When no one is a native speaker: Practical strategies for handling students’ writing problems

Hazel Christie

Many students struggle with academic writing.  Perhaps they find the language difficult or maybe the problem lies with their ability to make a logical and well-developed argument.  And the conventions involved in academic writing are often tricky to make sense of.  It can be hard to know when to acknowledge a source especially if it’s the first time a student has been asked to submit a piece of academic work.  While these problems apply to all students, they are magnified for those who are not writing in their native language.

pencilsSo how do we handle students’ writing problems especially when they are not native speakers? Help was at hand last week when Tony Lynch, Cathy Benson and Joy Northcott from the English Language Teaching Centre facilitated one of the IAD’s practical strategies workshops on this theme.  Over the course of the two hours they raised some fascinating questions about how the structure and style of academic writing varies across cultures.  The key message I took from the workshop was that if we can understand the influence of culture on academic writing then we are better placed to support our students to write in more culturally appropriate ways.  I especially liked the message that when it comes to academic writing we are all non-natives – we all have to learn the tacit rules and expectations about appropriate ways to write in a university context.

But, of course, culture makes a huge difference to academic writing styles and I was very struck by one significant difference that Tony pointed to.  In Western culture there is an expectation that the main message of the paragraph comes early on, typically in the opening sentence.  But this pattern is very different elsewhere.  In Chinese and Japanese writing, for example, the style is much more literary in nature and akin to telling a story where the argument is built up sequentially until the key message – the punch line – is brought in at the end of the paragraph.  This style and structure reads rather oddly when transferred to academic writing in English where the expectation is that the headline message comes first.  It is only when we understand these cultural differences that we can support our students to write in a style that is more suited to the traditions in which we are situated.

And these variations in writing styles map on to another difference that was completely new to me: the difference between writer-responsible and reader-responsible systems.  In the former, more common in Western cultures, it is the writer’s responsibility to guide the reader through the text by signposting the argument and pulling out the connections.  This is distinctive from the reader-responsible system where the writer expects the reader to do a lot of the work: steps are not necessarily explained in a step-by-step fashion and inferences are left for the reader to make.  For Cathy, what is fascinating about this difference is how it manifests itself in the strength of the claims that students make about the evidence they are presenting in support of an argument.  It is easy for non-native speakers, new to a writer-responsible system, to overstate the strength of the claim they are making.  Small changes in the choice of words can completely change the strength of the claim being made. Consider the difference between the following statements:

• the major claim of the work is that culture affects writing styles
Versus
• a main claim of the work is that culture affects writing styles

While some of the difference between ‘the major’ and ‘a main’ is explained by fine gradations in the meaning of specific words that may not be apparent to non-native speakers, it is also underpinned by whether the writer is used to a reader-responsible or a writer-responsible system.

One powerful way of improving students’ writing is to give them feedback that works.  Joy talked us though some of the issues and concerns that we typically give students feedback about.  These included comprehensibility, paragraphing, criticality and argumentation, formality of tone and acknowledging sources.  Again, I was very struck by how widespread these issues are with all student writing – they are certainly not confined to non-native speakers.  Joy went on to give us a few prompts about what she sees as the main elements of effective feedback.  It should be: written about the student’s work; show the areas that need to be improved upon; forward looking; specific; and explanatory.  This struck me as a useful check list to have at my side when I am next marking a large pile of scripts.

This workshop was rich with evidence from the many years that the presenters have spent working in this field. I found it particularly useful to think of everyone, regardless of their first language, as being a non-native when it comes to academic writing. It is insights like this which can help us to support our students to become better writers.

 

Further information about the work that Tony, Cathy and Joy do at the ELTC please see:

Free English Language Testing and Tuition  (ELTT) programme:

Tutored ELTT courses: face-to-face and online
Independent Study versions of ELTT materials
Effective English Learning
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