5 Supporting Multilingual Writers

Supporting multilingual writers effectively is a complex challenge for many faculty.  Questions about how to ensure students reach professional standards that support future employment prospects, while honouring student voice, agency, and linguistic identity require thoughtful balancing of competing priorities. This chapter explores the contextual, theoretical, and practical issues involved in working with multilingual writers.

A Word on Terminology: ESL, EAL, Multilingual and Translingual

Writers for whom English is not their mother tongue are referred to in a variety of different ways.  Traditionally, and perhaps most commonly, the term ESL (English as a Second Language) is used to refer to these writers.  More recently, EAL (English as an Additional Language) has come into more common use, acknowledging the fact that these writers may in fact be users of more than two languages, and English may be a third or fourth learned language. While commonly understood, these terms are often somewhat problematic, as they frame individuals primarily as those who are lacking a key skill (in this case, stronger English language skills), rather than as people who have the resource of multilingual proficiency.  An additional term, translingualism, is used to highlight multilingual individual’s fluidity and agency in their linguistic choices as they use the resources of all of the languages available to them (Dovchin, 2019).  This chapter uses the term multilingual writers to highlight students’ proficiency in multiple languages, and the richness of the linguistic resources that support them in their learning.

Contextual Factors Impacting Multilingual Writers

Multilingual writers strive to develop their writing in a context where linguistic discrimination is often present. Linguistic discrimination (Dovchin, 2019), linguicism (Skutknabb-Kangas, 2016), and linguistic racism (De Costa, 2020) are processes by which unequal power and resources are distributed to one group over another on the basis of language. In the global context, English is a language which has received tremendous global power as a result of colonial and globalized processes, and status and resources are often unequally distributed to native English speakers as a result of their linguistic status.  Linguistic discrimination manifests in institutional contexts and at the level of individual interactions.  Even as multilingual writers are striving to improve their English, they are the same time participating in systems where they receive discrimination on the basis of their non-native speaker status, which can harm their ability to meaningfully participate alongside native speakers in classroom situations, and diminishes the regard for their perspectives when presented in writing (Sah, 2019).

Linguistic discrimination also occurs between varieties of English.  Kachru (1996b) describes the creation of three concentric circles of English use:  inner circle countries (e.g., England, Canada, New Zealand), where native-speaker varieties of English are the dominant language; outer circle countries (e.g., Nigeria, India, Nepal), where English was historically established in the process of colonization; and expanding circle countries (e.g. China, Vietnam, Korea), where English gained status through the processes of globalization.  Within these concentric circles, inner circle varieties typically hold greater status and prestige (Kachru, 1996a).  As a result, multilingual writers who are proficient users of an outer circle variety may find their English use criticized as non-standard or inadequate for professional writing (Sah, 2019).

Because of these contextual factors, multilingual writers often find themselves positioned primarily as lacking in their ability to fully meet native-speaker norms, rather than as resourceful users of multiple languages or multiple varieties of global English. This deficit positioning typically works to maintain the dominant power of native-speaker Englishes in the global language hierarchy (Davis and Museus, 2019), and tends to create structures that discriminate, rather than empower, students to communicate effectively in academic and professional environments.

Navigating Complexity in Supporting Writers

Supporting multilingual writers through a strengths-based lens that acknowledges the legitimacy of global varieties of English raises several complex issues.  For example, because the majority of speakers of many outer circle varieties use English as an additional language, determining which features of writing emerge from legitimate use of a particular variety, and which reflect potential errors can be complex (Sharma, 2005).  For readers unfamiliar with the writer’s context and the linguistic norms they have learned, determining when error correction is appropriate can be challenging.

Another significant challenge is finding an appropriate balance between respect for the writer’s usage and voice, while at the same time equipping multilingual writers with the tools for successful communication in their academic and professional communities. Failing to provide appropriate instruction can disadvantage multilingual writers.  For example, Roessingh and Douglas (2012) found that while multilingual immigrant youth enter postsecondary education at a higher rate than their Canadian-born peers, their undergraduate grade point averages were lower, which placed barriers to pursuing graduate education. Mahboob and Szenes (2010), in a qualitative study comparing the grades of native and non-native English speakers on an assignment, found that non-native speakers received significantly lower grades that their native-speaking peers.  They noted, however, that while this may provide some evidence for linguistic racism, a complicating factor was that the non-native speakers also used significantly less complex academic language in their work. Mahboob and Szenes conclude that empowering multilingual writers involves both attention to avoiding linguistic racism and the implementation of a structured, genre-based pedagogy that provides explicit instruction on writing within a particular academic discipline.

