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Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
Peer-Reviewed Article
ISSN: 2162-3104 Print/ ISSN: 2166-3750
Online Volume 7, Issue 3 (2017), pp. 764-785
© Journal of International Students
doi: 10.5281/zenodo.570033
Strategies to Address
English Language Writing Challenges Faced by
International Graduate Students in the US
Swathi Ravichandran
Kent State University, USA
Mark Kretovics
Kent State University, USA
Kara Kirby
Global Ambassadors Language Academy, USA
Ankita Ghosh
Education for Innovation, Inc, USA
Since 2000, there has been a 72% increase in the number of international
students attending US institutions of higher education. The increase,
specifically of international graduate students, has brought to light the
writing challenges experienced by this population of students. This study
explored specific writing challenges experienced by international graduate
students and determined strategies to alleviate these challenges. Interviews
were conducted with 15 international graduate students representing a
variety of geographic backgrounds and disciplines. Responses revealed that
writing challenges faced related to grammar and vocabulary, organization
and flow of ideas, critical thinking, and plagiarism. Participants offered
specific suggestions on how subject-matter faculty, friends, and peer
mentors could assist in improving English-language writing skills.
Implications for higher education institutions are discussed.
Keywords: ESL, international student, writing challenges, English, graduate
number of English-language writing challenges faced by international
students including issues with grammar, vocabulary, plagiarism, linguistic
fluency and accuracy (Storch, 2009) have been widely reported in the
literature. Past studies have focused specifically on East Asian and Middle- 764 –
Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
Eastern students, a growing population in US educational institutions for
whom such barriers are more profound (Longerbeam, DeStefano, & Lixin,
2013; Poyrazli, Arbona, Bullington, & Pisecco, 2001). As a result of these
challenges, international students experience isolation and lack of belonging
and unfair perceptions (Hanassab, 2006) or underestimation of their
academic ability (Choi, 2006).
Language proficiency contributes heavily to the success of
specifically, international graduate students (Andrade, 2006). This is
because graduate programs typically have a significant capstone writing
requirement such as a thesis or a project with more intensive writing
expectations. Therefore, the impact of any shortcomings in Englishlanguage writing skills is exacerbated among international graduate students
as the writing expectations are much higher compared to undergraduate
Despite there being a positive correlation between strong writing
skills and academic achievement (Andrade, 2006), the literature with respect
to support needed for academic writing for students whose first language is
not English is sparse. As Zhou, Frey, and Bang (2011) recommended,
schools should survey international graduate students and hear their voices
in order to understand their academic needs. Andrade (2006) added that
success factors of international students should be determined through
interviews and focus groups and not just GPA and retention rates. Hence,
the objectives of this qualitative study are two-fold: (a) To gain an
understanding of the nature of English-language writing challenges faced by
international graduate students in the US whose first language is not
English; and (b) to determine strategies that could be utilized to improve
English-language writing skills for international graduate students whose
first language is not English. Findings from this study provide for a more
thorough understanding of writing challenges from the perspective of
international graduate students and also provide subject-matter instructors
(as opposed to only English-language instructors) with a list of strategies
that can be implemented in the classroom to address writing challenges.
Enrollment of International Students in US Colleges and Universities
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of
international students studying in US universities has been increasing for
nearly a decade (Redden, 2014). During 2013-14, there were nearly
886,052 international students in the US. Compared to 2012-13, there was
an 8.1% increase in 2013-14; much of the increase was driven by students
coming in from China which was up 16.5% and Saudi Arabia which was up
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Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
21%. To put things in perspective, since the year 2000, there has been a
72% increase in international student enrollment in the US.
Enrollment of international graduate students also continues to
increase. The Council of Graduate Schools reported a 10% increase in the
number of applications from international graduate students from 2013 to
2014 (Redden, 2015). During 2013-14, applications from graduate students
from India and China represented 67% of all international applications
received (Redden, 2015). Geographically, all four major regions in the US
(West, Midwest, Northeast, and South) saw an increase in the enrollment of
first-time international graduate students (Kent, 2013). With respect to field
of study, while physical and earth sciences together accounted for 47% of all
international graduate student enrollment in 2013, there was an increase in
several other fields including Arts & Humanities, Business, Education, and
Social Sciences (Kent, 2013).
The rationales for recruitment of international students in US
campuses are plenty, a primary reason being economic. As the Midwest and
Northeast regions of the US continue to experience a decline in the number
of high school seniors (Martin, 2013), international student enrollments are
an essential source of revenue for post-secondary institutions (Andrade,
2006). International students also contribute to intercultural education and a
greater understanding of diversity and global issues in the classroom
(National Association for Foreign Student Advisors [NAFSA], 2003). In
addition, universities with a large global presence often have several cultural
events where international students share their food, traditions, dressing
norms, and music with their US counterparts. Although there are numerous
benefits to having students from other countries in US classrooms,
institutions should recognize academic difficulties and offer appropriate
English-language Challenges Faced by International Students
Spurling (2007) stated that universities tend to see international
graduate students as “subject learners” and ignore the fact that they are also
“culture and language learners” (p.114). Graduate students from specific
countries have reported feeling apprehensive about speaking with native
English speakers due to language deficiencies (Ranta & Meckelborg, 2013).
