How to grade a college student whose English skills aren't native


At last week’s St. Mary’s conference on how to better handle college students who speak English as a second language, one business instructor in the audience asked a classic question:

“I have some of these students, and they show amazing determination. They are highly intelligent people, and there’s a lot of respect for them. But a lot of times I get a paper where the content is at an amazing level, but the English and grammar aren’t. How do you grade that paper? What do you do? Do you give them an A? If you give them an A, is that being unfair to the other students? (ESL students) won’t succeed later on if they can’t even write a proper business communication.”

Ferris told him it’s the instructor’s decision:

“You have the right to say in your class, ‘Here are things I’m grading in my scheme.’ If you want to make language issues a small part of the grade, OK. You can tell the student, ‘Your content is A, but you have language issues. If you want to bring up your grade, you’ll need more help. Convey to them, ‘You still have things to work on, but that doesn’t mean you’re not bright. Still, if you’re going to convey yourself as a businessperson, you have to work on this.”

Later, she told me:

“Grammar and accuracy count. They don’t count as much as content, but they count. If it’s A-level content and C-level language, then it’s not an A-level paper.”

In that situation, she said, one option is to give a grade in the B range (depending on the strength of the content and the weakness of the language skills).

In any case, communicating with the student is key:

“Often you see students who don’t take seriously the need to engage (their instructor in English), because they have been passed through. And yet they may have harsher evaluators down the line (by more stringent faculty). At colleges you have opposite extremes co-existing. You have engineering professors who have a fit because a student dropped a few articles. And you have people who are way too tolerant or lenient or who just don’t want to deal with it.”

In any case, she told me:

“It would be more fair and transparent to the student if there were more institution-level standards (for the grading of ESL students) — and not have it vary from professor to professor.”