Teaching Writing to Multilingual Students

September 7, 2017

Several years ago College Writing Programs began offering writing consultations to faculty and GSIs teaching Reading & Composition (R&C) courses.  Over the last few years, College Writing Programs has rotated the Multilingual Student Writing Consultant position among the applied linguists on our faculty. Each of us has had the opportunity to work with faculty and GSI’s from across campus—from English and Comparative Literature to Classics and Geography, as well as to field questions from faculty on other campuses.  

Each of us has enjoyed the challenge of sharing our knowledge of best practices with faculty and GSIs across the disciplines—in one-on-one consultations (by email, phone, or in person) or in pedagogy course roundtables with GSIs.  And we’ve each appreciated the ensuing dialogues on meeting the needs of multilingual student writers who comprise the majority of undergraduates at Cal.

Multilingual students encompass an extremely diverse swath of students across campus including: US-born bilingual students, Generation 1.5 students who immigrated at a young age and have typically attended school in at least two countries, recent immigrants who came in their teen years, and international students, as well as trans- or multi-national students who have traversed several national borders in their upbringing and education. Among UC Berkeley undergraduates who are US residents, 55% of first-year and transfer students report that a language other than English is spoken at home; a quarter of these first-year students report that English is not spoken at all at home, as do half of all transfer students. Statistics here are based on data from the 2016 undergraduate application. These percentages do not include the 15% of undergraduates who are international students—studying in the US on a student visa. As we can determine with some quick calculations, an overwhelming majority of the students enrolled in our courses at Berkeley are multilingual!

Common issues that emerge in discussions about how best to meet the needs of our students with diverse linguistic assets include how to encourage student participation in discussions, how to support students in revising across drafts, how to mark word choice and grammatical errors on essays, and how to encourage self-editing. Being multilingual is an asset, a trait to celebrate. I hope this article supports instructors in best reaching and teaching their multilingual students who are courageously tackling coursework at a top-notch university in their second, third, or fourth language!


1. How can I ensure multilingual students actively participate in class discussions or discussion sections?

A. Assign brainstorming or discussion posting as homework on the material that will be the subject of class discussion:

  • Reading Response or Journal
  • Discussion Board or White Board Post on bCourses, Googledocs, or other online platforms

B. Provide a little time in class—before class discussion—for students to gather their thoughts on a question you pose:

  • Freewrite/List (2-5 minutes)
  • Partner Pair Share (3-5 minutes)
  • Small group discussion with assigned roles (Johnson et al, 2014) (recorder, summarizer, facilitator, timekeeper, reporter) 

C. Create less intimidating possibilities for class participation:

  • Small groups post a list on blackboard/giant Post-it note/bCourses page and report to class.
  • Notify students in advance whom you will call on to answer each question in a series.
  • Have students share an insight from their partner or group member.
  • Plan a jigsaw activity with expert and mixed groups.

A jigsaw activity (AKA: information gap) can be an ingenious way to ensure each student participates. For a jigsaw, you select a topic that can be divided into sections or subtopics. For an article, you would have groups of students choose a section of the article to focus on. For a film you could assign groups of students a specific feature to note throughout the film, such as the cinematography or soundtrack, or assign groups a specific scene or segment. Each group can be assigned a different article or topic to research, as well. To prepare for a new unit or challenging reading, you could have students research individuals, theories, or events that will be key to understanding what comes next in the course.

 When students come to class, they meet in expert groups first and exchange their notes and thoughts on their shared topic so they are prepared to share their ideas with classmates who did not focus on the same topic. After 5-10 minutes, you then mix up the groups so that each student is the lone expert on said topic in the new group. For example, if you have 25 students and groups of 5, the 5 students with the same topic meet in their expert group (Group 1) first, and then you assign each student in that group to a new group (Groups A, B, C, D, or E) so each one is with four different people who are ready to learn about Group 1’s topic, Group 2’s topic, etc.  Have students answer a specific question or take notes regarding each topic. Within half an hour, every student has spoken up in a small group to share unique information, and all students should have expanded their knowledge base. This works best in classes or groups with a square root-able enrollment (16, 25, 36,....), but the instructor can fill in as necessary in groups of other sizes.

2. How can I support students in the writing process?

A. Scaffold and justify/explain the writing process.

  • Design essay prompts that explicitly outline conventions of the assigned genre & use student or professional samples to delineate key features of the genre.
  • Require pre-writing (web, list, outline, looping) & sharing of pre-writing with peers in discussion.
  • Require 1-2 drafts before the final even if you don’t collect it (Consider assigning peer response).
  • Point out that strong writers spend more time brainstorming and planning their writing than composing.
  • Provide a clear & detailed rubric that delineates how you will grade the writing assignment.
  • Bring to class sample student sentences or paragraphs to critique as a class, modeling strategies for revision and editing.
  • Encourage the use of self-editing strategies by assigning a self-error analysis with a tally of recurring errors, a description of the relevant rule, a strategy to find the error, and a sample correction.
  • Share your own experiences as a writer.
  • Encourage students to see a tutor, providing links on bCourses or the syllabus to the Student Learning Center, Athletic Study Center, & Residential Life.

B.>Residential Life.

