Challenges facing multilingual writers vary widely and depend on multiple factors–such as the writers’ first language and their prior education–so responding to errors is a complex endeavor. Furthermore, some teachers might be more comfortable than others when diagnosing and discussing more technical aspects of grammar. It should therefore be kept in mind that the advice outlined here must always be contextualized as well as adapted to the teachers’ and students’ specific needs and goals.
Consider students' individual needs.
Have realistic expectations about what students should be able to master from draft to draft or over the course of a semester and keep in mind that it could be unfair for some students to have a teacher who is lenient and forgiving with grammatical issues while others have a teacher who heavily penalizes them for what is seen as incorrect usage.
Be clear about what you want your students to accomplish on a given assignment, since there are many concerns on which a student could focus when writing.
Understand that many students, including multilingual and first-generation college students, deeply value when teachers give them specific guidance about sentence-level concerns, both in written feedback and in-class instruction and discussion. Overall, research suggests that most multilingual writers can benefit from error correction, which is sometimes referred to as corrective feedback. Additionally, corrective feedback generally helps multilingual writers make better revisions. Too much of a hands-off approach might be a disservice to these students and result in missed opportunities to serve their linguistic demands.
Value students' experiences, contributions, and potential.
Be aware of different academic and cultural norms to which multilingual writers may have been previously exposed, including writing conventions in other disciplines; some errors could stem from these differences, which is another reason to be clear about your expectations.
Try to provide feedback that helps the writer improve without denying their agency and voice.
Aim for student autonomy: instructors should help multilingual writers develop strategies that will allow them to identify and revise their own errors. By helping novice writers develop self-monitoring and metacognitive skills, instructors are ultimately helping these writers become more independent and confident.
Recognize and highlight how 'correctness' can be subjective.
Try not to overemphasize personal “pet peeves” and minor grammatical “errors” that don’t significantly affect a reader’s comprehension.
Consider teaching not just grammatical concepts but also grammatical “controversies”–as Shawna Shapiro (2022, Chapter 5) calls the commonplace disagreements about correctness that occur even between so-called “experts”–in order to show students that a language is not a monolithic, agreed-upon entity.
Vary the types of feedback you give.
Point out both global issues (such as strength of argumentation or overall organization) and local issues (such as sentence-level or word-level problems). Some process writing advocates suggest focusing on global issues in early drafts and on more local concerns in later drafts. However, when local issues impede comprehension, these may also need to be selectively discussed in earlier drafts.
With less proficient writers, explicitly label types of errors–either through detailed labels or a clear coding system (make sure to explain it to the students!)–while with more proficient writers, simply underline the errors, as experienced multilingual writers can often identify error types and correct them on their own.
Be precise in your comments.
Point out major error patterns in students’ writing and guide them in revising or avoiding these errors on future drafts and throughout the course of the semester.
Teach and model revising and proofreading strategies, as writers may not be familiar with or skilled at identifying or responding to errors in their own writing.
Avoid using an idiosyncratic system of abbreviations to give specific sentence-level written feedback on students’ writing. If your goal is to make sure that students understand your comments, try writing your comments in clear and understandable prose.
Instead of labeling a passage “awkward,” try to pinpoint what might cause or contribute to the awkwardness. Was it word choice, modification, parallelism, or some combination of factors?
Prioritize select issues.
Identify a select number of grammatical priorities to teach and to emphasize in feedback and evaluation. Such prioritization can help avoid overwhelming the writer (and the instructor) and help the writer notice patterns in their errors. Remember to teach the controversies that accompany various grammatical concepts, but in general, prioritize concepts that are
- easier for students to master (because they have clear rules students can study and learn), and/or
- more likely to impede comprehension, especially if very frequent and closely connected to prior course content and to the current assignment, and/or
- the most serious violations of linguistic, sociolinguistic, or academic norms
Provide a range of support.
Consider discussing grammatical issues in class, which normalizes an attention to these important sentence-level concepts and gives students the opportunity to ask questions and address concerns. Looking at (anonymized) excerpts from student papers can be an especially good way to spark conversation and to help students learn to diagnose and correct targeted problems–and to discuss ambiguities and potentially critique the norms of academic language usage.
Refer to these guidelines for additional tips on supporting multilingual writers.