Choi (2006) concluded after interviews with 14 Asian graduate students
enrolled in an American university that participants struggled with writing,
speaking, and listening. This led to unfair perceptions or underestimation of
their true academic abilities (Choi, 2006). Hanassab (2006) stated that a
sense of isolation and lack of belonging was highest among Asian, Middle
Eastern and African students (both graduate and undergraduate) compared
to international students in western universities from other parts of the
world. Liu (2011) added that East Asian graduate students faced more
– 766 –
Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
significant language barriers in English-speaking countries due to a larger
gap between their native language and culture and English.
Existing tests and language support services available to
international students seem to be inadequate. Although students must obtain
minimum scores in English proficiency tests such as Test of English as a
Foreign Language (TOEFL) and International English Language Testing
System (IELTS), these tests do not always reflect actual proficiency needed
to matriculate to succeed in graduate-level subject coursework (Schmidt &
Gannaway, 2007). There is also further need for language training despite
meeting minimum scores in English proficiency tests because students are
asked to debate ideas and critique viewpoints and they do not feel prepared
to do so (Schmidt & Gannaway, 2007). Language fluency, accuracy
problems, and issues with grammar and vocabulary also continue after a
semester of study in English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes. Kim
(2006) found that matriculated ESL students struggle with formal/academic
language communications when they enter content classrooms. In one of a
handful of studies focusing on English-language writing skills, Storch
(2009) employed a test-re-test design to measure changes in academic
writing after one semester of ESL classes. While the learners’ writing did
improve in terms of structure and content development, there was no
improvement in fluency, grammatical accuracy, and use of academic
vocabulary (Storch, 2009). Plagiarism also continued to be a problem.
Storch (2009) also found out that instructors did not correct incorrect
citations. In addition, instructors did not seem concerned about errors in
writing of non-native speakers (Storch, 2009).
Communication Including Writing
It is not enough to simply admit international students and expect
them to automatically adjust to a new culture and educational system
without relevant programming and support (Andrade, 2006). “If we want to
attract and retain international students to our university campuses, we must
focus on the students’ needs and successes in the American university
experience” (Lacina, 2002, p. 26). Support services that can be offered by
universities to alleviate transitional challenges faced by international
students do not necessarily need to involve new budgets or programs, but
rather can be a result of redesigning existing programs and offering
additional training to support services personnel (Andrade, 2006)
Sloan and Porter (2009) stated that it might be beneficial to place
English for Academic Purposes (EAP) tutors within specific program areas
to provide discipline-specific writing support. This type of physical
placement within the academic unit would also allow for support sessions on
the student’s timetable. On a similar note, Andrade (2006) suggested
– 767 –
Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
offering content-based ESL courses. Ng (2008) also recommended that ESL
staff collaborate with academic staff to develop tailor-made courses for
students in specific disciplines.
Storch (2009) stated that the single most effective element for
improvement of writing skills was to provide feedback on writing. The
author suggested affording students the opportunity to submit a draft-inprogress so feedback can be provided before the final draft is submitted.
Social immersion at home, university, work and community has been
suggested to overcome English-language challenges. Rochecouste, Oliver,
Mulligan, and Davies (2011) recommended that students join social groups;
the authors suggested that names of such organizations and relevant events
for students to participate in be included in syllabi.
Liu (2011)
recommended that foreign students live with native-English families or
other international students who speak other languages and come from other
cultural backgrounds. Interaction with host nationals has been linked to a
feeling of ease and comfort resulting in being better able to express oneself
(Moores & Popadiuk, 2011). Although universities do engage in offering
social adjustment programs, Rose-Redwood and Rose-Redwood (2013)
stated that such programs could be more effective if they abandoned the
assimilist doctrine of adjustments and instead promoted mutual engagement
not just between foreign nationals and host nationals but also amongst the
diverse foreign nationals. There may however, be challenges associated
with attempts made at social immersion. For example, upon surveying
Chinese students, Longerbeam et al. (2013) found that Chinese students
perceived that US students were not interested in them when they sought
friendships with US peers.
Group work also had an impact on improving English
communicative competence. For example, Xue (2013) concluded based on
interviews with 14 Chinese graduate students that group work improved
participants’ grammatical competence, sociolinguistic and strategic
competence in English. Other suggestions that have been made to improve
English-language communication skills or specifically writing include: (a)
using technology tools such as electronic dictionaries or recommending
specific websites such as www.grammar.com (Kasapoglu-Akyol, 2010);
providing additional time for completing academic tasks (Khawaja &
Stallman, 2011); offering a pre-departure course focused on reading and
writing (Yates & Trang, 2012); peer mentoring and role model programs for
newcomers (Huang, 2012); and offering online classes as this delivery mode
may allow for improvement of writing skills as it allows the opportunity to
edit and revise before posting online (Tan, Nabb, Aagard, & Kim, 2010).
