Editing the work of English language learners in higher education

by Summer Cowley

Two laptops open side by side facing right. Stack of papers in between them. A set of hands holding a pen pointing at the papers while another hand (belonging to another person) is also holding a pen pointed at the stack of papers. Image implies one person teaching or reviewing material with another person.
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

As classes in universities and colleges move forward, we ought to consider the process of editing the writing of post-secondary students. For me, this has largely meant checking the work of English language learners (ELLs). In my work as a writing centre tutor and as an English as a second language (ESL) instructor at four higher education institutions in Canada, I have noted two common pieces of advice given by instructors to ESL students and three higher-level concerns that editors might consider. ELLs are generally advised to use spelling and grammar software and to have their written work proofread by native English (L1) speakers/writers. For editors, a few higher-level questions may arise concerning the development of a writer’s voice, the question of how much editing is too much, and how editing for ELLs requires an approach different from editing for other groups. Below, I discuss how we might approach these issues when working with ELLs at post-secondary institutions.

Editing software

ELLs are often advised to use editing software (such as Grammarly) while simultaneously being told not to rely on it. In using editing software, one wonders whether the writers are learning through the correction process or simply accepting the suggested changes. As an ESL instructor, I was surprised that our ELLs were discouraged from using editing software to complete their take-home work. Since L1 writers regularly use editing software, banning ELLs from doing so seems unrealistic and unnecessary. It would be better to suggest that ELLs first try to write without the aid of software and then use editing software to identify recurring errors and learn how to correct them.

L1 English proofreaders

ELLs are often advised to have native English speakers read over their work for any errors. This suggestion assumes that ELLs have ready access to L1 colleagues who are available to proofread their writing and are willing to do so. This advice may or may not be accompanied by advice as to how an ESL student (especially if new to the country) might meet L1 peers whom they feel comfortable asking for assistance. The advice to ask for assistance from a native speaker may also be fruitless since there are many people who speak English as a first language who are not excellent writers. This concept should be raised during the editing process when necessary.

The writer’s voice

Although writers from any language background must work to identify their writing voice, ELLs have a more complex task. The voice with which a person writes in one language may differ greatly from that in another language. Even when language ability is considered, some words and phrases do not translate easily or at all between languages. Finding their voice when writing can be challenging for any writer. For writers moving between languages, there might be a conflict between their writing voice in their first language and their attempts to imitate the voice of a native speaker in another language. For many ELLs with whom I have worked, acquiring a “Canadian” voice while writing has been the primary goal rather than trying to maintain their natural voice when writing. As editors, we should help students develop their individual voice while also helping to further their English language ability through corrections and explanations.

How much help is too much?

The ELLs who frequented the writing centre where I provided tutorial support described their papers as falling into two categories: their “normal” papers and their “writing centre” papers. For these students, papers that had been through the writing centre process of reading, discussion, and revision appeared stronger than papers written unassisted. This encouraged the students to return to the writing centre for each new assignment. Although university/college writing centres generally focus on educating students instead of acting as copyeditors, it is often easier for peer tutors and instructors to simply make corrections rather than explaining the mistakes. Questions arise, similar to the issues with editing software, as to whether the ELL is learning from the editing process or simply accepting all the editorial suggestions.

Editing for ELLs vs. editing for a publication

Editing the work of ELLs in colleges and universities requires a very different approach from editing work during the publication process. When working with ELLs, the goal of editors should be to explain to the students why certain usages are correct or incorrect and to teach them how to improve their ability to identify errors. This process is more time-consuming and laborious than performing a copyedit as it means that editors must work at the speed of the students and complicated back-and-forth communications may be required to address simple issues.


ELLs are a significant population in Canada’s postsecondary institutions. Despite the potential benefits of the common advice for ELLs to use editing software and to ask a native speaker to proofread their work, higher-level concerns must be taken into account. Editors must nurture the voice of each writer, maintain the fine line between just enough help and too much, and acknowledge the differences between editing for ELLs and editing for other purposes. As the school year ramps up and as ELLs reach out for assistance, it may be helpful to budget greater amounts of time for editing their work and to think of the process as collaborative and educational rather than solitary and correctional. This will ensure that ELLs benefit from a more holistic writing and editing process.

Summer Cowley has worked in writing centres across Canada and is currently a Ph.D. student (Higher Education) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – University of Toronto.

This article was copy edited by Amanda Clarke.

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