Today I met with a student who had plagiarized answers on an exam from online sources. She explained to me with apparent honesty that she had spent too long answering the first two questions and then run out of time. In her telling, being a non-native speaker makes grammatical writing in English very slow going. On this exam, I expected the students to write approximately ten to twenty sentences in an hour.

Sometimes our academic counseling department requests disability-related accommodations which allow certain students 1.5x or 2x time for an exam. However, I've never seen one related specifically to speech and language.

Does non-native speech warrant extra time when writing exam answers?

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    The first part (academic dishonesty/cheating/plagiarism) might make it hard for people to offer a fair analysis of the question and it's answer, as that's obviously bogus excuse for cheating - yet the real question you have is an otherwise interesting one.
    – BrianH
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 5:23
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    I'll not post this as an answer since it is my opinion: I don't think non-native students should get extra time. Part of studying abroad is being able to deal with the language barrier and learning to overcome it. If non-native speakers get extra time, they might not feel the need to improve as much. And where do you draw the line at which someone does not get extra time any more?
    – Ian
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 7:10
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    @MonkeyZeus time limits are for practicality not to set difficulty. It shouldn't matter to other students who comfortably had enough time to answer. This only becomes a problem when the time limits are set badly and normal ability students must rush to finish.
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 14:58
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    @JamesRyan: Again you take a broad swipe at teachers without justification from your own teaching practices and experiences. There is a wide range of tasks such that taking 1.5 to 2 times as long to complete them as the standard amount of time taken by those who have mastered the task is rightly viewed as not having mastered the task. Needing 10 minutes to write a sentence is a degree of slowness that would be disqualifying in a wide array of academic (and other) circumstances. Attributing these realities to bad teaching seems a bit irresponsible; certainly it helps no actual students. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 22:21
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    ...At virtually all American universities, an integral goal is for students to be highly proficient at reading / writing / intellectual discourse in the English language. These goals result in formalized language/writing requirements in many subject area courses, e.g. including mathematics. If you think that this "conflation" is "bad teaching," then you are really not buying into the ethos of the American university. Which is fine -- most university students are not American and most Americans are not university students. But just saying "Bad!" to a whole academic culture is not helpful. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:29

10 Answers 10


Disability conditions are applicable when there is an uncontrollable disadvantage that prevents the person fairly demonstrating their knowledge, skill and ability in the same timeframe.

This is not the case for a person who has and takes the option of moving to a country or region where their language proficiency is not sufficient to demonstrate knowledge or skill.

Such a person has the choice of developing their language skills to sufficiency or of simply studying at a university where the common language is one they are fluent in. They control the situation and therefore, it is their obligation to resolve it, not the assessor's duty.

Where these two groups intersect is a case rare enough that it should be handled on its own merits according to any applicable policy and law (which most likely will mean the extra time is given to account for the disability).

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    Indeed, the fundamental distinction is that of "control". A person with dyslexia has no control over the circumstances. A non-native speaker does: they could enroll in a program in their native language. They actively chose to be in this position of hardship. (One could make a distinction here, if the conditions in their home country are such that this choice does, in fact, not exist, e.g. because there simply is no system of higher education or there is danger to life and health, but there is no indication of that in the OP's description of the circumstances.) Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 10:57
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    By this logic, would we give different rights to refugees (displaced from their home country by circumstance) than to immigrants (left by choice)? Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 17:49
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    Refugees tend to receive additional support for integration, like language classes (anecdotal confirmation here). Immigrants don't just show up without planning and having some capability already. I think both are covered already outside of what the university might do.
    – Nij
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:59
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    -1. Setting aside whether or not an office of disability services would give these considerations their official stamp, I totally 100% disagree with the philosophy behind this answer. As educators, we shouldn't avoid making reasonable accommodations for students just because it's in response to something that's technically under their control. It seems awfully petty and cruel to tell a student they shouldn't study at a university due to language issues when the only language issue is the design of the exam.
    – user34397
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 3:19
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    It's not a reasonable accommodation to give extra time for someone who simply isn't up to the literacy requirements of the course, the same as there is no accommodation for someone who hasn't the prior knowledge requirements.
    – Nij
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 7:15

If the test isn't about language skills, design it such that people with weaker language skills still can complete it. In most but not all cases tests should test knowledge and understanding, not speed. So if you're worried that people with weaker language skills can't complete in time, just allow more time for all students and allow students who finish early to leave early. If you want to ask more questions in less time, you can always use more multiple choice or similar types of questions.

Giving a short time limit mostly tests who's performing better under stress and who's better at learning answers by heart - which is perfectly fine if that's what you want to test.

