EAL Writers in the Online Classroom

The university population in the United States has grown increasingly diverse in the past 30 years, with international students making up between 10 percent and 20 percent of the enrollments at many universities. For the vast majority of international students, English is not their first language. These students may struggle with meeting academic writing demands in online courses, where nearly all communication is in written form. Online faculty can help these students succeed by understanding their particular needs and variations in experiences.

Which students may struggle with English?

In general, there are two main populations of university students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). One group is those who grew up outside of the United States, the other is children of immigrants who have some prior English-medium secondary schooling. This group is often called “Generation 1.5,” because they share characteristics of both first- and second-generation immigrants. These two groups have quite different experiences and may have different struggles with academic writing. It should be remembered, however, that these groupings are very general and the experiences and proficiencies of individual EAL students can differ significantly. As with students who speak English as their first language, every EAL student is an individual.

Generation 1.5 students generally finished their secondary education in the United States and do not apply to universities as international students. They generally have an excellent command of English for casual, interpersonal communication but may still struggle with academic reading and writing in English. In your course, Generation 1.5 students may write clearly and effectively in blog posts and discussion forums but struggle noticeably with more formal academic writing assignments. This is particularly the case if their first-language literacy was not supported in their education, as they will not have developed critical reading and thinking skills that can transfer to second-language literacy. Many Generation 1.5 students struggle in school, because their high conversational proficiency in English can lead educators to believe that they don’t need ongoing language support. This group is likely to be aware of expectations for academic writing in English but will need help to apply this knowledge in their own writing.

International students, on the other hand, have generally not experienced English-medium education, but have studied English itself as an academic subject. They may struggle significantly with face-to-face communication and may even feel more comfortable reading and writing in English because of the lower time pressure. However, in many countries, English instruction continues to be focused on grammar drills and vocabulary memorization, and screening tests of English proficiency used for university admissions still focus heavily on these skills. These students often have extensive knowledge about English grammar but very limited experience using English for meaningful communication either in speech or writing. Students from many countries may also have limited writing experience even in their own language, as writing to express ideas does not play a central role in the educational systems of many countries. They require significant support when writing in English.

Do EAL students need different teaching?

In a sense, the simple answer here is “no”—all students need teaching appropriate for their individual strengths and weaknesses, so in this way, EAL students are the same as any other student in your online courses. There are also some common needs for all online students engaged in university writing. However, EAL students in your online courses may face particular challenges you can help them with.

The writing process

Like all other students, EAL students need to understand the writing process. However, learning to plan writing and revise effectively may be more important for EAL students, because limited English proficiency makes it harder for them to obscure weaknesses in their writing skills. These students can particularly benefit from teaching about strategies for brainstorming ideas, organizing information, and revising paragraphs, as these skills can make it easier for them to clearly express ideas despite imperfections in their grammar or word choices. An ability to proofread is directly tied to grammatical knowledge; even with coaching on proofreading strategies, EAL students may be unable to adequately correct their own writing. Despite this, you shouldn’t copy edit extensively for EAL students; students are not likely to learn from many corrections of different grammatical items and it takes time away from giving feedback on more global issues that students are more likely to profit from. Rather, point out the problem and encourage students to seek outside help for copy editing (from friends who are proficient English speakers, university writing centers, or even online copy-editing services). Keep in mind that students may need to use these services judiciously—reserving them, for example, for final drafts of thesis chapters.

Similarly, all students need to develop awareness of the genre conventions of English academic writing, including academic voice, argumentation, and cohesion. For EAL students, these conventions may differ substantially from those of their home cultures. For example, in English academic writing, we generally expect each paragraph to have a topic sentence that is supported by details in the paragraph. Each paragraph contributes uniquely to supporting the overall thesis statement. In other cultures, information is organized cyclically, and ideas are brought up in a recursive manner throughout a piece of writing. In still others, it’s considered both presumptuous and inelegant to overtly state a topic sentence or thesis statement; rather, the reader reconstructs these from the writing. Students who apply their own academic writing conventions to English writing will produce texts that we struggle to understand.

While students who speak English as their first language may also write poorly organized assignments, the reason behind this is different. They are generally aware of expectations, so feedback that highlights how their work differs from what we expect can be helpful to them. For students whose expectations of academic writing are totally different from ours, such feedback will simply not make sense. Telling a student to be more careful with organization when he or she is following a completely different organizational system will not result in more acceptable writing. This problem is compounded by the fact that we are generally not aware of the cultural conventions we follow, so it’s quite hard to perceive what the differences are. A first step in giving feedback is making this explicit to students—pointing out that in English we have a specific way of organizing and presenting information that may differ from what they are used to. Consider providing models and strategies to help students write in a way that is acceptable in our context. Your university writing center should have resources for helping EAL writers.

Academic reading

All students need to be able to read critically and display critical thought in building solid argumentation. While all students can benefit from feedback on critical reading and argumentation, this type of feedback may be particularly important for international students. In many cultures, readers show respect for authority by repeating opinions rather than by challenging or critiquing them. EAL students may have little idea what we mean by critical thought and be unprepared to express it through writing. These students may in particular benefit from opportunities to challenge ideas informally in discussions or class chats before they try to do so in formal essay writing.

Academic integrity

This emphasis on paying homage to authority can also lead EAL students to inadvertently plagiarize. Adopting an authority’s wording is a way in some cultures of showing respect, and citing sources even for direct quotes is not necessarily required cross-culturally. It is not uncommon for EAL students to unintentionally plagiarize by applying conventions learned in other educational contexts to writing in English-medium universities. EAL students who are aware of academic conventions may struggle as well with paraphrasing, lacking the grammatical competence to restate ideas in their own words. Direct teaching and feedback can help students understand where quotations and paraphrases are appropriate, where citations are needed, and how to paraphrase completely.

Rebecca Adams is an associate director for the Faculty Resource Center at Northcentral University.

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