Commenting on Content

Content: Ideas/Details

Students may come from a writing tradition in which the main point is implied rather than stated directly, as may be the link between evidence and argument. While this is both a structural and content difference, letting students know that this information is expected and necessary by pointing out the lack of detail at the place it happens is vital to their learning and understanding of content needs. Students may also be reluctant to give their own opinions or analysis of others' arguments, but again, this is a clear expectation in most US academic writing to demonstrate their understanding.

Another important aspect is students use of source materials, both in their ability to clearly differentiate their ideas or analysis from those of their sources and in choosing adequate and appropriate information from sources as well as relevant and legitimate sources. Giving direct feedback on where this differentiation is unclear, or where sources are suspect, or where information is inappropriate is a first step to help students find the right path. Giving clear suggestions or modeling what is needed or asking questions about how sources and arguments are linked and/or what they are saying can show students the gaps that need to be filled in the content of their writing.

Content: Language

Instructors may need to highlight the different “language” required for students to be successful in an American academic context, particularly when terminology, certain verb tenses and sentence structures, and voice choices are expected. The more explicit an instructor is with comments and examples, the more likely a student will be to adopt those aspects in his/her own writing. If a student is using very indirect or passive language or sentence constructions, pointing this out and giving an example can guide the student to make changes elsewhere. For example, if a student writes the following as his/her thesis statement:

"It is thought that because video games have been proven to lead to violence they should not be sold to minors."

An instructor would want to point out that a more direct construction is expected, such as, "Video games have been proven to lead to violence and therefore should not be sold to minors" or, "Video games lead to violence and should not be sold to minors." Highlighting the idea for students that they are becoming fluent in more than one academic "style" may also help them to more readily adopt the language and conventions of US academic writing.

To help students learn to communicate using clear, academic language, instructors can offer alternative wording and/or explain why a certain term, word form, or cliché is not generally appropriate in academic writing.

Non-native speaking students who have learned English by "ear" (such as immigrants) more than by "eye" (international students) may need to be told specifically that in academic writing forms/words like: gonna, stuff, a lot, kind of, totally, kids, guys, super ______, etc., are usually only found in casual spoken or written communication.

The terminology of the discipline should also be highlighted in a variety of examples so that students become familiar with how and when it is used.

Content: Citation and Attribution

Whether a discipline uses MLA, APA, or another referencing system, providing students with examples on a regular basis and revisiting citation practices throughout a course can help to ensure that tudents apply those standards to their own work. Commenting at the point of error in one or two examples within a student's writing and then asking the student to check the remaining citations is efficient, and puts the responsibility on the student. To help students understand that every paraphrased sentence needs some form of attribution and citation, a variety of attributive phrases and examples can be given to them and shown in use as in the following example:

"According to Stevens, the bee population is declining due to pesticides. But he also points out that mites have played a role in this decline. Furthermore, he believes that there are unknown factors contributing to the problem, as well, and argues that scientists need to look beyond what is already known to solve it (52). While Paulson agrees that there are likely unknown factors decimating the bee population, she argues that by focusing on what is already known and finding ways to combat them, we can restore close to 85% of the bee population, which would ensure a healthy level of pollination (30)."

Armed with such language, students can pull together ideas from the same source and also better synthesize information from a variety of sources.