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    While I agree with the general "having lessons in non-native language is a choice" sentiment, I think this also raises a good point. There must be a spread of students with different language skills (and varying writing speeds, for example). Ideally the test would ignore those unless it's actually testing them.
    – domen
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 8:21
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    I disagree with your bolded assertion. Tests should test understanding, not knowledge. Speed matters in tests because it is a proxy for your ability to effectively deploy your understanding. Someone who understands the material well should be expected to be able to answer questions faster than someone who doesn't. Unfortunately, of course, there are other factors at play in the speed at which students can answer questions so it's not a great proxy. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 12:49
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    I agree about your bold-face assertion, but the simplicity of language on a test is dependent on the material being tested. STEM fields would likely be heavy in numbers and have more basic situational language (CH2=CH2 reacts with Pt in what process to...), but more technical names (dimethoxymethane, hydrogenation) that should be known or are specifically being tested. Arts and other fields would likely be more heavy in conceptual language (what is the main thematic argument Dickens...). In both cases, however, this language/concept is what's being tested, regardless of native language.
    – Daevin
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 13:44
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    @JackAidley I agree with the understanding part, and disagree with your conclusion. Testing speed tests so many things (how a student performs under stress, learning answers by heart, etc) that I find it very hard to support your claim that giving less time rewards students who understand better.
    – Peter
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 14:28
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    @Jack Ailey "who understands the material well should be expected to be able to answer questions faster" what kind of science it is where you are able to answer correctly without understanding, just takes a while? Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 6:58

In short: no, not speaking the language a course is taught in is not enough in its own right to warrant extra time.

As @Nij pointed out, it is the student's choice to have attended this particular academic institution, and they chose to attend an institution where the spoken language is not their native language. An exception would be if it is in the academic institution's policy (i.e. for some institutions where a significant portion of the student body are international students, it may be the case) to grant this student and others extra time based on language.

Another issue here, it seems, is that the student is using this as an excuse (or at the very least, as justification) for committing plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Every student has the choice to cheat or not, and this student decided to cheat. There should be absolutely no excuse for academic dishonesty, and there is absolutely no justification for it.

It should have been apparent to the student before taking the exam that the language the exam was presented in would cause them problems, and the student should have sought help by either the professor (you?)/T.A./academic department with authority to grant extra time. In the event that the student may have been overconfident in their abilities to read/write/speak the language, the student should have approached you immediately afterwards to explain the situation and request extra time.

I would also like to point out that the university I attended had a policy to translate an exam into a student's native language upon request, and I've heard of several other institutions with this policy. These policies were presented in the acceptance materials for my university, and I was not registered as an international student. My point being the student should have been aware of their options before the exam, and it is the students' responsibility to seek these options.

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    Presumably the student also chose not to take sufficient English as a Second Language (ESL) prior to attending the class. Often, that's a whole extra year of full-time study.
    – Alex R
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 19:31
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    @AlexR Very true. At the university I attended, there was an English proficiency exam that a student could not graduate without passing (perhaps restricting progress beyond first-year, even). If a student failed, there were classes that had to be taken before attempting again. So the institution did its best to ensure students were capable of sufficient English, and also provided means for students that were more comfortable in their native language. There is no excuse, at that point.
    – Daevin
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:53
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    Sometimes, access to a dictionary (instead of more time) might be more valuable to a non-native speaker (if the exam cannot be provided in a more comfortable language). Still, that's a point better addressed before taking the exam, and no excuse for cheating. Also, IMHO English has a rather simple grammar (at least compared to German, my native language), so I feel that language difficulties are more likely to arise from the intrinsic meaning of certain phrases (e.g. "he stopped smoking" vs. "he stopped to smoke"), which can be eased by access to a dictionary.
    – hoffmale
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 7:49
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    +1 for "the student is using this as an excuse ... for committing plagiarism and academic dishonesty" Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 15:57
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    @AaronBrick You may be lenient towards her for that (if you are you're one of the nicest professors I've ever heard of), and that's your prerogative, but neither have any of the students who haven't taken one of your examinations before. Really, the point of my answer is that students are accountable for their own actions and knowing their responsibilities.
    – Daevin
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 16:33

Most schools I researched when choosing a uni, required non-native English speakers to prove their proficiency at English via a certified exam (IELTS, TOEFL, or schools' own exam). Required level of English was never lower than C1 on CEFR scale, which implies that the student

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.

  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

I.e. if a student does not satisfy those, he/she should not be at school in the first place.

In my personal experience as a non-native freshman, ENG 101 essay was not very hard to write in dedicated time (150 minutes for 800-1000 words). Most complications rose from structuring the essay, not picking the right words - the latter is fairly easy acquired, even by watching TV or playing video games.

