5 tips on tackling grammar issues in papers by non-native students

A business instructor at last week's St. Mary's University ESL conference in Minneapolis grappled with the issue of what kind of overall grade to give a paper when the content is great, but the English is sub-par.

ESL expert Dana Ferris gave some perspective on how to be fair to the students. But what then? Should professors mark up the grammar as well? And what should they say?

She gives some tips on that matter:

  1. Closely analyze what's bothersome. Are these "global" errors that interfere with your comprehension of what they're saying? Or are they "local" errors that are more cosmetic? The former is more cause for concern, because they can cover up what a student really knows. And are they truly errors -- or just mistakes? Something is an error when it reflects a lack of understanding, Ferris said. (That's more serious.) A mistake is like a typo in that the student knows what to say but has written something incorrectly because of distraction, being in a rush, etc. That's fairly minor.

  2. Notice the frequency of the errors. If they are errors, how often do they appear? Are they the same types of errors, and do you see a pattern?

  3. Step back for a moment. Ferris suggested, "Step back and think, 'What did the student do well?'" Getting the content right is usually harder than getting the use of articles right.

  4. Don't just mark up the paper's grammar. Don't risk a wholesale mark-up, Ferris said, because most professors aren't really qualified to do that type of grading -- even if they think they have a good command of English grammar. (A number of people at the conference joined Ferris in talking about the many goofs professors make in their own written communication.)

  5. Prioritize. Ferris told me, "Some stuff will be obvious, but in marking the paper, ask yourself, 'What's going to help the student?'" After the main critique of the content, she suggested, add a note to the paper in which you note up to three of the most important errors or error patterns. "Don't do 10," she said. "Don't overwhelm them. Save them for another day." Highlight one of each error type as an example. Be tactful, be positive, and let the student know where he or she can get help at the college. "Most professors can master that," Ferris said.

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