Writing Across Borders

With the continuous internationalization of the student population on campus, Queen’s University is becoming increasingly diverse. However, many international students, particularly those with English as an additional language (EAL), face unique challenges in academic writing. While English language proficiency is often deemed as the primary reason for their challenges, cultural factors also heavily impact students’ writing practices.

It is noteworthy that many student groups from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, although are not deemed as international students (e.g., students from diverse high school experiences, Francophone students, or Indigenous students, etc.), are likely to share some, if not all, of the challenges. Therefore, becoming aware of the anticipated challenges in academic writing enables educators to better support the learning needs of diverse students. 


Writing as EAL Student

Challenges related to English Language Proficiency

International students, especially those with English as an additional language from various countries face unique challenges when it comes to academic writing. Some claim that they had written very little in English and practiced no more than sentence-level writing. While others reported to rarely read “extended texts (more than 1000 words)”1 (p.64) in English in their previous educational experience. Accordingly, it is very likely that the students are not yet able to smoothly transfer reading and writing skills from their first language to the English language use, thus are restricted in their writing output.
In addition, the reason why some students produce grammatically inaccurate writing is related to a notion called ‘communicative competence’ which focuses on the “creation of meaning as opposed to the practice of decontextualized grammar”1 (p.64). To be more specific, in a conversation where an additional language is used, it is possible to get one’s ideas crossed without being grammatically accurate. Instead, the efforts to use error-free language often get in the way of fluent communication both in speaking and writing forms. For many EAL students, a focus on meaning will inevitably lead to the reduction in accurate language use because additional language learning follows a sequence of development, and there exists no shortcut in grammatical acquisition.

What about the English Language Proficiency Tests?

Very often, EAL students are screened by a language proficiency test, such as IELTS (International English Language Testing System), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), PET Academic (Pearson Test of English) and so forth, before entering post-secondary education in Canada. Therefore, they are often assumed to have met the minimum requirement for English language proficiency needed to manage academic studies1.
In fact, these tests only measure EAL students’ generic language proficiency because they are not at all based on any particular discipline and/or a subject field. As different disciplines in higher education have different linguistic demands, it is not at all clear whether the test score can predict successful performance in academic studies once the students are accepted into universities and/or colleges. On the contrary, the entry level of the students’ English language proficiency needs to be regarded merely as “a starting point for further development”2 (p.6), meaning EAL students need to continuously improve their English language proficiency in their academic journeys in higher education.

Moreover, there are a myriad of pathways for EAL students to enter post-secondary education in Canada, and not all pathways require a language proficiency test. For example, students may enroll in a university or college through intensive English language programs. Without further research, it is not yet clear whether the multiple pathways to higher education have provided the students with opportunities to enhance required English language proficiency or enabled them to “fly under the language radar”2 (p.20) within their academic studies.

Academic Language is No One’s Mother Tongue

As each discipline often has its own preferred ways of communication and use of discourse, writing tasks in terms of research papers, essays, and reports may have various manifestations across disciplinary areas. When students are taking courses in different subject fields, they may feel overwhelmed when encounter different writing expectations and practices simultaneously.

International students, on the other hand, may be unfamiliar with new writing expectations and practices. For example, some students may have been previously encouraged to write with creativity in their mother tongue, but instead may encounter criticism when practicing this creativity with English. Consequently, the students are likely to suffer a loss of voice or even identity in English academic writing so as to “strictly adhere to academic conventions”1 (p.66).

With the changing demographics in Canadian post-secondary institutions, including Queen’s, a safe space, by necessity, needs to be built where mismatches between student and instructor expectations can be openly discussed and/or negotiated, and subject specialism will be explicitly explained. In addition, it may be time for educators in higher education to start contemplating whether a shift of views is needed toward what constitutes acceptable or good academic writing.

Dilemmas in Writing as Non-native English Speakers

In general, academic writing may be a challenging task for all students. It is particularly so for some EAL students because they may have not yet developed sufficient language skills nor acquired enough content knowledge to write adequately in specific disciplines.

First and foremost, learning to write in a non-native language is necessarily a process of “borrowing others’ words”4 (p.227) or “assimilating and reusing chunks of language”3 (p.282). EAL students, especially novice academic writers, often have to “[take] a bit here and there” to help get their meaning crossed4 (p.221). Their writing practices may not always meet instructor’s expectations, as it is a lengthy process moving from copying words, phrases, or sentences from textual sources to a higher-level writing that includes the use of creativity and innovation.

On top of using others’ words to express one’s ideas coded in their first language, EAL students may also need to learn the subject knowledge as external ideas, and then translate them into their first language to make the knowledge their own1. This is a complex process that requires EAL students to assimilate new knowledge with previous knowledge and lived experiences. As learners of both the English language and the subject knowledge, some EAL students often don’t feel like owning the words of what they write. They are also challenged to distinguish between their own understanding, common knowledge in the subject field, and specific points of views and findings learned from others.