Little research has been published on language-learning experiences
of international graduate students (Liu, 2011) despite advantages such as
increased confidence and improved academic achievement (Andrade, 2006).
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Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
After reviewing 58 journal articles on international graduate student
development, learning, and experiences including those related to Englishlanguage learning, Renn, Brazelton, and Holmes (2014) stated that little new
knowledge has emerged about students’ adjustment to the host country.
Arkoudis and Tran (2010) stated that views of students and lecturers
regarding strategies they use to develop academic writing within the
discipline is lacking in existing literature. Much of the existing research
focuses on supporting ESL students. However, typically, universities
position ESL as a service area that is separate from the core business of
disciplinary teaching and learning (Arkoudis & Tran, 2010).
Given the gap in literature with respect to English-language writing
challenges faced by international graduate students while the number of
these students continues to grow, the following research questions are
explored in this study:
1. What English-language writing challenges are faced by international
graduate students in the US, whose first language is not English?
2. What strategies could be utilized by instructors and at the
department and institution levels to improve English-language
writing skills for international graduate students in the US, whose
first language is not English?
This is a qualitative study (Merriam, 2009: Patton, 2002) seeking to better
understand the writing challenges experienced by international graduate
students and how those students believe the challenges faced can be
addressed. The use of qualitative methods meant data were gathered in a
natural setting (i.e., university); a human instrument was utilized for data
collection (i.e., researcher); qualitative methods were used to collect data
(i.e., in-depth interviews); and inductive data analysis was used (Lincoln &
Guba, 1985).
Participant Recruitment and Administration
Prior to participant recruitment, approval of the higher education
institution’s Institutional Review Board for research on human subjects was
obtained. A list of international graduate students enrolled in a program of
study was obtained from the office serving international students and
scholars on campus. Individuals from the list were then contacted to
participate in the study, with purposeful efforts made to obtain diversity
with respect to field of study and countries represented. In order to
participate in the study, students should have fulfilled the following criteria:
(a) the medium of instruction should have been a language other than
English during high school and undergraduate education; (b) the duration of
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Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
stay in the US should be three years or less; (c) the degree pursued should be
tied to a specific major (as opposed to students enrolled exclusively in ESL
In-depth interviews are appropriate when the research is trying to
gain a holistic understanding of a specific issue from the interviewee’s point
of view (Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2011). Hence, this study utilized in-depth
interviews as the goal was to explore English-language writing challenges
faced by international graduate students and their perceptions of strategies
that can be utilized to improve English-language writing skills. Sample
interview questions include:
1. Please describe how you feel about the writing expectations in
graduate school?
2. What challenges related to English-language writing did you
3. Please describe your understanding of plagiarism?
4. Please discuss what you think about the feedback you receive from
your instructors on writing assignments.
5. What support services do you think need to be implemented in the
classroom by the instructor to improve your writing skills?
6. What services do you think specific offices within the university
should provide to help international students whose first language is
not English, improve their writing skills? Offices may include:
Office of Global Education, ESL programs, Library, Academic
Support Services, etc.
7. How would you feel about ESL-instructors being placed within each
department to assist with improving subject-specific Englishlanguage writing skills?
Data were collected through 15 in-depth one-on-one interviews,
which were conducted with international graduate students. Data collection
ceased when the moderator started to hear the same responses (Silver,
Stevens, Wrenn, & Louden, 2012). The interviews were semi-structured in
nature and an open conversational style (Clough & Nutbrown, 2007) was
adopted to enable exploration of reasons, feelings, opinions, and beliefs
(Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). Interviews lasted between 40 and 55 minutes. To
ensure confidentiality, participants were advised not to disclose any
identifying information during the interviews. Participants received a $25
gift card to one of two retail establishments in appreciation for their time
and effort.
Participant Profile
As recommended by Ritchie and Lewis (2003), important
contextual information was collected from all participants at the beginning
of the interview (see Table 1). The 15 participants represented 11 countries
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Journal of International Students, 7(3) 2017
and 11 different fields of study. Participants’ fields of study included
Geography, Chemistry, Business Administration, Translational Studies,
Early Childhood Education, Public Health, Physics, Higher Education
Administration, Curriculum and Instruction, Psychology, and Clinical
Mental Health Counseling. As it was a criterion to participate in the study,
the medium of instruction was not English in high school or
during undergraduate education for any of the participants.
However, all participants had enrolled in English-language classes in
their home country. Duration of study in the US ranged from seven months
to three years and 10 out of the 15 participants were female. Three of
the 15 participants had enrolled in ESL classes for one to four
semesters in the US. Seven participants held part-time employment
either as a graduate assistant or intern working 20 hours a week.
Ten participants reported that they belonged to a student organization.
Data Analysis
All interviews were audio-recorded upon obtaining the participant’s
permission (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2011). At t …
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