Working with International Students

Megan Siczek from the English for Academic Purposes Program (EAP) has provided some information about working with your international students.

EAP Information for WID Instructors


1 Overview of international student population

o Over 400 international undergraduates at GW

o EAP courses tend to be populated by Korean, Chinese, and Turkish students

o International students comprise about 40% of total GW Writing Center visits

2 EAP Program and Placement

o In Spring 2007, the program designation was officially changed from English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to reflect the mission of the program and counteract the stigma associated with the label “EFL”

o GW Admissions requires that students who score 100 or below (or its equivalent) on the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are required to take EAP 15. A score higher than 100 generally means we never see them in EAP (even though they may need it). Regardless of TOEFL scores, non-native speakers can elect to take EAP 15 to build academic writing skills before taking UW20.

o EAP 15 is a 3-credit, topic-based class designed to orient students to the conventions of academic writing at an American university. The theme is the cultural evolution of Washington, DC. Students follow with UW20 and two WIDs.

Recognizing Non-Native Speakers’ (NNS) Needs in GW Writing Classes

1 Classroom culture issues

o Student expectations

§ different interpretation of what is of academic value

§ may be uncomfortable interacting with native speakers

§ grade pressure (need to do well)

§ unrealistic expectation of progress (or no confidence at all in abilities)

§ feelings of inadequacy or frustration

o Class format/participation

§ expectation that the professor “knows all”

§ atmosphere may be more informal than what they are accustomed to

§ fearful of using English, of sharing personal experiences, or of being critical in comments (may be related to peer interaction or to course topics)

§ great anxiety about participating

o Lack of shared knowledge (topics and academic conventions)

§ lacking a cultural base from which to discuss and analyze course topics

§ little or no experience with conventions of academic writing

§ (or) English conventions may run counter to their culture’s rhetorical patterns and preferences

o Analytical thinking/questioning

§ tradition of not challenging authority (or even classmates)

§ native writing conventions don’t always require critical evaluation of ideas, argumentation, or evidence for support

o Academic integrity/plagiarism

§ lack of familiarity with the concept

§ may be used as a “survival strategy” just to get by

§ cultural obligation to “help” peers from same culture (networks of help are often very well-established among cultures)

2 Language issues/experience with writing

o Mastery of TOEFL five-paragraph structure (formulaic)

o Vocabulary and word choice:

§ native speakers entering college have a vocabulary of approximately 150,000 words

§ nonnative speakers enter with 2-3,000 word vocabulary

§ words choice and setting up sentence structures is a real strain, very time-consuming

o Sentence-level errors/global vs. local errors

§ tendency to focus on visible errors (sentence level), which may not be the most important

3 True NNS students vs. 1.5 generation students

o “1.5 generation” students immigrated to the U.S. at a young age (usually junior high or high school) – harder to pick out because they are usually fluent in spoken English and academic conventions. Problems in writing may manifest themselves later.

4 Questions to ask yourself as instructor:

o What value do the students place on academic writing or on having to take the course? What are their expectations?

o Are my expectations for them the same as for native speakers?

o How much help are they allowed to receive from others?

o How much help can I realistically provide?

o What do I really want them to be able to achieve? Is my goal that their writing becomes indistinguishable from native speakers?


1 NNS needs aren’t always visible early on. Try an in-class writing sample early in the semester.

2 NNS students need explicit instructions about assignments and evaluation criteria. They often lack instinct about how to interpret assignments and norms, and may say they understand when they really don’t. UNC-Chapel Hill does a great handout on “Understanding Assignments.” It may be a good idea to ask NNS to “re-write” each assignment for you in their own words. Also, be aware of the wording you use in assignment prompts. These can inadvertently be biased (linguistically or culturally) against NNS.

3 In class: build rapport early, increase wait time, offer face saving opportunities, give advance preparation for speaking tasks if possible, highlight cultural input as valuable.

4 Don’t assume that NNS know the preferences and conventions of academic English writing or that our rhetorical style is inherently logical. NNS come from equally strong writing (and cultural) traditions.

5 Remember that NNS often lack an understanding of audience and are challenged by cohesion (bridging ideas) because they don’t share cultural knowledge with native English speakers (even if they understand the concept of audience awareness).

6 Simplistic language choices are often the result of vocabulary limitations. Most NNS agonize over single words and phrases.

7 Though language errors are the most visible, they are not often a reflection of education or intelligence; NNS students miss often errors that native speakers can easily catch by proofreading. This is not necessarily a reflection of carelessness.

8 Expect errors. The most common sentence-level concerns for NNS are: articles, prepositions, word forms, verb forms, word choice, count vs. noncount nouns, quantifiers, and gerund vs. infinitive usage. Teaching NNS to think in patterns and collocations can improve students’ chances of making good vocabulary and grammar choices.

9 Consider putting together a list of vocabulary and expressions appropriate to the course’s discipline so that NNS have a stock of options to draw on while writing.

10 Templates and model essays are very useful for NNS. Try to give them a set of tools they can apply to academic literacy tasks in the discipline.

11 Be aware that it takes non-native writers much, much longer to do any task. Even informal tasks are often taken very seriously. Students can also become overwhelmed by reading assignments, especially if they lack the background knowledge or vocabulary to understand the text. Emphasize practical critical reading strategies whenever you can.

12 In feedback on writing: emphasize focus, content, and organization. Most students will tell you they want (and expect) comments on all grammar errors, so establish a clear policy.

13 NNS often struggle to interpret feedback comments. Pay attention to the vocabulary choices in your comments. Students will want to know “how to fix” and will take most comments literally. They also need to feel they are doing some things right, so be encouraging.

14 Consider allowing NNS an extra draft or an extra conference opportunity. Some students will take advantage of office hours or offers of extra help, but others need to be pushed a little!

15 Resources:

o Writing reference book

o Online Writing Labs like UNC or Purdue

o GW Writing Center (visit same tutor) in ROME 550

o EAP program (main office is PHIL 216, Megan Siczek is in ROME 570)

o Bilingual dictionary? No, it can hurt more than help. Try to get them to use an English/English dictionary and attend to context and collocations at the same time (chunking)

Additional help and information can be found here:

  • Academic Word List (AWL)
  • UNC Writing Center Handouts. (The “Understanding Assignments” and “Articles” handouts are particularly useful.)
  • Diane Hacker’s “Rules for Writers” companion site for ESL
  • OWL Resources and Exercises
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