Organization and Formation Issues

As instructors, we often find it difficult to assess and respond to the writing of non-native English speaking students.  At times, their writing isn’t as concise or coherent as it could be.  Unable to identify what the exact problem is, we write comments such as “poor word choice,” “lacks coherence,” or “how is this relevant?”  Finally, we conclude that the student’s English is not good enough.  In hopes of providing more specific answers to some writing concerns for non-native English speaking students, this section focuses on the organization and formation of ideas in the following categories:

Organizing Ideas

Linear Organization

Because other cultures favor less direct organization patterns than American English, international students’ writing may seem unorganized and filled with irrelevant information.  According to the seminal work of Kaplan (1966), English writing favors a linear, straightforward structure.  Other cultures prefer writing styles which seem indirect to native English speaking readers.  Since these organizational preferences are culturally determined, students, particularly those with proficient writing skills in their native language, don’t always know that their writing follows a particular pattern.  Instructors may also be unaware of their own cultural preferences for a linear structure.

In order to avoid organizational confusion, instructors can make both students' own structure and the preferred linear structure explicit to non-native speaking students in the following ways:

  • Provide the student with an explicit explanation of linear structure.  For example, explain that the first paragraph in a report or essay briefly introduces the main topic or thesis. Other paragraphs directly relate to that topic through the use of topic sentences and supportive information.
  • Provide model examples of linear structure for students to read and follow in their own writing.  Suggest that students identify the main topic of the reading in the beginning of the paper, and then explain how each paragraph is related to this main idea. 
  • ·Have students make outlines of their papers to indicate the main topic of each paragraph and the supporting information included in the paragraph.  This will help students identify where their writing coincides with or diverges from the expected linear structure. 

    ·As a possible revision exercise, encourage students to label the topics and supporting information in each paragraph of their own writing to show how it relates to the main topic of the paper. 


Along with organization, cohesive links help the paper flow from one idea to the next and from one sentence to the next.  Cohesive links include transition words and phrases such as if…, then, even though…, and as a result of.  Pronouns such as it, that, and other  which refer to previous ideas and objects can also be used to link sentences together.  For example:  ‘Wolves eat bison and deer.  They need meat to survive.’  Because they refers back to wolves, the second sentence is linked to the first sentence.  Help students increase their use of cohesive links:

    ·Suggest that students underline transitional phrases and words while reading a sample of academic writing. 

    ·Have students underline transitional phrases and words in their own writing.  Then, have them compare their transitions with those in a sample of academic writing to determine if more transitions are needed in their writing. 

    ·Ask students to read a sample of academic writing and underline pronouns and the ideas or objects they refer to.  This will help students see that a sentence can be linked to the previous sentence. 

    ·Have students reword sentences so that old information is presented before new information to link sentences together.  For example, a passage such as:

      The hiker came upon a large meadow.  There were several varieties of wild flowers blooming in the meadow.  Pink, red, white, and yellow were the colors of the flowers,

    might be changed to:

      The hiker came upon a large meadow.  In the meadow, there were several varieties of wild flowers blooming.  The flowers came in pink, red, white, and yellow.

    Since the first idea in each sentence was mentioned in the previous sentence, the flow of ideas is linked together.

Academic Genres

Students need to be aware of general organizational preferences in English.   In order to be proficient in academic writing, students also need to be aware of the writing preferences of their chosen academic field.  First year college students learn the writing conventions of their chosen field through reading exposure.  However, many international students don’t understand the subtle nuances of the genres they read, because they must work hard to wade through grammar and vocabulary for comprehension. 

In order to help non-native English speaking students acquire the conventions of an academic field:

    ·Make the conventions of the preferred academic style explicit to the students.  For example: discuss how students should use headings, subheadings and other formatting techniques; explain subtle conventions of style and formality; indicate the appropriate use of passive voice, first person, or third person; and explain preferred citation procedures or other important writing formalities in your academic field. 

    ·Pay specific attention the choices you make in your own writing.  After studying and working many years in your field, academic writing comes naturally to you.  Don’t assume that these same writing skills will be easily developed in non-native English speaking students who have been studying in the field for a little time.

    ·Have students read over two or three exemplary texts representing the genre of your field.  Have the students look for details such as sentence length, sentence variation, use of first and third person, and vocabulary while they read.  By having the students look at more than one example of academic writing, they will notice that there is not one model to follow but a preferred style used in most, if not all, writing in the particular field.

    ·Be aware that even though your texts may define field-specific vocabulary, and the students may understand such terms when reading, they may have a difficult time using such vocabulary when writing.