The path ahead in effectively supporting multilingual writers involves a web of interrelated knowledges and practices, which include:

  1. A commitment to avoid linguistic discrimination in evaluating multilingual student writing.
  2. Openness to understanding the varieties of English as a global language by critically examining the ways in which inner circle native-speaker norms are privileged.
  3. Implementing pedagogies that empower multilingual writers by providing clear and contextualized instruction on academic communication in their disciplines.  These strategies are explored more fully in the Identifying and Supporting Academic Literacies chapter of this book.

Labelling Writing Challenges: “What’s in a Name?”

In order to equip multilingual writers in their language growth, it can be important to accurately identify and label the sources of their writing difficulty.  Multilingual writers commonly report that they receive feedback that improvement in their grammar or professionalism is needed; however, this feedback is often non-specific, and difficult for the writer to translate into actionable steps.  Often, this occurs when we experience a piece of writing that does not fit our expectations as the reader, but feel challenged to identify the reason for our difficulty in grasping the students’ meaning.  Expanding our vocabulary and ability to label writing challenges can help us in providing actionable guidance to writers.

Three common sources of writing challenges for multilingual writers in postsecondary courses are:

  1. Challenges related to ongoing language acquisition;
  2. Challenges arising from differences in varieties of English; and
  3. Challenges related to genre and discourse-level issues.

Challenges related to ongoing language acquisition

Multilingual writers have often completed a language proficiency exam as a condition of their admission to their programs, demonstrating a high level of proficiency in English.  Their language development, particularly in academic domains, still continues to develop throughout their educational journey.  Academic language proficiency develops more slowly than general communicative language proficiency, typically requiring 5-7 years of ongoing exposure to complex academic vocabulary and discourse (Cummins, 2000).  With practice and exposure to academic language, continued growth towards stronger professional proficiency occurs.  It is important to understand that this journey typically unfolds over a period of years, rather than weeks.

Challenges arising from differences in varieties of English

Multilingual writers from countries where outer circle varieties of English are used may have years of exposure to English language educational environments.  When entering an environment where they are first exposed to an unfamiliar variety, differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and usage can create challenges for writers as they navigate the differences between academic and professional norms.

Challenges arising from genre and discourse-level issues

Often, when the flow of thought in a multilingual writer’s text seems challenging to the reader, the major issue impeding understanding is occurring at the discourse level, rather than the grammatical level. Higher level issues, such as the expected organization of a text, may be more important to address than smaller errors in grammar or vocabulary.  When reading a text, it can be helpful to consider whether the writer would benefit more from addressing higher-level organizational issues in order to more effectively communicate with the reader.

Strategies for Responding to Multilingual Writers

Identifying multilingual writing challenges accurately is the first step to developing a supportive instructional and feedback strategy.  Consider the following strategies for creating an environment that facilitate the growth of multilingual writers, while demonstrating respect for linguistic and cultural identities.

Responding to challenges arising from ongoing language acquisition Strategies for working with students who are still developing academic and professional language proficiency include focusing primarily on errors that impede your understanding of the writer’s meaning (Matsuda & Cox, 2011), rather than providing direct feedback on all minor errors.  Another strategy is helping students to identify patterns of high-frequency errors in their work (Cogie et al., 1999), which allows students to focus on 2-3 specific areas for growth. Rather than correcting all observed errors, selectively identifying areas for improvement can be more effective (Ferris, 2008).  Allowing students to focus on a defined and meaningful goal, rather than a vague direction to “improve grammar” is more likely to result in concrete improvement.
Responding to challenges arising from varieties of English When you experience challenges responding to student writing that might be rooted in differences in English varieties, responding through a framework of difference rather than correctness may be helpful.  Consider contextualizing feedback through a cultural lens, with statements such as “This word choice might be considered by Canadian readers as unusual in a professional context.  An alternative may be…”
Responding to discourse and genre-based writing challenges Developing students’ understanding of genre expectations is often best done through scaffolded and structured instruction, as these activities benefit all students, not only multilingual writers. consider partnering with a Teaching & Learning Commons or Learning Centre colleague for assistance in using these strategies.

A 3-C Framework for Responding to Multilingual Writers’ Work

When providing feedback on student writing, consider the following framework to guide your process:  clear, constructive, and contextual.

  • Clear:  As much as possible, with consideration of categories explored in this chapter, clearly identify the specific writing challenge you are observing.  If you are providing feedback related to grammar, aim to identify 2-3 specific focus areas for the student (for example, selection of verb tenses, eliminating sentence fragments or run-on sentences, reviewing article use).  While you may not be a language expert, labelling areas for improvement specifically as much as possible aids students in creating measurable goals for growth.
  • Constructive: Aim to identify a specific step that students might take in response to your feedback.  For example, a feedback statement such as “work on grammar” is unlikely to provide a student with an actionable next step. A statement such as “make an appointment with a Learning Centre tutor to practice organizing your ideas within paragraphs” identifies a focus area, as well as a supportive campus resource.
  • Contextual: Aim to contextualize feedback within Canadian academic culture and your specific disciplinary culture.  This acknowledges that “correctness” in language choice is often situated within the norms of a particular context, and that these norms are not always universally shared.  Using phrases such as “in scientific writing”, or “in Canadian business communication” signal that you acknowledge students as learners in their new academic and disciplinary communities, and allows students to situate themselves within the multiple cultural and academic communities that are a part of their broader experience.

