Editing for Non-Native
English Speakers:
In Good Time

by Valerie Balester, UWC Executive Director

This article has been re-published from our faculty blog, Stand and Deliver, from May 13, 2011.

Non-English speaking students often struggle to express themselves in prose that is error-free, but some “basic” errors in their writing may intrude. You probably understand the reason for these errors, for example, that the student's native language does not use articles (the, an, a) or that English prepositions are highly idiomatic. You probably can even read past them and focus on content. Yet they can be very annoying and distracting.

It’s a mistake to underestimate the amount of time it can take to learn the nuances of a foreign language. And if you’ve ever tried to explain the “rules” for some things, like which preposition goes where, you’ll begin to understand how complex English is. Certainly, most native speakers can’t explain these rules, but even if they could, most speakers don’t learn by rule, anyway. They learn by immersion in the language over time, if they learn at all.

In some cases, student writing can have an “accent” and still be perfectly readable. You can read past the error and focus on meaning with no loss. It may be necessary to mark a few errors that interfere with meaning, or to point out patterns of error, but it is not necessary to mark each and every one. However, some international students may feel that the instructor who does not correct every one of their errors is abdicating responsibility. In some cultures, painstaking error correction is a teaching method. To clear up any misunderstanding, you should discuss with the class or the student how you respond to writing.

But sometimes the writing just has to be error-free. To help non-native English speakers reach this goal, some instructors feel that the only option is to do the editing themselves. Those who have edited a dissertation know this is time-consuming, difficult work requiring a great deal of concentration. So what can be done to help non-native English speaking students meet the demands for edited prose?

It’s not the kind of work the University Writing Center does. We can refer students to freelance editors, for which they should get your permission. These editors charge fees and do not work on our behalf. But given the frequent requests we get for editorial services, we have compiled the list.

Still, that’s not an option everyone can afford. If students don't wait until the last minute, we can help them learn to edit so that they can do it themselves (in good time). This doesn’t mean we go through a text line-by-line and identify and fix each error. It's not tandem proofreading but more like collaborative editing. We help the student go through a few pages during a 30-45 minute consultation and identify common problems. We teach ways to recognize and solve those problems then ask the student to work on the text independently before returning for the next consultation.

It’s not a quick fix. Persistent students begin, over time, to improve and identify or even correct the errors on their own. Some visit us twenty times or more to work on editing a paper. Students need to know it may require multiple visits and concentrated effort, and the results will not be the same as they would see from a professional editor. But the work will be the student’s own, and so will the learning.

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