By Deirdre Vinyard

Our classrooms are increasingly diverse in all ways, including an increase in the languages students bring.  As you assign writing in your classes, you want to ensure that you are providing the best possible feedback to all your students, and you may wonder how you should vary your comments for multilingual (ML) writers. It’s possible to assume that the differences you see in texts produced by ML writers require alternative approaches to response. In fact, ML writers grapple with the same array of writing challenges that all writers have. 

Common Challenges

  • Concept development/articulation of an argument
  • Organization
  • Integration of research material/citation
  • Concepts of audience
  • Clarity of expression

How do ML students forward their writing development?

Writers develop their writing and language in a second language in the same ways that writers do in their first : writing develops through reading and lots of writing practice which includes feedback from sensitive readers (teachers, tutors, colleagues).  Studying grammatical rules can help writers with editing but does not change the internal grammar from which they draw when drafting. When writers edit, they can only use a few rules consciously in a productive way.  For these reasons, protracted study of grammatical rules/exercises does not forward writing ability. 

ML students additionally may exhibit traits in their writing that appear unfamiliar to readers who are new to seeing second language (L2) texts.  Because writing (and language) are culturally rooted, ML writers may bring rhetorical shapes and orientations to their writing that differ from typical U.S. style academic writing. Additionally, writers who are still developing their English language skills exhibit sentence-level differences from English dominant writers. It is important to remember that when you read a text written by a ML writer, you should be as generous and open as you are with any other text and assume that there is a logic to the text even if you don’t immediately recognize it.  Read through the difference you see in rhetorical approach or in sentences to gain an understanding of the writer’s intent. 

When and why grammar (sometimes) falls apart 

When writers are struggling with the concepts they are trying to articulate, their sentences tend to tangle.  This does not represent a lack of grammatical knowledge; during the composing process, writers clarify ideas, and the initial stages can be messy.  If you see a sentence that you can’t understand, ask the writer to tell you what they mean/want to say.  The retelling may clarify the grammar or help the writer gain greater understanding of the concept they are trying to share.  Remember that if you are working on an early draft, you should strive to understand what the writer is communicating but hold off on any sentence-level editing. The revision process will eliminate many of the sentences where the writer is struggling with meaning. Leave sentence work to later drafts except where meaning is obscured. It’s always important to ask about sections where the meaning is unclear. 

Another place where writers often struggle and language becomes murky is the first few paragraphs of a text, especially when the writing is composing across languages. This may be a space where they are warming up or “clearing their throat.”  In such a case, you might suggest the writer free write for a bit before trying to begin their text.  

One last word about grammar in general. ML writers who are still developing their English language abilities will make “errors” when they are trying out new grammatical structures and rhetorical forms.  This messiness is a sign of potential growth.  If a language learner only uses syntactic forms that they are very sure of, they may never grow in their ability to use the language.  Sometimes a bit of tangle is a positive sign. And finally, the texts of a ML writer may never be indistinguishable from that of an English dominant writer, nor should they be. Difference doesn’t equal deficiency.

A brief guide to recognizing and working with sentence-level differences. 

Sentence boundary issues

All writers sometimes struggle to determine sentence boundaries.  While fragments can be used stylistically in some genres, run-ons are never acceptable. You can direct writers to the Purdue OWL entry on fragments, and comma splices/run-ons. There are also exercises if writers want to practice correcting and identifying sentence boundary issues.

Verb Tense Issues

The most common verb tense problem for all writers is tense shift, and ML writers are no exception.  This is easily addressed by directing the writer’s attention to the question of time consistency in their text.  The Purdue OWL also has a section devoted to tense shift

In addition, English has a very complex verb tense system, and sometimes ML writers are unsure of the construction of a particular tense.  This handout on our Writing Center website reviews the construction and use of English verb tenses. 

Article Usage

Article usage in English is another highly complex area of grammar.  This handout has some basic rules for ML writers. It is good to remember that article usage is late acquired for many ML writers. Those who acquire English as an additional language later in life may always need an editor for articles.

Vocabulary and Word Forms

Gaining vocabulary in general English and in a specific disciplinary discourse takes years and is mostly accomplished through reading. Bilingual dictionaries, while helpful (and necessary) often don’t supply the kind of nuance needed for clear communication.  Some of the lexical awkwardness you might see in a text produced by a ML writer is a result of poor resources.  It can be helpful simply to suggest words to a writer who is grappling with new vocabulary.

Often ML writers know the correct word “group” that they need but choose the wrong form.  Pointing this out to a writer can be helpful. Here’s a handout with some examples of word forms in English. The Purdue OWL also has an excellent reference on academic vocabulary and related words.


These are tough and idiomatic.

Quick Checklist for Reading Texts of Multilingual Writers

  • Read first for meaning and overall structure.
  • Be open to seeing a logical structure different from what you may expect. 
  • Ask writers to explain passages where meaning is obscured.
  • Look for patterns of error to focus on. 
  • Reserve editing for later drafts. Writers can productively focus on two or three areas.

Cited and Recommended Sources

  • Connor, Ulla. “Intercultural Rhetoric.” The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Pragmatics, edited by Istvan Kecskes, Cambridge University Press, 2023, pp. 469-483.
  • Ferris, Dana, Barrie Roberts. “Error Feedback in L2 Writing Classes: How Explicit Does It Need to Be?” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 10, issue 3, 2001, pp. 161-184.
  • Lee, Icy. “Teacher Written Corrective Feedback: Less is More.” Language Teaching: Surveys and Studies, vol. 52, issue 4, 2019, pp. 524-536.
  • Reid, Joy (editor). Writing myths : applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press, 2008.
  • Truscott, Jay. “The Case against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing Classes.” Language Learning, vol. 46, issue 2, 1996, pp. 327–369.
  • Weaver, Constance. Teaching grammar in context.  Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1996.