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Grading International and ELL Student Writing

Below are some practical strategies for dealing with language error in student writing that will allow you to keep the focus of the course on your primary learning goals, save time grading papers, and help ELL students feel supported in your class.

First--Two "truths" about error in ELL Student Writing

  1. Most of the "error" in ELL writing is a lot like accent in ELL student speaking. Sometimes it slows understanding a bit, on occasion misfires big time, but very rarely does it actually prevent one from getting the writer's drift. Once you get accustomed to the "accent," you can in fact "read through" most errors of this sort, and look for the underlying conceptual issues and challenges that are for ELL students--as for native speakers--the real point of your course.

  2. If we think of language in ELL papers as a form of accented English, we are actually much closer to truth than we may think. For much error arises in ELL writing not from laziness or poor editing skills, or even lack of time studying English. Rather it is from the enormous difficulty ELL students face in mastering a language that in many respects differs structurally as well as phonetically from English.

What can be done to effectively read and evaluate ELL student writing?

  • Learn to read through error. You do not have to be your students' English language teacher. They are going to have an accent for awhile in their writing whatever you do, and thus your time will usually be better spent in helping them make their writing more understandable and more interesting--to themselves and to their readers--than in helping them eradicate all traces of their first language's dissonances with English.
  • Try not to correct errors on early drafts. Even if you would like your students to make fewer errors, correcting errors on drafts really will only reinforce many of your students' fears that their biggest writing problem is English grammar. But that's just not true. Their biggest problems are pretty much the same problems all your first year students will have: invention, argument, inquiry, evidence. Moreover, for ELLs as well as native speakers, correction defeats revision.
  • Help students find appropriate supports in order to work on writing issues over time--such as hardcopy handbooks, online resources, or a writing center, like the Odegaard Writing and Research Center or another on-campus writing program, that knows how to help students develop an error profile. Though it sometimes seems as if there is no rhyme or reason to the errors ELL students make, in fact there are usually patterns.
  • Develop a minimal marking system to guide students in the preparation of a "presentation draft." First, create a grading rubric to keep your comments focused. After students have completed most of the thinking-heavy part of writing, you can help them to do a last "presentation draft" of the paper (or sometimes just a page of it) in which they work exclusively on upgrading their surface correctness. All substantive change is prohibited--only words, verbs, and sentence structure revisions. One minimal marking practice is to underline a page of the final draft the errors worth fixing. Don't fix the errors yourself but offer to talk with them about what has gone wrong. They can work with a writing center or with online sources, or often they can just consult their own knowledge. If a particular issue concerns many students, you can spend 10 minutes in class with two or three examples, either using sentences from the group or making them up yourself.
  • The information on this page was adapted from John Webster's "On the Challenges of Working with the Writing of English Language Learners", published in The National Teaching and Learning Forum 22, no. 6 (2013), 7-9.

    More Resources

    For information on creating rubrics to make grading more efficient and effective, see our guide Responding to Student Writing.

    Haswell, Richard. "Minimal Marking." College English 45, no. 6 (1983): 600-604.

    Webster, John. "Some Differences between English and Chinese: Five grammar errors native Chinese speakers can easily make when writing English."