As an instructor or teaching assistant for a graduate class at a top institution, is it okay to tell students (e.g. in homework feedback) that they need to improve their English? What's the best way to do so without offending or discouraging them?

I'm specifically asking for math/science-based classes where, for instance, students are required to write proofs which involve a lot of "informal" (i.e. using English rather than mathematical notation) proofs and reasoning.

This happens mostly with international students.


3 Answers 3


You may prepare a list of local resources where an international student could improve his or her English language skills. For example

  • campus writing center

  • volunteer language practice pairing service

  • special courses or workshops for English language learners

  • opportunities to improve one's public speaking skills (the focus may not be on English, but this can be incredibly helpful) -- this might be offered in the Business school in your university

  • literacy volunteers program located in your town or city

Once you have your specific list prepared, you might ask your professor to distribute it for you. You can point out in the intro that strong English skills increase one's employability!

In the meantime... set yourself a maximum amount of time per assignment you feel you can afford to spend correcting a student's English, and go ahead and make some corrections. (Think what this will do for your karma!)

If a particular assignment is not gradable due to incomprehensibility, bump it up to the professor.


I realize this is an old question. Still, the question itself is fairly timeless. I can see this question has having been asked just this morning and having just as much validity as it did 5½ years ago when it was originally asked. That said, I have a few thoughts…

  • It seems clear (or at least I inferred such) the students have done reasonably well on the assignment. That is, they have satisfied the mathematics requirements to some degree of proficiency. So no matter what, you’re not going to adjust their grade based on their English proficiency. It’s really only suggestions you’re offering with regard to their English.
  • You no doubt have enough on your plate, but if you’re willing and if the number of students who need such assistance isn’t too great, offer to provide some assistance yourself. In doing so, first determine if the student wants help. If not, that implies no disrespect of the student(s) toward you, so don’t take it as such. If so, then follow through. If you can’t or don’t want to provide the help yourself, that’s fine but it’s good if you can point the student to other sources of help.
  • It’s important for the student to understand why you think this is important enough to mention. Describe it however you want, but the student should understand why it’s important to you. The student may or may not agree as to its importance. If it’s merely so you can understand the student’s reasoning and explanation of the assignment that’s a valid reason, but help the student understand how important communication is.

I think it's not so much "tell students to improve their English", but to make the point that coherent, precise English (if that's the ambient language) is important for communication. And to give specific details in feedback on write-ups, as I do in my graduate math courses.

It is certainly true that there is a widespread belief that math (for example) is insensitive to the ambient language. Of course, in some sense, this is true. But the communication of math certainly depends on the ambient language, unless we "go completely symbolic", which (in my opinion) leads to pretty unreadable stuff. It is inefficient to not take advantage of the built-in features of the ambient language... oop, but, then, we have to be acquainted with them.

A specific claim I'd make is that "natural language" (English, for example) is more robust to typos and small errors than is very formal, terse, symbolic mathematical writing. This is both an argument in favor of not-so-formal mathematical writing, and an explanation of why somewhat-flawed English mathematical writing is still "decipherable", at least by experienced people. But, then, there is also the point that this decipherability is much more difficult when the reader is not sufficiently expert...

... so, apart from getting grades on homework, improved quality of ambient language writing improves communication. (Not surprising...)

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