I teach courses in physics, astronomy and planetary science.

Often, but certainly not always, international students (and even some domestic students, for whom English is not their primary language), write worse than their domestic peers who have grown up with English.

For most assignments, I take up to a couple points off for negligence of spelling and grammar, depending on how bad their writing was. The point is to remind students that their writing should be professional. I never nit-pick about a typo here or there, but if there is a whole slew of them, I'll make a note and take off what would amount to be a few percentage points of the assignment's total score.

I'd like to give grace to those for whom English is not their primary language. At the same time, I need to be fair and grade equally. As it stands, I grade equally for everyone, but I try to give more feedback to those who need it.

Does anyone have any better ideas about how to do this?

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    Should the a in I take a up to a couple points off be "an"? Should I downvote this question because of this minor thing? No, I would never do that.
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 3:08
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    @scaaahu Actually, it should be "take up to a couple of points off" (not "take an up to a couple points off")... but, good point :)
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 3:14
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    Can you clarify which discipline you are talking about? From your profile it seems like you're in physics, in which case I would say you should be grading the work primarily for its scientific accuracy and its ability to put the point across in an easily understandable way (which correlates with, but does not equate with, grammatical correctness and proper spelling) and much less for other things. For other disciplines the answer would be very different.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 4:32
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    "how badly the writing was"? People who live in glass houses... Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 5:08
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    A few years ago I was in a position where I had to grade programming assignments that also contained documentation in German or English (the students could choose). When there were grammar mistakes that hurt my eyes (e.g. das-dass in German) I marked them. I only withdrew points when it was not clear anymore what the sentence meant (and that also happened to German natives who wrote their homework in German). I also withdrew points when there were so many typos that I had the impression that the student didn't take care much (everyone should be able to use a spelling correction program). Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 12:09

3 Answers 3


There are two different types of value judgement that you are discussing here---communication goals and grading---and I think it's important to carefully separate them.

  • Communication Goals: I think that it is unfair to a person who isn't a native English speaker to not expect them to aim for the same goals of clear and lucid communication. When giving feedback, don't brush over the language and grammar errors just because a person is not a native speaker. They should have the same chance to learn and improve as anyone else.

  • Grading: Unless the class is about English grammar, making English quality a significant part of the grade is generally a bad way to evaluate a person's work. If the language is bad enough that it interferes with your ability to understand the class-relevant content, then yes, that's a problem and should receive proportional demerits. If the class-relevant content is clear, however, it's questionable to me whether any points should be taken off at all.

In short: grade very generously on language issues, but point out the mistakes so the student can continue to learn and improve.

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    "grade very generously on language issues" - Just to be clear, do you mean to grade more generously if the student speaks English as a second language, or to grade equally generously for both primary and second language English speakers.
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 3:10
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    @ff524 Honestly, I wouldn't recommend taking off points for language, per se, from anybody, no matter their native language (unless it's a language class). In any non-language-centric class, I think language issues should only affect grade if they affect the comprehensibility of content.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 3:16
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    @jakebeal: That mentality must be what leads to all the manuals and documentation written by technical people that leave no doubts about what was actually meant, yet give me a headache for all the language and stylistic issues found therein. No, I wouldn't usually subtract points for single mistakes in a STEM subject, but if an overall diligence in the handling of the language is absent, I think there must still be some consequence, also in a non-language-centric class. The goal is not just that students somehow get across what they want to say, but that they do so in a professional way. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 8:19
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    @O.R.Mapper jakebeal's get-out clause -- "I think language issues should only affect grade if they affect the comprehensibility of content" -- is subjective, of course, but my take is that comprehensibility is rapidly affected as writing quality falls. In the past I've also found that the more formal English taught as a second language works well in student writing compare to the sloppy naturally-absorbed English spoken by many natives. There are of course foreign students who seem to have had a miracle to get through the English test.
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 8:30
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    @ChrisH: My comment was rather referring to texts written in German, but from "the typical faults a German introduces to English are exactly those which make the text odd-but comprehensible", it seems your experience in English precisely matches my impression, as well. Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 12:45

I've had many international students in my courses with different English-language abilities.

I believe the answer can depend on your discipline as I teach business courses and English courses could be held to higher standards in terms to language abilities.

I am often forgiving with things such as plurals,conjugation, and misuse of grammar with no overall impact (for example using a semicolon instead of a comma). However, I can generally tell how much effort was put into the paper. If the paper seems rushed and thrown together then the points will start to drop. The student may not be well versed in advanced English word usage but if they can get the overall point across and the work is readable I often dismiss the broken-English.

I do remind all students that he have tutors in our student center that can review papers. While this will vary from institution to institution I try and be as fair as I can given student circumstances and help all students succeed without handholding


No. You should definitively just ignore the fact that you are teaching to someone who can barely conjugate verbs, set tenses, create adequately descriptive phraseology, and who has a massive deficit of knowledge as to homonyms, synonyms, colloquialism and when it is and isn't appropriate to use them. Just ignore all of that and do your best to understand what they meant to say... or what you think they meant to say. You could use a fuzzy logic routine to see if the words they have cobbled together fall into a subset of words that may have been used to correctly respond to a query of their understanding. They are probably very smart and since most modern professionals currently entering their field in the United States are most likely from one of their countries then the fact that they barely have a grasp on the native language of the country from which they are seeking their degree should only serve to make degrees from our country more valuable in the eyes of the world. Lastly, a large majority of these students will simply be taking their expensive degree back to their own country so, as long as the university is getting their check... why should it matter. (tongue firmly in cheek... but not smiling)

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