University of Wisconsin–Madison

Evaluating and Grading Multilingual Writing

Elisabeth Miller,
Writing Across the Curriculum

One of the most common questions that Writing Across the Curriculum Programs hear from instructors across disciplines is how to fairly assess the work of multilingual writers. Many instructors are deeply committed to upholding standards for clarity and correctness in academic and professional writing. At the same time, many believe that students whose first language is not English should be given room to make mistakes as they engage in the difficult task of writing in a second (sometimes third, fourth, or more) language. But does giving that room mean being unfair to other students?

This question is an important one—with no easy answer. To give you a sense of the various ways that instructors across disciplines assess multilingual students’ writing, here are a few approaches—and some of their related pros and cons—reported in recent Writing Across the Curriculum research.

  1. Students’ “clear communication is critical”: Holding all students to the same standards is fair

In a survey of over 100 faculty at 2- and 4-year colleges and in-depth interviews with 12 of those instructors, Zawacki and Habib (2014) found that many professors are committed to penalizing all students—including multilingual writers—for writing errors. They cite the absolute necessity of clear communication in academic study and future occupations as the reason for marking and taking off points for errors. One professor in this study explains that she grades student papers without looking at the names, using the same standards because “No one’s going to give them a break when they’re working…You just get left behind, so why not get told that now when you’re a student rather than get hit in the face with it when you get out there working” (198).

One mathematics professor also reports that precision in language is central for success in his discipline: “if we say that there is ‘a’ solution, we know that there may be another solution, but if we say “the” solution, that means there cannot be another solution. So in this case knowing the articles is very important and this goes back to how they translate their thinking to English” (199).

Pros: A commitment to improving students’ writing and disciplinary knowledge is clear in this approach—as is a deep level of care for students’ long-term success. Zawacki and Habib find that many instructors who penalize multilingual writers for language errors also offer a great deal of support to writers outside of class: meeting in office hours, setting goals with students for revision, sharing resources for learning grammatical rules, and more. With support, a commitment to helping students understand and address errors is often appreciated by multilingual writers and helpful in their development.

Cons: The process of marking and holding students responsible for all of their errors runs the risk of overwhelming and overloading students. Moreover, emphasis on sentence-level errors often comes at the expense of acknowledging and supporting the development of multilingual writers’ ideas. What’s more, paying extensive attention to language errors is tremendously time-consuming for instructors.

  1. “I take a hands-off approach”: Focusing on meaning, not sentence-level errors

Grammatical errors play a much less significant role for some instructors who focus their comments on larger rhetoricl issues and meaning, rather than the sentence-level. Ives et al. (2014) share one history instructor’s perspective regarding the relative importance of content over grammar: students “really have to show that they know the subject material. And they have to show that they have some kind of argument…Organization to me is very crucial, but I see it as tied in with argument…You can’t fail a paper for spelling and grammar and mechanics alone” (227).

Similarly, some instructors put disciplinary knowledge ahead of writing skills, and still others question whether they (as subject-area, but not writing, specialists) are the right people to be teaching students about grammatical rules and writing skills (Cox 2014).

Pros: Focusing on students’ meaning within their papers communicates to multilingual writers that their ideas do matter, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and “higher order” or “global concerns” like making a clear argument, using appropriate evidence, and meeting an assignment (See “Global and Local Concerns” in “Section 10: Responding, Evaluating and Grading”). Zawacki and Habib find that when instructors are strongly focused on identifying multilingual writing errors, they often miss meaningful content in their students’ writing. A conscious decision to “read for meaning” counters that trend.

Cons: However, because they are “still in the process of acquiring the language,” multilingual writers do need feedback on their language use (Cox 2014). And, thus, choosing not to give feedback on sentence-level errors denies students useful learning opportunities. Even if an instructor is not a writing expert, he or she can note certain patterns of repeated errors, confusing phrasing, or incorrect use of terms. Indeed, Dana Ferris’s extensive research with error and multilingual writers indicates that feedback as simple as circling errors or putting a check mark in the margin can facilitate multilingual writers’ own successful self-editing (2011).

  1. “It would be unfair to use the same criteria”: Redefining what we mean by “standards”

Multilingual writing specialist Michelle Cox (2014) calls on faculty to refigure what we mean by “error” and “standards.” She argues that expecting the same level of language proficiency from multilingual writers is, itself, unfair. Cox says that multilingual “students are doing something much more difficult than are English L1 students: they are learning and being evaluated on their learning in a second language. To make evaluation truly equitable, faculty would need to ask English L1 students to complete writing assignments in a second language” (313). Because the process of writing and learning to write in a second language is distinctly different from writing and learning to write in a first language, says Cox, we simply cannot equitably hold students to the same standards.

Pros: This approach takes a kind of middle-ground between penalizing for grammatical or sentence-level errors and ignoring multilingual writers’ errors and commenting only on content. Instead, Cox argues for acknowledging the uniquely difficult task of writing in a second language and supporting writers accordingly. She recommends marking patterns of repeated errors and giving students time and support to revise. A sense of responsibility is still a part of this approach: multilingual writers “can be expected to edit areas of their drafts pointed out by readers as being incomprehensible due to grammatical errors,” says Cox (314). Cox advocates for including sentence-level errors in one of the final categories in assignment rubrics.

Cons: Certainly, this approach contrasts with the first one listed on the previous page—concerns with setting up a double-standard for multilingual writers. And undoubtedly multilingual writers will encounter rigid and exclusionary standards for their writing as they proceed through college and into employment. Cox and many other writing researchers, though, continue to advocate for redefining those very standards that mandate “correctness.”

See the following resources for more information on approaches to assessing multilingual writing:

Ferris, Dana. Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Cox, Michelle. “In Response to Today’s ‘Felt Need’: WAC, Faculty Development, and Second Language Writers.” WAC and Second Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices. Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Cox, Michelle. (Eds.). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press: 2014, 299-326. (Available at

Ives, Lindsey, et al. “‘I don’t know if that was the right thing to do’: Cross-Disciplinary/Cross-Institutional Faculty Respond to L2 Writing.” WAC and Second Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices. Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Cox, Michelle. (Eds.). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press: 2014, 211-232. (Available at

Zawacki, Terry Myers, and Anna Sophia Habib. “Negotiating ‘Errors’ in L2 Writing: Faculty Dispositions and Language Difference.” WAC and Second Language Writers: Research Towards Linguistically and Culturally Inclusive Programs and Practices. Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Cox, Michelle. (Eds.). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press: 2014, 183-210. (Available at