Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

10 Best Practices for Teaching Writing in the Major Courses: Multilingual Language Learners and the Need for Clear Guidelines

Teaching Argumentative and Research-Based Writing

This is the first in a series of three blog posts by John Peterson, Program in Rhetoric and Writing, Stanford University, and Paul Wadden, English for Liberal Arts Program, International Christian University, Tokyo.

For nearly all university students, learning to write within a new academic discipline is daunting; it is especially challenging for Multilingual Language Learners (MLL) or English as a Second Language (ESL) students. As students move across disciplines from one class to the next, and eventually choose a major, they encounter a wide range of unspoken expectations from instructors. 

Even teachers who offer “open” writing assignments, in which students have a great deal of freedom to make their own choices, likely have strongly held beliefs about what all university students should know about writing and the knowledge and skills they should be able to bring to bear in their courses. Such expectations and conventions do not really exist in a uniform way across any fields involving writing. For example, a student who is asked to do research in a history class may be expected to confidently interpret primary sources, while a student asked to do research in a political science course may be expected to study secondary analysis of policy and compare the different positions of these analysts. While students who have grown up in English-only households may have some facility in adapting their skills to shifting writing situations and making adjustments by reading the unspoken cues of the material and the unstated assumptions of their teachers, often multilingual learners benefit greatly from having expectations discussed explicitly, exemplified, and reconfirmed during a course. 

We offer here a look at some best practices for teaching argumentative and research-based writing, drawing largely from a comparison of how international and multilingual students learn best while in their native countries and while studying abroad. The strategies below are designed to enhance writing pedagogy in classes that are taken in conjunction with required writing classes or after such courses have been completed. Both Stanford, where John teaches, and International Christian University in Tokyo, where Paul teaches, offer immersive instruction in writing and rhetoric early in students’ university studies. However, research in the field of rhetoric and composition indicates that even with the curricular commitment of these intensive introductory courses, institutions that relegate the teaching of writing during students’ college experiences to one particular period, such as freshman year, may miss the opportunity to raise students’ writing in the long term—that is, beyond the initial boost of introductory immersion. 

Adopting even just a few of the practices below may sharply re-activate your students’ writing skills and improve their written assignments—and in any case make their texts more productive to read and respond to. In our next post to Teaching Commons, we will offer a fuller explanation of the reasoning behind each practice.

10 Best Practices in Teaching Writing in the Major

Early iterations of some of these practices appeared in ICU Faculty Development News Letter Vol. 3, No. 2 and Vol. 20 No.3.

  1. Prepare and discuss a detailed description for each major assignment: your expectations; a helpful writing process; clear due dates to meet goals of process.
  2. Present and discuss models of superior writing for each major assignment.
  3. Present and emphasize the features of writing that are important to you and to the genre of writing you are assigning.
  4. Require multiple drafts.
  5. Have students do self-evaluation of their writing before handing it in (see sample). *
  6. Allow variation in assignment theme and, if possible, connection with other courses.
  7. Personally show students relevant databases and reference works in your field. 
  8. Avoid delaying required work on major writing assignments until end of the term. 
  9. If a written work has numerous surface errors, identify patterns but don’t individually correct all of them.
  10. Showcase strong student writing in your class.

* Sample Self-evaluation (include with essay)

More News Topics