To quickly summarize, lacking one’s own words or authorial voice to express one’s own ideas is a common dilemma that some EAL students encounter in academic writing. This often places them at a higher risk of committing plagiarism. While in fact, it is worth further conversation and discussion about whether borrowing others’ words or ideas in an attempt to find one’s own voice in an additional language is an intentional academic violation, especially when it happens at an early stage of one’s academic study.

What can Educators do to Help?

Students in higher education are often deemed responsible for their own learning. However, it is by necessity that educators and the broader university community provide resources and opportunities for learning to help EAL students continue to develop their English language proficiency for success in academic studies.

Here are a range of strategies for educators to adopt depending on how much space they could negotiate in the course to respond to the students’ need in this regard, particularly in improving their writing skills2.

Strategies Examples Support
Advise students to seek help with writing and/or language development.

Give feedback to advise students to seek help from the language and academic support units.

For example, suggest students access services and resources on campus that support academic writing and learning skills, such as SASS (Student Academic Success Services

Minimal Intervention
(indirect support)

High Intervention
(direct support)

Organize a workshop on writing for students.

Arrange a workshop with a language specialist to review aspects of academic writing in the specific discipline (for writing assignment).

For example, invite a writing or learning specialist from SASS to deliver a workshop in class

Look for patterns of errors in student writing and point out areas that need improvement.

Correct some of the linguistic errors (usually on the first few pages only), and then comment on areas that need improvement.

Make a list of types of errors with writing and/or language use and ask students to resubmit corrected assignment.

Correct errors and suggest alternative expressions. Make corrections to most linguistic errors, highlight phrases and/or sentences that need to be rewritten, and suggest alternative expressions.
Read drafts of work and provide detailed feedback. Provide extensive writing and/or language support by giving formative feedback on several drafts of work before submission of final assignment. This could include self-editing and peer feedback techniques.
Provide intensive individual support to students. Provide individual consultations with students to assist them at various stages of writing assignments.

Cultural Diversity in Academic Writing

Besides English language proficiency, there are, in fact, cultural factors that heavily impact international students in their performance of academic writing. This is because “writing is an activity that is normally embedded in the culture, and it actually sets rules and patterns that are typically shared by a given community”7 (p.57). To help international students meet the expectations in English academic writing, educators and students alike need to develop a fundamental understanding of the impact cultural diversity places on one’s writing practice.

A workshop series has been designed to help educators and students explore cultural influence in academic writing, critical thinking, and citation practices that are topics international students identified as barriers to success in their academic studies. Recordings of the sessions are available below.

Session One: Academic Writing

Contrary to the belief that English language proficiency plays the sole role in impacting international students’ writing challenges, this workshop is intended to look into what challenges international students in English academic writing through a cultural perspective.

Facilitated by Yunyi Chen, Centre for Teaching and Learning
Panelists: Alyssa Foerstner and Lydia Skulstad, Student Academic Success Services (SASS); and Molalign Adugna (PhD Candidate) School of Rehabilitation Therapy

  • The different skill sets international students bring into our class are not necessarily wrong–something often implied by comments highlighted in red and followed by many exclamation points–they are just different9.
  • Culturally responsive teaching is about observing and understanding students as individuals and exploring their ways of practice rather than judging them by ethnocentric standards.
  • Respect is crucial to negotiating academic expectations, performing effective communications, and transcending national boundaries.

  1. Find out early what your students can do and cannot do with regard to writing in your discipline, i.e., using early diagnostic task that includes some of the basic skills that students need to write in the discipline.
  2. Articulate explicitly the academic writing conventions; explain writing requirements clearly and, offer writing samples whenever appropriate.
  3. Scaffold writing assignments and provide formative feedback to help students improve language proficiency, writing skills and build confidence in writing in an additional language.
  4. Remember international students are still language learners and set realistic standards for their language use.
  5. Recognize that poor writing may simply be evidence of weaknesses in other literacy skills -- understanding lectures, critical reading, or learning from oral discussions.
  6. Provide incentives for your students to read; extensive reading in the subject field contributes to improvements in vocabulary, grammar and writing fluency.
  7. Build in practice in writing to help students practice particular types of text; offer timely feedback to help students incorporate suggestion into future assignments.  
  8. Collaborate with Student Academic Success Services to enlist their help in identifying the literacy skills that underpin your discipline and provide support to students. 

Book a consultation about ‘Cultural Diversity in Academic Writing’

Session Two: Critical Thinking

Coming from diverse cultural, educational, and linguistic backgrounds, international students often experience obstacles practicing critical thinking in written assignments, and they may be judged as lacking critical thinking skills. Contrary to this stereotype, this workshop explores the barriers international students face in practicing critical thinking in English academic writing through a cultural perspective.

