Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
Students are encountering linguistic and cultural obstacles to writing

Students are encountering linguistic and cultural obstacles to writing

While international students often encounter linguistic and cultural difficulties on written assignments, these are problems that can affect domestic students from different cultural and educational backgrounds as well. Fortunately, many of the strategies instructors can use to address these issues are valuable for both categories of students.

Students may not have the necessary English language skills to cope with writing assignments. They may have difficulty understanding or keeping up with the readings on which written assignments are based. They may also simply have trouble with grammar, syntax, spelling, and vocabulary.

Even students who possess the necessary language skills may be unfamiliar with the kinds of writing assignments they are asked to do in college classes. In many U.S. high schools, students are asked to write papers emphasizing personal expression: to state and defend a personal opinion or engage in creative problem-solving for which there is no correct answer. International students, however, may find these kinds of writing assignments unfamiliar and confusing for the following reasons:

  • In some cultures, secondary education consists primarily of objective tasks that focus more on knowing the “right” answer than on developing or expressing an opinion. Students from such cultures may arrive at U.S. colleges expecting one, correct answer for writing assignments meant to prompt personal expression.
  • In some cultures, the role of a student is simply to transmit knowledge, not to form opinions about it. The task of writing a critique or interpretation of readings may, therefore, be unfamiliar and difficult, and students might hesitate to make judgments if they have not explicitly been instructed to do so.
  • In still other cultures, it is considered presumptuous for a novice to express an opinion on a subject about which he knows little. As a result, some writing assignments in U.S. colleges might seem nonsensical, encouraging a kind of intellectual arrogance that goes against the cultural grain.

International students may also not have learned certain skills (for instance, finding, using, and citing sources in a research paper) that U.S. students generally learn in high school. (Bear in mind, however, that many U.S. students have weak skills in these areas also.)

Students may have learned a different rhetorical style than that employed in the U.S. and may have difficulty adjusting to the expectations of U.S. faculty. In some cultures, for example, students are expected to begin a paper with background information and justifications and conclude with a thesis statement—not the reverse. To students from such cultures, the U.S. style of discourse may seem unpersuasive because the argument is presented before a suitable groundwork has been established. When international students apply their own cultures’ rhetorical conventions to written assignments in the U.S., their writing may appear to lack a clearly delineated argument or concrete proof of a thesis.

By the same token, acceptable communication styles may be more direct or less direct in some cultures than in the U.S. In some cultures, for example, students learn that sophisticated and subtle writing hints at a point and leaves it to the reader to piece the ideas together. For students from cultures that value a less direct style of writing, U.S. rhetorical style can seem overly explicit, unsubtle, or even childlike. It may be difficult for these students to adapt to, or even understand, what is expected of them in U.S. college courses.


Direct international students to the Intercultural Communication Center.

Make your expectations extremely explicit.

Provide models of good writing.

Direct international students to the Intercultural Communication Center.

If your students are encountering second language problems or difficulties navigating cultural differences, direct them to the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC). The ICC offers workshops and seminars to help nonnative English speakers develop the language and cultural skills needed to be more successful in their academic programs.  Many sessions focus on writing, organizing, and clarity issues specific for nonnative English speakers).

Make your expectations extremely explicit.

Your expectations regarding writing assignments may bear little resemblance to your students’ expectations. This can result from cultural differences but also from variations in the teaching styles of different faculty members. In other words, what you value and reward in student writing may not be exactly what your colleague down the hall values and rewards. Thus, it is helpful to all your students—domestic as well as international—to spell out as concretely as possible what your expectations are on different kinds of writing assignments. 

A detailed scoring guide or performance rubric helps your students recognize the component parts of a writing task and understand how you will assess their competence in each of these component parts. A good rubric helps students see what high-quality writing consists of in your course and to identify the skills they will need to perform well. If you choose to emphasize particular aspects of writing on different assignments, different rubrics can help students to see which assignments will require which skills. For example, you may not be very concerned with grammatical and spelling mistakes on informal “think pieces” and instead put the emphasis on originality and critical thinking. However, on more formal writing assignments you may opt to put far more weight on the development of a clear, reasoned argument and on polished prose. If students know what your criteria are in advance, they can decide whether their language skills are sufficient for your course, or get the help they need for particular assignments.

Provide models of good writing.

Provide examples of good student writing and (equally importantly) discuss with your students what makes these pieces of writing effective. This helps students identify the elements of good work as they apply to particular assignments within particular disciplinary domains and to become conscious of these elements in their own work. Diverse models of student work also illustrate that there are different ways to approach the same assignment, thus offering students some sense of creative scope.

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