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Tips for Teaching Academic Writing to Non-Native Students

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For years, foreign students have been coming to the United States to earn valuable degrees that can translate into a great job in their home country.  However, these students often experience difficulties adapting to the culture and struggle enormously learning even the basic tenets of academic writing. 
Students sometimes get so overwhelmed that they resort to buying their essays online from one of the dozens of sites that offer those services.  Lauren Gannon, an executive at EduGeekClub.com stated:

“we get a lot of customers that are foreign exchange students, I would say at least 65%.  They already have a tough time understanding their instructors and learning the academic writing style is usually too much of a burden.”

The countless nights spent agonizing over term papers before eventually choosing to pay for the service online could be avoided if students mastered academic writing before launching themselves into the academic environment. 

Here are just a few steps that might help struggling students get a grasp on academic writing:

1) Help Students Fall In Love with Reading

We don’t expect freshman academic writers to be excellent wordsmiths, but we expect them to understand the groundwork and the best way to become a better writer is to read.  As an English teacher (in the U.S. or abroad), your primary goal should be to make your students fall in love with the language and literature.  It’s like that old proverb about teaching a man to fish.  This means encouraging them to read everything.  Any reputable newspaper or website is going to have writing that’s very similar to the style expected by professors; they won’t find passive voice or overused adverbs in The New York Times.  Every foreign student should make a habit of reading something in English, they’re sure to find a topic they love.

2) Write and give feedback

Obviously, the best way to get great at anything is to practice over and over.  The first time a foreign student tries to put words on paper should not be in an academic environment.  As a teacher in a foreign country, you should have your students write every single time you see them.  And you should constantly be giving them feedback.  These students will be eager to learn and improve; you just need to guide them.

3) Try translating

Translating is a great way for foreign students to use skills they already have to develop new ones.  At first, it will be difficult and they’ll find themselves hunched over a dictionary, but that’s one of the best ways to learn new words.  It’s a tried-and-true way to have your students begin.  Don’t give them difficult sentences if they have no knowledge of the English language.  Instead, have them begin the same way you did in kindergarten, by translating sentences like “see Spot run” and then work up to more advanced sentences.  You can be almost certain that non-native speakers aren’t going to grasp American idioms or phrasing.

4) Use fill-in-the-blank activities

Fill in the blank sentences are one of the most effective ways to use a new language because the students can steadily progress.  At the beginning, give students sentences like:

“The title of my _____________ is Global Warming in Southern California and the it’s _____________ to describe the ______________ of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Then as students progress you can remove more of the words until they’re able to write their own academic sentence from nothing.

5) Focus on areas that are proven to be problems

Foreign students almost always have problems with pronoun usage and modifiers.  These are both areas of the English language that are different from most other languages, even other Latin-based languages, we’re one of the few languages without gendered prepositions.  Asian students will usually struggle with argument-based and thesis-based writing because such strategies are so different from the type of writing that they’re accustomed to.  There isn’t any point having them diagram sentences or rigorously expand their vocabulary when more basic problems can be addressed.

6) Teach editing skills

Editing is one of, if not the, most fundamental aspect of writing and foreign students must know how to edit their papers.  In editing, it’s imperative that students understand not only how to fix their diction, but also how to make their arguments and writing stronger.  Have them begin by highlighting problem sections and circling words that seem out of place, after you do this with them a few times they’ll get the hang of it.  Then, have them write their argument on the top of the paper and make sure every sentence proves the argument.  Again, it’s important to master the basics of editing rather than shoot for the stars, there’s no point in teaching them the AP-style proofreading notations when they have a paper that’s full of dangling modifiers.

Non-native speakers are going to encounter problems continuously when they first try academic writing.  American English is so complicated, that the rules sometimes seem silly; why is the plural form of goose, is geese, but the plural form of moose is simply moose?  The most important thing when working with international students is to be patient and to make sure that every session bears results, no matter how miniscule.

About the Author

Antonio is a hopeless optimist who enjoys basking in the world’s brightest colors. He loves biking to distant places and occasionally he gets lost. When not doing that he’s blogging and teaching EFL.  He will be happy to meet you on Facebook and Twitter.


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