If your course requires extensive writing with complicated vocabulary, then it would be nice of you to warn your students of possible complications.

One other thing from my experience (I'm studying in a non-English speaking country, but medium of instruction is English in my uni) - there are a lot of people who can barely conjure a sentence, even despite the facts I mentioned on the top, and the fact that my school has a prep school to get people up to B2-C1. Somehow those people just get through - but it's their responsibility from then on. After all, C1 (in my case it's not even C1, it's 6.5 IELTS) is actually a threshold at which you are eligible to study in a uni, the most basic level at which you should be comfortable.

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    +1. The rest is an interesting anecdote, but that paragraph in the middle is an important thing: students should know the expectations before they start, or as soon as possible after they start along with the option to withdraw or drop a level if it is apparently beyond their current ability.
    – Nij
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 11:07

Unless the quality of the language is part of the exam, tell students you do not care about the small mistakes in the grammar. As long as these mistakes do not make the sentence difficult to understand, or even change the meaning so that the answer qualifies as incorrect. "A transformer", "the transformer", "a transformers" - why a physicist should care much.

This will eliminate the possibility of the foreign student to complain that lots of time has been spent perfecting the grammar.

  • Yeah, I agree with this. I have never really been in a non-writing class where anything has specifically said "use perfectly formatted sentences". I know I sometimes even go so far as to forget words when writing, and I've never got something wrong because of that unless it legitimately changed the meaning and made it indecipherable.I'm not sure why any foreign student would be concerned.Just put the words on the paper.If a professor were that picky about grammar and took points off purely for "bad english" I would think that people would've already tried complaining to a department by then.
    – user64742
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 6:01
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    @TheGreatDuck: That must be the explanation why so many user manuals for technical devices and software are written in abysmal language. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 16:07
  • @O.R.Mapper I'm not saying that there is an excuse for poor language skills. I'm merely making a point that no professor is going to expect perfect articulated wording on an exam unless it is a writing exam. Sure, paper's and things should be to the best of one's ability at a decent standard. However, there's no need to be nitpicky on a test. If someone happens to say "an equations" in a math exam I doubt the professors going to take away points, especially if they know or suspect the person is a foreign exchange student. Granted, they might point out the error for future reference.
    – user64742
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 16:27

Does the student even know it's acceptable to make grammar mistakes in the interest of efficiently explaining their ideas? Literally if the instructor has never taught this then the student has no chance of knowing this. It may be worth observing that both in "the real world" of industry and later on in academia the majority of communication is naturally done hastily and under time pressure, in the form of a stack of email that must be resolved before one can get on with work. And email, of course, is influenced by the speaker's own conversation style, and it is usually clear enough.

ESL speakers can become fluent while making more or less systematic categories of grammatical deviations that are more or less within the bounds of business English. But the entire culture of written examination in school emphasizes the wrongness of the deviations and not the fact that the communication itself is clear and fluent, and this may be the main issue with your student's struggles.

A certain amount of grammar mistakes only modestly impacts readability. Even if it moderately impacts readability, not penalizing these mistakes in a time-pressure quiz or test format is a good idea. This applies to all students. ESL and all students deserve time offline to polish.

Work with your student to find compromises between what they can express fluently and efficiently, and what they can express grammatically in the allocated time. The student may understand this as a bargain: they focus on clarity, and you forgive mistakes. I would suggest being collaborative with the student. Perhaps you will have a need to penalize some mistakes that compromise clarity, but the student deserves the chance to work through which mistakes are better to make.

I want to emphasize an important point about this answer: I advocate no special treatment in grading for the ESL student here. Education should be specialized to the students in need, and changes to evaluation is a last resort. (Of course reflecting on this situation may lead to new perspective in grading, but that's the point of asking questions like this in the first place.)

Now, the OP's question can be answered independent of the act of plagiarism, but I do have something to say about that regarding the circumstance: I would emphasize that inasmuch as justice is about punishment, it is also about when punishment ends so that the perpetrator may get on with their time in society. In this case, it means not depriving the student of their right to quality education assuming the punishment is anything less than expulsion. At the risk of being political, I might suggest that part of what turned the student to this crime was lacking any other way to succeed. That is within your ability to impact as an educator, and relating this empathy to a path forward in this student's education has nothing to do with lessening or excusing the offense.


There are great answers already, but I hope my personal perspective may also be helpful.

I have team member who is deaf, which is considered a disability by most. But he will not accept that he is disabled and has held himself to the same standard as everyone else, which makes him a great asset to our team. He doesn't communicate verbally, but performs his responsibilities as well as anyone else on the team. He isn't afraid of difficult tasks and rises to whatever challenge we throw at him.

