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Writing Assessment of Non-Native English Speakers

It is important to be sensitive to the needs of your non-native English speaking population while giving them the tools to improve their written communication skills while at NC State.

Academic Writing

Academic writing is:

  • A learned skill that takes time and considerable practice;  
  • Context and discipline dependent; a lab report will look very different from an essay in the humanities.

Academic writing is challenging for native and non-native speakers because:

  • We do not write the way that we speak;
  • It is different from writing for informal purposes (texting, letters, comments on internet forums);
  • It uses a formal register including discipline specific academic vocabulary;
  • It is often lengthy and includes abstract ideas;
  • Mechanics, such as punctuation and formatting, are particularly important;
  • It is context and culture-dependent.

There is no one size fits all standard for “good” writing.  Whether writing is deemed good or not depends on a number of factors including:

  1. The depth of thought presented;
  2. The organization and development of ideas;
  3. Concision;
  4. Reliable evidence and/or relevant personal experience;
  5. Effective and precise use of language at the sentence level; sentence variety and word choice.

It is each professor’s responsibility to define “good” writing for his/her specific context, whether it be for an in-class essay, a lab report, a research paper, or something else.   Students need multiple opportunities across multiple disciplines to write and receive feedback. It is unrealistic to expect a composition course to meet the varied needs of all the writing that will be required at the university level whether the student is a native speaker or not.

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Components of Good Writing in a US Academic Context

  1. Organization that follows a linear process with explicit connections between ideas
  2. Existence of main ideas, supporting details such as examples, evidence, and/or data 
  3. Paragraphs that contain a well-developed controlling idea 
  4. Effective transitional expressions showing how ideas relate to one another within and among paragraphs 
  5. Accurate comprehension on the part of the writer of previous ideas and/or original contribution to the academic community
  6. A specific purpose and audience that are comprehensible and clear to that audience.
  7. Use of formal academic language

For technical/scientific writing, the following are important:

  1. Prioritization of technical content 
  2. Clear visuals including figures, tables, and charts
  3. Conforming to project, grant, report, and technical conventions

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Grading Advice

When assessing the written work of non-native speakers of English, several questions should guide the way that you approach your grading.  

  1. How much effort is required to understand what is being communicated by the student?   If a student’s work causes moderate to extreme difficulty to comprehend for a reader of a given discipline, then you may want to consider how that might impact your grading.   In cases like these, a further conversation with the student is strongly recommended in order to refer students to campus resources such as the Writing and Speaking Tutorial Center, where they may be able to benefit from extra assistance.
  2. Is the intention and meaning behind the students’ words clear?   When grading the work of international students in general, it is advisable to focus on their ideas and the strengths of their arguments and reasoning over their grammar and spelling, especially for in-class assessments.  However, for any assignment, if the meaning is unclear due to grammar, vocabulary, organization, or development of ideas, or if there are persistent errors that cause the reader difficulty and impede comprehension, it is justifiable to take points off regardless of the purpose of the assignment.  
  3. Is the level of language proficiency (grammar, vocabulary, and mechanics) an essential component of the assignment or assessment?  These elements may be very important for an English composition writing assignment or a history paper but perhaps less so for an in-class exam in physics.   It would be reasonable to take language usage into account on longer assignments where all students have the opportunity to make edits at home, but perhaps less so during an in-class exam where students are under considerable time pressure.  On assignments where students will be evaluated on their language usage, it is helpful to explain this to students in advance, for example in a rubric you may have for evaluation. By doing so, all students will be extra careful to check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.

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Giving Feedback

It is very important to be specific and clear in your feedback of students’ written work, but is especially important when addressing any language issues that non-native speaking students may have.

  • Avoid making comments such as “awkward” or “unclear” as it may not be readily apparent to the student what is awkward or unclear.  Is it the sentence itself, a specific word choice, reasoning, examples, or something else?  
  • Be direct in your feedback, and be clear as to what feedback requires action on the part of the student or if the feedback is just a suggestion (and therefore, optional). 
  • Let students know what they are doing well in order to encourage and reinforce specific behavior that you would like to continue.   Point out at least one positive aspect of the writing.
  • Frame your feedback from the perspective of a reader: e.g. Explain the connection between your idea X and the examples.  
  • Avoid using red ink to correct written work because students tend to have negative association with the color red in terms of feedback.

Global/Higher Order Concerns vs Lower Order Concerns 

When giving feedback on student writing, it is helpful to address both higher-order and lower-order concerns, with emphasis on the higher-order or more global concerns.  

Higher-Order (Global Concerns)

  1. Organization
  2. Development and clarity of ideas
  3. Cohesion and coherence
  4. Precision and appropriateness of vocabulary used
  5. Genre conventions
  6. Effectiveness/accuracy of summarized and paraphrased material 
  7. Appropriate use of relevant sources

Lower Order Concerns

  1. Grammar such as subject-verb agreement word forms, verb tense, word order, and sentence structure/sentence boundaries
  2. Mechanics (including punctuation, spelling, capitalization)
  3. Formatting

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Correcting Grammar

Some professors may not feel that it is their responsibility to address students’ language errors while others have been a bit overzealous in their desire to correct every student error.    Since language is the medium in which we communicate our thoughts and understandings to each other within our academic community, we do our students a disservice if we do not address areas that lead to comprehension break-downs or will cause our students to be judged harshly in professional settings.  In addition, students may incorrectly assume that they have no language problems if they never receive any corrections or feedback.


  1. Do your best to avoid correcting every grammatical mistake that you find.  
  2. Underline or circle a few persistent errors and make a note in the margin that explains the nature of the error (subject-verb agreement, word order, passive voice etc.) Although a professor might have the best of intentions, from the students’ perspective, it is very disheartening to receive a paper back covered in red ink, especially if they had spent considerable effort in writing it.  
  3. Be selective in what you choose to draw attention to and consider the nature of the error.


With respect to second language acquisition, certain grammatical items tend to be persistent despite additional language training and exposure.  Linguists refer to this phenomenon as fossilization.  

For example, articles (a, an, the), prepositions (above, of, in), count/non-count nouns and their associate quantifiers (some research vs. *some researches; much evidence vs. *many evidences) are notoriously difficult to master even among very educated individuals who have lived in an English speaking country for decades.   Leniency is generally recommended with these type of errors.

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