Responding to L2 Writers

Who are L2 Students?

Second Language (L2) is a ‘catch all’ descriptor that refers to any language acquired or learned after the native or home language. Non-native English Speakers (NNES) at the University may in fact be speaking English as their third or fourth language. For this reason, you will sometimes here people say English as an Additional Language (EAL) in lieu of English as a Second Language (ESL).

NNES populations at the University comprise a variety of individuals from numerous backgrounds. They may be immigrants, people with refugee experience, children of immigrant populations (see Generation 1.5 Students), and international students. Within these subgroups of NNESs, there are various distinctions. For example, not all international students enter the University through the same program. The entrance requirements of each program is distinct, so be aware that they are not all coming in with the same academic background or English language proficiency – even if they come from the same country. That would seem to go without saying, but this is how stereotypes and misinformed expectations of students come to be.

What are writing cultures?

Culture is a great predictor of communication styles and strategies among humans. It is undeniable that our culture informs our way of speaking and writing in our native languages. Naturally, our culture and way of communication colors the way in which we communicate in our additional languages. Culture in general is a big word and it’s not simply defined. A Department at an institution of higher education has a particular culture, just like a country has a particular culture. Arguably the culture of a Chemistry Department is distinct from that of an English Department with certain overlaps, perhaps. With regard to writing, even disciplines espouse distinct writing cultures distinguished by particular rhetorical structures, language, and organization patterns.

If we move from these more familiar notions of cultural variance and its impact on writing to the larger cultural distinctions among our student body, we can consider the impact of culture on our L2 students’ writing. Simple academic writing (e.g., papers, essays) in English (in the United States) is very linear: Introduction, Body (Evidence), Conclusion. We expect our writers to provide us with a clear thesis, an argument/comparison/expose and a conclusion which summarizes main points and perhaps suggest a future direction for the conversation. Some cultures espouse distinct writing patterns. For example, writing in Asian cultures may seem circular and wandering. This is because the writer doesn’t want to be perceived as all-knowing or overly confident (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Writing Patterns Between Cultures

Retrieved on February 6th, 2013 from

It is a good idea to know who your students are. Take some extra time on Day One to set the tone and find out who you are teaching. Let them share a little bit about their backgrounds with one another. Not only does this give you a sense of the background knowledge and experience they bring to the course in terms of content, but it allows you to see the assets they bring – and that goes for your L2 students and your native speakers. If you do incorporate writing assignments into your class, it’s a good idea to discuss writing cultures with your students. Let them analyze and reflect upon English writing samples. Discuss how academic writing patterns in the US differ from those of their home countries and cultures. Given the cultural differences, it is critical that you are very explicit with your expectations, assignment instructions, policies (e.g., related to citations, plagiarism) and grading procedures (see How do I respond to L2 writers below).

What is the purpose of your writing assignment?

It is important to always know the learning objectives that your writing assignment targets. When effectively designing a course, the learning objectives guide the selection/design of assessments and assignments. Ask yourself what the purpose of your writing assignment is. The predominant (and often overlapping) domains for research on writing are Learning to Write (LW), Writing to Learn Content (WLC) and Writing to Learn Language (WLL).

If you are teaching a course within the domain of Learning to Write (e.g., Composition 2010), then you are likely focusing closely on the rhetorical structure, language use (e.g., grammar, word choice) and mechanics (e.g., punctuation). However, if you are using writing assignments in a course with a focus on Writing to Learn Content (e.g., Intro Courses (history, biology, philosophy)), then less of your feedback and grading will be influenced by language and mechanics. Finally, if you are teaching a course with a focus on using Writing to Learn Language (e.g., various ESL classes) , then your assignments are likely very focused on language and perhaps target specific language structures from assignment to assignment (e.g., write a paragraph about what you did last weekend – to practice simple past tense).

How do I respond to L2 writers?

How you respond to writing assignments is directly informed by your determined learning objectives and purpose for the assignment. You should provide your students with a clear set of criteria for grading their work (e.g., a rubric (see this handout for guidance on developing an effective rubric)). This will help your students follow the instructions and target the expectations you have set forth. It will also guide you as you provide feedback and a grade, if applicable. Without a rubric, response to writing can become arbitrary and issues such as grammatical errors can color our judgement and distract us from focusing on the criteria in question. If, for example, grammar is something you want to respond to in your writing (and your students will appreciate it most of the time) then you should think of incorporating it into your rubric.

When you read writing assignments that have many errors, you may feel the urge to respond to everything. This will not serve you or your students. Some tips for responding to L2 writing include:

  • Read the assignment twice – once before responding to just ‘hear’ the message
  • Respond only to that which is covered in your rubric (target the objectives of the assignment)
  • Provide both positive and constructive comments
  • Stage responses for assignments with multiple drafts (e.g., first draft – respond to ‘big picture’ global ideas; second draft – additionally respond to local, discrete issues such as language, mechanics, rhetorical structure (if applicable))

If grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc. is something you plan to respond to, you might try a simple coding scheme and consider these steps:

  • Round 1 – mark (i.e. highlight or underline) errors, code them and provide a correction in the first paragraph, then only mark and code errors in the rest of the document
  • Round 2 – only mark and code the first paragraph (no corrections) and mark the rest of the document with no codes
  • Round 3 – only mark errors with no codes.

In tandem with the above approach, have your students keep an error log so that they can track their mistakes over the course of the semester. Teach them how to keep errors in a grid and identify themes or predominant errors that they seem to make frequently. You can increase accountability for keeping an error log by giving credit for completion of logs. Research has shown that students can use the above marking and coding schemes to self-edit their writing.

Please take a look at the video of our workshop and the presentation slides for more ideas and pedagogical strategies to support both you and your learners.

The International Center has compiled a list of writing and language resources on campus. Investigate the options and see which might be useful to your students.



CTLE Workshop Video


CTLE Workshop Presentation Slides
Responding to and Supporting L2 Writers
Presented by Rai Farrelly, PhD
February 1st, 2013