Supporting Academic Integrity Development in Writing

Academic integrity, particularly in the context of written assignments, is one component of broader academic literacies development. In Western academic cultures, discussions about plagiarism are placed within the framework of academic integrity and cheating.  In the journey to developing academic literacies, many well-intentioned students use writing practices that are considered plagiarism, perhaps unknowingly, on their journey to understanding and applying academic conventions related to using knowledge from other sources.

Unintentional plagiarism occurs when students borrow words and ideas from other sources, without correctly using the citation and referencing conventions of their discipline.  It is helpful to distinguish these instances of plagiarism, which may be committed by otherwise strong students who are making an effort to write well, from academic dishonesty with intent (Pecorari, 2010).

Why does unintentional plagiarism happen?

  1.  Cultural differences in the use of language and text.  Alastair Pennycook notes that current Western conventions about plagiarism and information use are a recent innovation.  The idea that ideas can be owned by an author, and therefore stolen by another, is both recent and culturally specific (Pennycook, 1996).
  2.  Placing high value on the words of the original text.  Pennycook (1996)  highlights several examples where students strongly preferred to retain the words from the original source, in one case noting that a student felt it dishonest to retain an idea while changing the words.  In other cases, students may lack confidence in their own academic writing skills,  believing that their text will be less powerful if they use their own voice.
  3. Limited grasp of academic vocabulary.  Because of the complexity of academic vocabulary, students require a longer time to gain proficiency in high level academic language, generally 5-7 years or more (Roessingh & Douglas, 2012). Therefore, even students who seem fluent in English may struggle with limited linguistic resources to paraphrase complex ideas, and may resort to retaining the words of the original text. When this is a factor for students, it may be helpful to emphasize that clarity of expression, rather than complexity, supports effective academic writing.
  4. Limited familiarity with academic writing conventions and/or limited ability to apply their knowledge.  Many students enter the Canadian university system without having previous experience with research-based academic writing.  Even though these students may attend introductory tutorials, and in fact demonstrate some mastery of this content, they may still struggle as they learn to apply these writing conventions (Pecorari, 2010). Consider systematically increasing expectations for students’ use of citation conventions throughout the course, allowing time for formative feedback and development.

Using information from sources effectively requires knowledge beyond citation mechanics. This knowledge can be supported within a broader program of instruction in academic literacies, which can include the following components:

  •  Conduct structured in-class exercises with these models with models of well written texts at your students’ current academic level.  For example, you may ask the students to do the following tasks:
    • Identify direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries, and describe the type of citation that is used after each.
    • Match in-text citations with their corresponding full references.
    • Analyze well-written paragraphs to observe how an author integrates information from multiple sources with their own ideas.
  • Facilitate structured learning opportunities on academic paraphrasing (see the Integrating Material from Research handout for an example).  This type of exercise could be done in-class, or as an online learning activity where students provide peer-review according to set criteria for a strong paraphrase.
  • Encourage students to attend academic writing workshops as well as individual tutoring sessions at the Learning Centre.  Often, students need multiple exposures to learn new academic conventions, and additional presentations from multiple facilitators may help.  Individual peer tutoring allows students the opportunity to ask specific questions about their own work, and to practice applying their knowledge to their writing with the support of an experienced peer.

Other Strategies for Supporting Writing Development

  1. Allow students to complete a significant amount of writing, including ungraded and low-pressure writing.  The maxim that “we learn to write by writing” is particularly true for multilingual writers, who benefit from multiple opportunities to practice academic writing skills.  Consider including ungraded freewriting and other informal writing activities in the course.
  2. Create an environment that values the contribution of meaningful ideas over linguistic perfection. Over-focusing on accurate expression can create an environment where individuals begin to limit their contributions (Sah, 2019), resulting in less practice, and ultimately weaker long term development.  Paradoxically, greater tolerance of difference can create spaces where students feel less inhibited, are more able to contribute, and develop in their ability to communicate through practice.
  3. Allow multiple opportunities for feedback and revision. A key contributor to strong writing development is the opportunity to receive feedback on a piece of work, to make revisions, and then to resubmit the work for further feedback (Fischer et al., 2017). Again, this strategy benefits all students, not only multilingual writers.
  4. Embed a strategic partnership with the Learning Centre in your course, offering structured opportunities for students to work with tutors as they complete major assignments.  This allows students to work on identified developmental goals in a personalized learning environment.


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