    ·Provide and explain examples of supporting evidence such as anecdotes, analogies, numerical data, or  quotes, which are mostly widely accepted in the chosen academic field.

Support for Arguments

Persuasive writing of various types is one of the most common forms of writing assignments in American classrooms.  Support in such writing is generally organized according to a model set forth by Toulmin (as cited by Connor, 1991).  In Toulmin’s model, there are three parts to supporting an argument.  They are: 1) making a claim, 2) using data like numbers, quotes, and reasons, and 3) providing a warrant which establishes a bridge between the claim and data.   Since non-native English speaking students tend to be weak in following this model, their arguments generally receive comments such as “How is this relevant?” or “What point are you trying to make here?” 

In order to help students create stronger and well-supported arguments, we suggest the following:

    ·  Help students identify the three areas of Toulmin’s model for argument support. Give students opportunities to practice identifying these three parts in their own writing, since their cultural tendency is to use other methods.

    ·  Be aware that students may have a different orientation in presenting support for arguments.  For example, they may use lengthy quotes only by respected authors assuming that respect for authority and the individual’s knowledge in the field is enough to provide support.  They may neglect to explain how the quote supports the claim, or argument, they are making.

    ·  Provide explicit explanations of what types of data are most accepted in your academic field.  To help students adapt to a new style of argumentation, explain how these data can be used in Toulmin’s model for supporting arguments. 

    ·  Realize that students may also have incompatible attitudes toward argumentation in general.  In some cultures, knowledge is intended to be respected and this respect is shown by summarizing the author rather than arguing against the author’s ideas. 

    ·  Understand that some international students may feel uncomfortable taking a stand on issues because they feel they are being asked to solve the controversial issues of an academic field.  It may be helpful to explain to these students that, in the American tradition, the purpose of arguing for or against an issue is to demonstrate knowledge supporting a particular stand rather than trying to determine the final decision on a debate in the field.   This type of an explanation may also help students respond critically to readings.

Response to Essay Questions

Unnecessarily difficult vocabulary or complex sentence structures in essay questions may deter students from answering questions within the time constraints of an exam.  Because essay questions are often important parts of tests, and consequently grades, it’s important for students to understand what the essay question is asking them.

We offer a few suggestions to help non-native English speaking students respond completely to essay questions:

    · Think of time constraints carefully and consider allowing non-native English speaking students to use a dictionary, thesaurus, or reference handbook.  Since there is less time for careful proofreading during tests, expect more grammatical errors. 

    ·Encourage students to analyze the essay question completely and have them indicate the specific parts of the question.  Frequently non-native English speaking students don’t break down the writing prompt or essay question to determine what is being asked of them.  As a result, these students tend to write incomplete answers.

    ·Suggest that students make a quick outline before they begin writing to help them organize their ideas properly.

    ·Use clear language when writing essay questions.  If the question includes more than one step, make sure the different parts of the question are clearly indicated.

    ·Make the grading criteria clear before students begin to write so that students know where to focus their abilities. 

    ·Realize that what appears to be a writing problem may in reality be a misunderstanding of reading.  Factors concerning responses to critical readings will be discussed in the next section.

Response to Critical Readings

One of the complaints of instructors working with non-native English speaking students is that they lack the ability to write about information from critical readings in a larger context.  Student responses may merely repeat the details of the text or write elaborate summaries.  One of the reasons for these text-specific responses is that students lack the background knowledge to view the text from a broad social or historical context. 

Since repeating details and writing summaries are not always appropriate in many academic fields, we offer a few suggestions to help students make their reading and reading responses more effective:

    ·   Educate students concerning the purpose of the reading in order to help them focus on the necessary information.  For example, is the purpose to learn key vocabulary terms? to gain specific information?  or to understand a point of view?  Non-native English speaking students can get bogged down in the grammatical and semantic details of a text and thus miss the main point of the reading.

    ·   Make students aware of the author’s purpose and encourage them to identify certain biases of the writer.

    ·   Help students form connections between main concepts and the examples described to illustrate those concepts.  For example, have these students read a short excerpt and find the examples which illustrate the main concept.  Just the opposite type of activity can also be beneficial.  Have students write the examples discussed in some reading, and then have them write what concept(s) the examples are clarifying. 

    ·   Suggest that students make a reading plan.  This plan may include using the title and subject headings to predict what information will be discussed in the text.  Also, have the students answer summary questions at the end of the reading to ensure that they have understood the main points.