I teach a class with a "hearing-impaired" student who also insists that she does not have a disability. She is very bright, capable and a good learner, in part because she has had to work a little harder. From each of these individuals, I have learned that while some accommodations should be made for special circumstances, if we go too far, we do more to handicap the student/employee/friend/family member than their actual condition.

For the student mentioned in the question, if she is allowed to use the language barrier as an excuse for cheating and to receive special accommodations for future tests, she will be further handicapped, not helped. If you care about her personal and academic development, you need to hold her to a higher standard and convince her to believe in herself and put forth the effort required to succeed despite the obstacles and challenges. In the long run, she'll be miles ahead if she breaks this shell on her own.


I think this depends on whether you give other people who might write their answers slowly additional time. For example, people with dyslexia also write and read more slowly.

I think that in general, if people with dyslexia also get extra time (which is, in my country, usually only 20% (at most) of the allotted time extra), then you can consider giving the same extra time to that person. I know this is done for high school exchange students.

However, I would only do this for a limited period of time. After, say, a year (or maybe even earlier) of university, it can and should be expected that the student knows the language well enough that he or she is not slowed down by it extremely, especially if the test requires only ten to twenty sentences an hour, which is not a lot. If they still don't know the language they're expected to know after a year, they are going to have a hard time when studying anyway.

I tried to write this answer primarily for students who didn't cheat, by the way. I think that is currently irrelevant to the question. However, in such cases, you might of course decide that the student has wasted their right on extra time.


Unless the exam is about the English language itself, non-native speaking students should have an extra time because they take more time to read, understand and write in English.

An example to this question.

Cisco CCNA exams are only available in English in most countries. The exams in English speaking countries must be solved in 90 minutes, while in non-native countries must be solved in 120 minutes (they have more 30 minutes).

One might think it is unfair that non-English speakers have more time to solve the exam and have a better grade. But they spend more time reading, understanding and writing, which is less time on thinking, the main objective of the exam. Hence the extra half-hour.

  • Your answer is not convincing, because (i) CCNA is an industry certification, not an academic exam and more importantly (ii) you are talking about an exam which is not in the language of the nation it is given in. This question is about exams given at English-speaking universities in English-speaking countries. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:37
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    @PeteL.Clark You are correct, but my answer was focused on explaining WHY non-native speaking students need the extra time.
    – Edu
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:42
  • But it doesn't explain why non-native speakers need more time in this context. Yes, under a large set of exam conditions they will do worse than if the exam was given in their native language. Students who are bad at mental arithmetic will do worse under a large set of exam conditions than they would with a calculator. That does not mean that they need to be provided with calculators. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 16:54
  • @PeteL.Clark You have to analyze what you want to evaluate. If arithmetic is what you want to evaluate, don't provide calculators in order to better evaluate the students skills. If it is another area of maths where you think arithmetic would consume too much time, then provide calculators. If you want to evaluate english skills, give them all the same time. If not, and you want to evaluate thinking, then give some extra time to non-native speakers. (This comment here is my opinion and not facts)
    – Edu
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 8:35
  • Cisco CCNA exams are not truly time limited anyone that had learned what is required can complete them in half of the allowed time. The additional time for none-natives allows most words in the questions and on the multi choose answers to be looked up in a dictionary!
    – Ian
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 17:08

There are two separate issues here, but both come to the same answer.

If the student is studying maths, physics or engineering, then using fully grammatically-correct sentences should not be part of the marking scheme. So long as the maths/physics/engineering is clear and correct, supporting text is secondary. Any exam should not generally be asking for long essay-form questions because it is not an appropriate way of assessing the course. Since there shouldn't be a need for large amounts of writing in English, there should be no need for extra time to be allowed.

If the student is studying some subject which requires discussion, conversation and writing in English, their standard of written and spoken English has to be good enough to allow this. This applies just as much for native English speakers as non-native English speakers. Native English speakers are often not taught English grammar at school to academic-level standards, so a native English speaker may well have the same problem as a non-native English speaker with written assessments. Regardless, the ability to communicate in written English is a core requirement for the course. If the student cannot meet that core requirement, a foundation year to get all their skills up to scratch may be more appropriate for them, but you can't allow them extra time to cover their lack of core skills.

For a further problem, your student has clearly cheated in the exam, been caught cheating, and admitted cheating. Your organisation should have a standard policy for dealing with cheating, and saying "I couldn't finish the exam in time" is not a justification. Students who approach their teachers/tutors/lecturers with their academic problems ahead of time are likely to get some kind of help, whether that's extra mentoring in English or whatever. Students who cheat and then say "I couldn't do it" as justification can only get what the disciplinary process says they deserve though.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 3:28

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