Assessing Multilingual Student Writing


When assessing and grading Multilingual (ML) student writing, consider the following factors:

Grammar Errors vs Foreign Accent

ML student writing may appear observably different from the writing produced by native speakers due to possible grammar errors or a foreign accent or both. Unfortunately, errors that compromise comprehension typically affect grading. These are grammar tenses, verb forms, sentence structure, word forms, and word choice. Differentiating ML writing with grammar errors versus an accent is important when deciding on a grade. Grammar errors can justify a lower grade. Students can edit most of the grammar errors because they are rule-governed. However, writing with an accent – using wrong prepositions or strange wording – should not be penalized because there are no rules for correcting accented writing.  It is an insurmountable task for ML students to produce a native-sounding paper.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences in rhetorical conventions may affect the paper's structure and organization. Writers may rely on rhetorical conventions that are used in their cultures. It takes time to learn and apply new rhetorical patterns, especially if they differ significantly from those that students have employed since the time when they learned to write in their native language.

More Time Needed

ML writers need more time for writing than their U.S. peers because their cognitive resources are limited. ML students must use part of their cognitive capacity to focus on language and thus less is left for other functions, such as high functions of organization or development. Moreover, studies on ESL writing have shown that ML students need two to three times more than their U.S. counterparts to complete writing if they prepare their ideas in their native language first and then translate into English.

Assessing International Student Writing (Writing Across Borders Part 2) is a 14-minute documentary, in which ESL writing specialists share testing practices that may disadvantage ML students and describe practices that can support ML students.

Three Approaches to Working with ML Students

Writing Across the Curriculum research has identified three approaches that instructors across the disciplines use to assess and grade ML student writing.

It is fair to use the same criteria for all students.

In this approach, all students are penalized for errors because clarity and accuracy in writing are vital in both academia and in the workplace. If instructors offer the appropriate support, ML students can improve writing skills and acquire disciplinary knowledge. However, focusing on language issues comes at the expense of acknowledging the paper's content and ideas, in addition to being time-consuming.

Meaning, content, and critical thinking are more important than language problems.

If meaning is clear, language issues are ignored. The benefit of this approach is that the grade acknowledges the quality of the paper’s content and the importance of critical thinking. Its drawback is that students are deprived of feedback on their language use and thus learning opportunities are lost during the process of language acquisition.

It is unfair to use the same criteria for all students.

ESL writing professionals advocate for redefining the idea of correctness in ML writing. ML writing may be correct even if it does not sound native-like. It would be fair to ask ML students to improve grammatical accuracy, but unfair to ask for a native-sounding writing. This approach may cause concerns about a double-standard for ML students.

Recommended Readings

Readings Discussing Assessment Approaches and Instruments for Scoring ML Writing

Readings Focusing on FAQs and Answers about Assessment