B. Include peer response.

  • Provide a model of an annotated peer response to a student essay that’s helpful and one that’s vague and full of empty praise.
  • Work backward from the rubric to create a peer response form for a partner to fill out.
  • Make time for peer response (even as homework via email or googledocs) with a form to fill out and provide at least 10 minutes in class for a follow-up partner discussion.

C. Provide feedback that students can take up and apply in the final draft.

  • Give feedback on one draft before the final (Consider minimal marking).
  • Provide timely and useful feedback – ideally commenting on recurring patterns.
  • Comment both on what is working well in the draft and what should be addressed in revision--with suggestions about how to tackle the needed revisions.
  • Help students find and apply a strategy to address a recurring error.
  • Schedule extra office hours for conferencing.
  • Give a mini-lecture on observed errors in conferences to the whole class.

3. In a rough draft which errors should I comment on and how?

The key words above are “rough draft,” as extensive commentary on errors in final graded drafts rarely spurs learning, because, in the student’s eyes, it is now a “dead draft.”

Thus, Ferris (2005) and many other researchers argue for the importance of an in-between draft when students receive targeted feedback and can still revise before being graded. As instructors, we face time constraints which play a tremendous role in our decision of how to mark errors in student writing, including ways of marking (e.g., circling errors or coding errors), amount of marking (e.g., thoroughly marking only one paragraph to providing solely holistic comments at the end), and extent of marking (i.e., from more comprehensive marking to selective marking).

Ensuring students can read and understand the symbols or comments you make is an essential first step, of course! Many other well-researched factors can help us determine how to prioritize what and how to mark student drafts. In addition to marking features you’ve recently focused on in class, consider the following:

  • Error frequency/persistence (Pointing out error frequency/persistence could result in strategic revision for a repetitive feature, as long as the student has strategies discussed below for handling this.)
  • Error teachability and learnability (e.g., general article usage rules may seem fairly simple--notwithstanding the tremendous number of exceptions to the rule--but nonetheless remain challenging to consistently apply for many writers whose native languages do not have the equivalence of indefinite and definite articles--ie, “a,” “an,” and “the” in English)
  • Error stigma or salience (e.g., subject-verb agreement even though this error rarely interferes with meaning)
  • Interruption of meaning (e.g., Is the error a minor local error or one that interferes with the overall meaning?)

Word choice errors--the most prevalent type of error in first-year-student essays in the United States (Lunsford & Lunsford, 2005)--  can sometimes fall in this category of interrupting meaning substantially, whereas a missing plural “s” may not because we often double or triple mark plural in English, anyway, with modifiers, plural nouns, and the conjugated verb (e.g., Three studies support…).

For more attention to a sample student essay from your class and ideas on how to mark it efficiently and effectively, please consider scheduling an appointment with the current Multilingual Student Writing Consultant(s).

4. How can I teach students to self-edit?

  • Begin by acknowledging the challenges of acquiring a second/third/fourth language in addition to the challenges for all students of acquiring the written language of academia. Then, share techniques with students for self-editing once they have revised the essay at least once for coherent argument and cohesive structure.
  • Encourage students to read an essay aloud and mark errors they notice, to record themselves on their smart phone reading it aloud and then listen to it, or to ask someone else to read it aloud as the student marks errors on a printed-out version.  
  • Students can use a couple of techniques to separate and treat each sentence as a discrete grammar exercise: begin with the final sentence of the essay and then proceed to “read backwards.” Or hit a hard return after each sentence to create the appearance of a grammar workbook exercise and check for known challenges in each sentence and/or mark a known feature (e.g., a part of speech) to isolate and then check it, such as circling all verbs to check verb tense or subject-verb agreement or highlighting all nouns to check for plural marking or article usage.
  • Encourage students to use tools in programs such as Microsoft Word; for example, they can use the “Find” or “Replace All” commands under “Edit” to search for known issues, such as repeated collocation (words that are co-located together) errors (e.g., “emphasize on” can be replaced by “emphasize”) or missing articles (e.g., “Internet” to “the Internet”).

Modeling these activities briefly in class with your own writing or a student sample can go a long way in supporting students in taking charge of their own editing!

5. Which courses might I recommend to multilingual students?

If you are teaching a course that requires writing and notice in the first week that a multilingual student could use support in developing effective self-editing skills for word choice and grammar in written English, recommend the workshop course College Writing 1 (2 units) that meets once a week.

In this course students bring in writing from another course to examine for the week’s topic, such as verb usage, including subject-verb agreement, verb tense in different genres (e.g., literary present tense vs. historic past tense), the nuances of signal or reporting verbs (e.g., claims, asserts, illustrates, questions, highlights), and the formality distinction between the often more casual phrasal verbs (talk about) and their one-word counterparts in a more academic register (e.g., discuss).

College Writing Programs also offers a writing course tailored to multilingual student writers who have not yet fulfilled the R & C requirement: College Writing 9C (3 units).  This is an elective for students who want to take an academic writing course before fulfilling the R & C requirement.  

College Writing R1A (6 units) students can voluntarily enroll in one of several Multilingual Student Writer (MSW) sections if they prefer a course in which all their peers are bilingual and in which the instructor has a background in Applied Linguistics with a specialty in teaching multilingual student writers. Check our online schedule for sections designated “MSW.”

Each semester we also offer one Multilingual Student Writer (MSW) section of College Writing R4B (4 units) that fulfills the second half of the R & C Requirement.