Facilitated by Yunyi Chen, Centre for Teaching and Learning
Panelists: Johanna Amos and Lydia Skulstad, Student Academic Success Services (SASS); and Yiyi He (PhD Candidate) Cultural Studies

  • The skill of critical thinking, like that of academic writing, is not necessarily explicitly taught to some students before they come to join our class regardless of their backgrounds.
  • It helps if students:
    • develop an understanding of “the importance of argument, research and supporting evidence in the construction of a standard piece” of English academic writing9 (p.59).
    • understand that North American academic culture expects them to:
      • generate logical opinions informed by research
      • analyze others’ ideas critically
    • learn and practice the required skills through ample opportunities

  1. Explain what critical thinking means in the discipline, as opposed to criticizing.
  2. Highlight the importance of the reading materials to the content of the course.
  3. Assign students readings to practice critical thinking skills with guided questions that elicit the level of analysis required.
  4. Organize discussions either with the whole class or in small groups to critically discuss the assigned readings.
  5. Offer students well-developed samples of critical writing and explicitly explain how they meet expectations.
  6. Set clear expectations and give detailed instructions at least in the first few writing assignments.
  7. Provide students with a list of key questions to use when writing the first few critical assignments.
  8. Reinforce students’ critical thinking abilities through asking them to analyze writing samples to identify argument, opinions, and supporting evidence, and to make suggestions for improvement.
  9. Provide constructive feedback focusing on eliciting analysis and developing argument and asking students for resubmission that incorporates the feedback.

Book a consultation about ‘Cultural Diversity in Academic Writing’

Session Three: Citation Practices

Contrary to the portrait that depicts international students as persistent plagiarizers, this workshop intends to delve into what challenges international students’ experience with citation practices that may lead to academic integrity departures (i.e., plagiarism) in English academic writing through a cultural perspective.

Facilitated by Yunyi Chen, Centre for Teaching and Learning
Panelists: Ian Garner, Student Academic Success Services (SASS); Matt Rahimian, Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic); Student Panelist: AmirHossein Sojoodi, (PhD candidate) Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

  • What is deemed as plagiarism shifts across cultures. Therefore, the plagiarizing issues in our institution:
    • should NOT be considered as being simple, tactical, and stable
    • should NOT be treated as pure moral absolute3.
  • Most international students did not intend to violate academic writing regulations, instead they need time and practice to eventually use English as a language of their own6.
  • The problem of plagiarism cannot be solved unless a pedagogic instead of a judicial perspective is taken10.

  1. Become aware of the false assumptions and superficial ways in which plagiarism and academic integrity are addressed when it comes to international students.
  2. Get to know your students’ writing experience and academic backgrounds.
  3. Develop a friendly and inclusive classroom environment to promote learning.
  4. Consider teaching international students the concept of ownership of ideas by practically explaining the concept of intellectual property.
  5. Help students see the relationship between their ideas and research sources as a way to avoid plagiarism.
  6. Teach skills for citing academic source together with teaching students how to generate new ideas using their own voice.
  7. Spend the time to unravel the complexity of plagiarism for new students using concrete examples and giving students ample opportunities to practice.
  8. Analyze and show students the textual features of the samples from their disciplines.
  9. Provide international students extra consultations and exercises for learning how to cite correctly.
  10. Educate ourselves about the complexity of plagiarism, instead of approaching the issue from a stance of moral superiority.
  11. Operate from a position of trust and collaborating with the student.
  12. Model good practices around citation by giving credit where credit is due, whether by using PowerPoints, hypotheticals, or other materials. Actions speak louder than words.

Book a consultation about ‘Cultural Diversity in Academic Writing’


  1. Schmitt, D. (2005). Writing in the international classroom. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching international students: Improving learning for all. New York: Routledge.
  2. Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English Language Standards in Higher Education: From entry to exit. Australian Council for Educational.
  3. Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others words: text, ownership, memory and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly, 30 (2), 201-230.
  4. Hayes, N., Introna, L., & Whitley, E. (2005). Cultural Values, Plagiarism, and Fairness: When Plagiarism Gets in the Way of Learning. Ethics & Behavior, 213-231.
  5. Currie, P. (1998). Staying out of trouble: Apparent plagiarism and academic survival. Journal of Second Language Writing, 7 (1), 1-18.
  6. Hu, J. (2001). An alternative perspective of language re-use: Insights from textual and learning theories and L2 academic writing. English Quarterly, 33 (1/2), 52-62.
  7. Xu, X. (2012). Cultural factors in EAP teaching—Influences of thought pattern on English academic writing. Cross-cultural Communication, 8 (4), 53-57.
  8. Chien, S. (2014). Cultural constructions of plagiarism in students writing: Teachers’ perceptions and responses. Research in the Teaching of English, 49 (2). 
  9. McLean, P. & Ransom, L. (2005). Building intercultural competencies: Implications for academic skills development. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Ed.), Teaching international students: Improving learning for all. New York: Routledge.
  10. Adhikari, S. (2018). Beyond Culture: Helping International Students Avoid Plagiarism. Journal of International Students, 8(1), 375-388.
  11. Howard, R. M. (2001). Forget about plagiarism: Just teach. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  12. Hudley, C.  & Mallison, C. (2014). We do language: English language variation in the secondary English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
  13. Simon, D. J. (2019). Cross-cultural differences in plagiarism: Fact or fiction. Duquesne Law Review, 57(1), 73-91.
  14. Thompson, L. W., Bagby, J. H., Sulak, T. N., Sheets, J., & Trepinski, T. M. (2017). The cultural elements of academic honesty. Journal for International Students 7(1), 136–153.