively. Beyond grasping the rhetorical purposes and conventions of citations, which are rooted in Western (i.e. non-universal) notions of authorship, writers must also develop the vocabulary to understand the source and write about it. How can students use “their own words” if they are just learning the words required to write about concepts in their disciplines? Faculty can help students meet this challenge by providing––or co-constructing with students––a glossary of key terms for the course.

Lack of background knowledge is another area that can cause difficulty for multilingual students. A student who lacks necessary context (social, political, historical, etc.) to understand the subject matter or the instructor’s purspose can misunderstand the text (such as interpreting a controversial assigned reading as fact or exemplary thinking rather than an instructor’s attempt to elicit a critical response). This lack of knowledge can be one of the reasons that leads to over reliance on sources, such as quoting long passages throughout the writer’s text.

For a thorough discussion of teaching students to use sources effectively, see the slides from our faculty presentation


What Faculty Can Do

No single course, department, or individual is responsible for ensuring that multilingual students improve their English proficiency while at UW Tacoma. Students, faculty, and staff can work together to help students learn more about English as it applies to each student’s academic needs and career goals. To support students effectively, we can:

1. Take the long view on language learning.

2. Incentivize learning through opportunities to revise writing rather than “bean counting” grammatical mistakes.

3. Encourage all students to seek feedback from the Writing Center.

4. View ourselves as language learners––continue educating ourselves on what it takes to learn and teach language.


Additional Resources

  • TESOL Position Statement on the Acquisition of Academic Proficiency in English at the Postsecondary Level 

  • CCCC Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers



Bitchener, J. & Ferris, D. R. (2012). Written corrective feedback in second language acquisition and writing. New York: Routledge.

Brown, S. & Larson-Hall, J. (2012). Second language acquisition myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Howard, R. M. (2001, March 17). Plagiarism: What should a teacher do? Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Denver, CO. Papers/CCCC2001.html, accessed May 26, 2002.

Matsuda, P. K. (2012). Let’s face it: Language issues and the writing program administrator. WPA, 36(1), 141-163.

Pecorari, D. (2003). Good and original: Plagiarism and patchwriting in academic second language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12, 317-345.