Faculty and Student Concerns: Supporting Multilingual Students


Sentence-level issues and Multilingual Writers

Faculty and student concerns

The majority of English speakers in the world are multilingual. That is, there are more people around the world who speak English as a second or third language than those who speak it as their first tongue. While many multilingual students write at a high level, when they do struggle, sentence-level concerns, such as style and grammar, often dominate.

Common Faculty Concerns:

When seeing multilingual writers’ sentence-level issues, common faculty concerns include:

  • Lack of time to deal with sentence-level issues
  • Uncertainty regarding how much sentence-level issues should impact grades
  • Challenges in labeling some second-language writers’ grammatical errors
  • Difficulty focusing on the writer’s ideas due to distracting errors
  • Feelings of conflict between the desire to take multilingual students’ unique concerns into account while maintaining high expectations for everyone
  • Concerns about the precedent created for the student’s long-term development as a professional by too much or too little attention to grammar

Common Student Concerns:

Multilingual students, meanwhile, can feel pressed by the challenges of learning in a different culture and writing in a second language. Common concerns include:

  • A need for significantly more time with reading, writing, and revising.
  • Pressure to make every paper grammatically perfect and indistinguishable from a native speaker, which can lead some students to devote more time to surface-level issues than to larger issues like argument
  • Difficulty with style. Style can present at least as much difficulty as grammar, if not more. Multilingual writers may struggle simply because they do not know the correct idiom or more than one way to phrase their ideas. The result is that, when writing the same word count as their peers, many multilingual students may need more words to explain the same content. For similar reasons, multilingual writers may also struggle with awkward or unusual wording, circumlocution, and transitions between sentences and paragraphs.

Sustainable approaches to sentence-level issues

So how can faculty address sentence-level issues with multilingual students? This document provides strategies that can help both faculty and their students by drawing on Writing Studies research.

Giving Feedback on Sentence-level Issues: Supporting Multilingual Students

Giving feedback on sentence-level issues

Since they go hand in hand, it can be helpful to consider the ways grading and commenting on sentence-level issues complement one another in your class. For example, faculty need to justify the grades, but students also need comments that help them grow.

The question is what kind of comments most help with this growth? The most effective comments on sentence-level issues are strategic, point students toward the underlying principles, and encourage students to follow up with application of these principles to their own writing.

The challenge is that most faculty are not grammar teachers, nor do they have time to mark every error. The good news is that they do not need to. Extensive error marking can actually be counterproductive, and faculty do not need to be able to thoroughly explain every error to give helpful feedback. Here are some, often time-saving, ways to help students improve while maintaining a sustainable workload.

Provide clear, direct advice:

Vague advice can be frustrating for multilingual students. Especially if they have many errors, the stakes are high, so clear advice tends to be much appreciated.

Labeling types of errors can be useful feedback, though it is usually more fruitful to mark only the most important types. For example, split infinitives are minor technicality compared to subject-verb agreement and common even among published, native-English writers. Some faculty use abbreviations to mark error types; others write brief margin comments; still others simply highlight all the unclear wording. Whatever the method, it needs to be consistent, and students need to understand how it works. For the most important or repeated types of errors, it is also helpful to explain the principle, if you feel comfortable doing so. To save time, you could also embed links to handouts on the specific writing issue directly into your margin or end comments.

Focus on the larger issues first:

For longer, formal papers, it can help to quickly skim through the whole draft quickly before making comments. This makes it much easier to be strategic with your time, and it can limit the distraction sometimes caused by non-standard wording or extensive errors.

On all papers, students will appreciate understanding your hierarchy of concerns. What issues are most important for this kind of writing?

A typical hierarchy can look like this, going from global issues (like argument and organization) to more local issues (like grammar and citations).

Hierarchy of concerns

  • Focus
  • Organization
  • Development of ideas and evidence
  • Conventions
    • Clarity, precision, appropriate academic tone, smooth connections between ideas
    • Integration of sources and appropriate citation formatting
    • Sentence-level issues that interfere with meaning
    • Other major systematic grammatical issues (incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, etc.)
    • Sentence-level issues that do not interfere with meaning but mark the writer’s accent (problems with articles, understandable but slightly unusual word choice, etc.)

Mark a few examples of any important stylistic issues:

If there are stylistic issues that impact the paper’s success, highlight a few examples and name them if you can. Or mark the paragraphs with the best and least effective flow.  Invite students to work on these more with a tutor.

Comment selectively on grammar, especially for long papers:

For grammar, prioritize clarity. When there are extensive errors, it is not always efficient to mark every last one, and especially if it is a final draft, students may not pay attention to extensive error marking anyway.

One common, time-saving strategy is to simply highlight unclear wording throughout the paper in one color and ask students to revise these with a friend or tutor.

Otherwise, if you notice repeated types of errors, it may be strategic to mark those, while minimally marking more idiosyncratic issues. Repeated errors are often systematic and rule-based issues, such as incomplete sentences or subject-verb agreement.

  • When following this strategy of marking patterns of error, it may only be necessary to mark the first few instances of each error type. This preserves faculty time, and it helps students focus on what will most help them grow as writers.
  • When marking those repeated issues, if it is an error type that is easy to name, consider labeling it for the student. (The most common systematic error types are incomplete sentences/fragments, fused sentences/run-ons, comma splices, subject-verb agreement, pronoun usage, and article usage.)
  • For these important, repeated issues, you may want to provide links to handouts or videos that explain the relevant grammar rules. For your convenience, there is a list of Moody-created resources to share with students on the Writing Center’s website. Other resource options include the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the UNC Writing Center, Dave’s ESL Café, and Grammar Girl.



Selectively comment on less systematic issues.

Often, errors are related to isolated issues, such as word choice, preposition usage, or idioms. Helping students understand a single instance of these is often less strategic, especially if they might rarely use that wording again.

However, it can make sense to respond to less systematic issues in a few cases:

  1. Repeated categories of error: Sometimes, there is a repeated error that cannot be fixed by learning a single rule, such as which preposition to use. If you see that students have many similar instances—like many problems with correct preposition choice—help the student identify this repeated issue.
  2. Repeated errors in word choice or idiomatic phrasing: If students repeatedly misuse the same word or phrase, there is no need to mark each instance. Use margin comments to identify the problem once and direct them to fix it throughout the paper. (E.g., repeatedly misusing an article with the same noun.)
  3. Important terms or phrases that students may use again: (e.g., common theological wording, common phrasing to introduce a source’s argument, etc.).


Treat feedback as part of a conversation:

Many students lose motivation to carefully read comments on a paper that already has a final grade. Mentally, they are already working on the next urgent project. To make sure that faculty’s hard work is not derailed by students’ natural survival mode, faculty may either build in more short informal assignments early in the semester (in which they can make students aware of issues to address in the upcoming major papers), or faculty can require some form of follow up to paper comments. Follow-up methods can include referrals to the Writing Center, meetings with students, asking students to revise an already submitted assignment, or requiring reflective memos turned in with the next assignment that explain how students tried to apply previous comments in the current paper. The actual method is probably less important than students’ awareness that they need to visibly act on faculty feedback.




Writing Across the Curriculum