I'm teaching an advanced undergraduate computer science course that requires a 5-7 page term paper worth about 20% of the student's grade.

The class has several international students, and some of them do not have a strong command of the English language. Clearly, these students are at a disadvantage when it comes to this assignment.

To complicate matters, the course is part of the university's "integrated writing" curriculum, so, according to university policy, the quality of the writing must be evaluated as part of the grading process.

I'm trying to devise a fair scheme where non-native English speakers are not graded as stringently as native English speakers, yet not have the grading be so lenient for non-natives that it becomes unfair in the other direction.

I've already decided that some criteria can be graded on equal footing (such as overall paper organization, and the quality of the overall research), while others (such as word selection and sentence structure) can be looked at on more of a two-tier scale.

I'm wondering if anyone here as dealt with this dilemma before and, if so, how they might have approached this problem.

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    If your university has something called an "integrated writing curriculum", it would make sense to me if there were some kind of guidelines for this situation. You can't be the only instructor with international students. Have you talked about this with whoever is responsible for the integrated writing curriculum? Apr 26, 2015 at 12:08
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    Having faced this in the UK I've found that although some international students do struggle with English part way through a first degree, many are actually better at writing formal English than the natives. They've been taught in a formal way without the colloquialisms that many native speakers use unthinkingly even in academic writing. Their writing may be a touch less fluent, with more repetitive use of words and shorter sentences, but that's not necessarily (i) a bad thing, or (ii) something that would be marked down, as it's not erroneous.
    – Chris H
    Apr 26, 2015 at 13:23
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    In an "integrated writing curriculum" the students should be taught about writing while they're taught subject matter. Can they submit early drafts which you or a colleague in language arts can use to do that? Apr 26, 2015 at 13:40
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    If a paper has lesser correct use of English, said paper should be graded lower than those with flawless spelling and grammar. What you want to avoid is a hypothetical scenario where two students hand in identical works, but student A gets a higher grade than student B.
    – Gerard
    Apr 26, 2015 at 20:39
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    @jamesqf - (a) Not every computer science course is about data structures, programming, or flipping bits. There are electives on development methodologies, software testing, society & ethics, history of computing, etc.; sometimes a good way for students to learn about the subtopics in such courses is by doing some research. Still, this question could apply to any department. (b) I'm not grading primarily on quality of English, but I'm not supposed to let poor English slide, either. (c) As for who writes better, I've seen plenty of papers that go in both directions from both groups of students.
    – J.R.
    Apr 26, 2015 at 22:04

4 Answers 4


As a non-native English speaker who teaches mathematics in an English-speaking university in Canada, I have little sympathy for the English struggles of international students. In my experience, most of the students who have big struggles with the language are those who bought the TOEFL result instead of learning. The students who are really committed come a year earlier to take English full-time, and they don't have major issues when they start their specific studies.

Now, to address your specific question, in 13 years teaching here I never had reason (nor interest) to take marks off because of grammar. I will reduce the grade when I read nonsense, but that happens with Canadian-born students too.

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    Just to be clear, like you, I'm not interested in legalistically nickel-and-diming students for occasional grammatical gaffes or here-and-there typos. On the other hand, though, there can be a tipping point – some students will turn in works that read more like unpolished rough drafts hastily-written the night before, to an extent where the paper can be difficult to read and digest. In such cases, I feel it's my duty to highlight the shoddiness of the work and grade it accordingly. My dilemma happens when I sense the main reason for the problems is English proficiency, not sloppy indifference.
    – J.R.
    Apr 26, 2015 at 22:34
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    I understand and I agree. The point I tried to make is that I think that English proficiency is the students' problem and not yours. I think that unconsciously I go a little easier on international students and their English, but not much. In the end, no one forced those students to attend an English-speaking university. Apr 27, 2015 at 0:35
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    @O.R.Mapper: you focus on the "punishing" side. But those international students will receive the same degree as the local ones. If grammar proficiency is something that plays a role in the program, I don't see a reason to treat them differently; if it doesn't matter, then there is no issue. The same way that coming from a worse education background should not earn a student free marks. Apr 27, 2015 at 12:05
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    @DavidRicherby: in that case, what they should do is straighten their admission process, because they are admitting students who are not ready for their program. Apr 27, 2015 at 16:03
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    Saying that the shouldn't have admitted those students still doesn't answer the question of what to do with the students they did admit. Apr 27, 2015 at 17:27

Grade everyone the same on things like word choice and sentence structure, but make that portion of the grade a small part of the overall grade for the paper. (If you are in the United States, you will find students who are the product of U.S. high schools with limited vocabulary and no idea of sentence structure.)

Edit: If you don't grade everyone on the same scale, you will inevitably get complaints. I'd argue that what is important (for learning) to students in your class is the formative feedback on their writing, not the specific number of points. If the dean complains, 'splain that you teach computer science.

{Time passes} As Damian has said in the comments, you will need a grading rubric that assigns relatively low points to word choice and sentence structure, more points to overall organization, still more points to quality of research, etc. Then you'll need to show how the overall grade was computed, using the rubric. To repeat myself, the formative comments you make, particularly on word choice, sentence structure, etc. will be more important to learning than the actual points.

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    That might be an option, yes, but I guess it conflicts with the goal of explicitly assessing language issues ("integrated writing" curriculum).
    – damian
    Apr 26, 2015 at 12:41
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    @damian, it might, but on the other hand if a breakdown of the overall mark is given you give the required assessed feedback (your writing is C-grade) while reducing the disadvantage for the non-native speakers.
    – Chris H
    Apr 26, 2015 at 13:19
  • true, good point!
    – damian
    Apr 26, 2015 at 14:31
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    I completely agree that formative feedback is most important. After all, the end goal is to help teach students to write proficiently, and that won't happen in a vacuum. If a poorly-written paper has little more than a letter or numeric grade, the student has lost a chance to improve as a result of the assignment. That said, when a paper is rife with misconjugated verbs, my gut tells me to go easier on my students from Bangladesh and Taiwan than my students from Connecticut and Illinois. I can't help but wonder, though: when does a sliding scale like that become "unfair"?
    – J.R.
    Apr 26, 2015 at 22:21
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    @BobBrown Anyone who makes multiple spelling or grammatical errors, be they a native student or not, doesn't deserve an A on an 'integrated writing' assignment (or any assignment, really). This sort of coddling is the reason STEM schools produce so many terrible writers.
    – sapi
    Apr 27, 2015 at 0:12

I teach at a Dutch university, where undergraduate teaching is in Dutch, gradudate teaching in English. We thus deal with grading non-natives on a daily basis and have a general policy of being more lenient when it concerns non-natives. For example, in our thesis guidelines, it is explicitly stated that a thesis has to be faultless, but it specifies that for non-natives, it should be near-faultless. In practice, this translates to allowing a higher number of spelling and grammar mistakes, and, as in you suggest in your question as well, is independent from structure and organization of the text.

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    There's no such thing as "faultless" writing on the scale of a thesis.
    – aeismail
    Apr 26, 2015 at 14:52

In addition to what others have already said, it may be worth differentiating between "writing" and "composition". My best guess is that your university's writing courses are actually mostly geared toward "composition" -- i.e., towards producing documents with a coherent structure, introduction, conclusions, etc, and that have a consistent narrative that develops ideas and arguments. This is independent of word choice, size of vocabulary, correctness of grammar, etc (or at least largely independent as long as the poor command of language does not affect the ability to understand the text).

You may therefore want to develop a rubrik that weighs composition more heavily than word choices, grammar, or spelling.

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