Are students struggling with the language skills to use sources in their own writing?


One of the most important skills that non-native (and native!) writers need in American universities is paraphrasing. It’s also one of the most difficult to understand and put into practice. Academic ethics are becoming a hot issue on college campuses and the dialogue about plagiarism is bubbling over into the EAP field. At TESOL conferences, teachers often voice concerns about how and when to focus on this skill.

Start early. Start easy.

Teachers can begin studying the strategies of paraphrasing before they ever bring up the topic of academic honesty. In a Listening or Reading task, when we ask “What does that mean, in your own words?” we are, in effect, asking for a paraphrase in order to assess students’ full understanding of the material. Grammar or vocabulary instruction that focuses on rephrasing and rewording is also a building block for understanding how to manipulate language for effective writing.

For focused strategies that will help students build up to full paraphrasing, try these worksheets:

Contrast Words (pdf)

Cause and Effect Words (pdf)

Set the cultural scene.

When students are ready to begin using sources, they need to understand plagiarism. For many non-native English writers, this does not mean the same thing in America as in their own countries. Create a dialogue with your classroom, both to assess how much they know already, and to explore the cultural differences within the class. Remember that this is a mindset that American students also have to be taught, as they become participating members in the academic community.

Explain the full range of academic expectations for them when they enter the university, including consequences.  Describe the various causes of plagiarism, from intentional cheating to unintentional poor paraphrasing, and if you have some examples from past students, show them what you consider plagiarism, and what TurnItIn or SafeAssign reports look like. Students need to see both good paraphrasing, but also what poor paraphrasing looks like.

You can find resources for this at:

Turn It In

Plagiarism Checker

Mistakes are expected, respected, inspected, corrected.

Paraphrasing is hard. We don’t want students to avoid it by turning everything into a direct quote, however. Practice often and use mistakes as teachable moments. Ask students to paraphrase each other’s work, substitute vocabulary, summarize sources out loud, and other tasks that help them internalize these skills. Compare the whole class’s paraphrases, and if two of them are similar, that’s a sign that they may be copying from the original too much.

Many EAP programs are developing their own academic honesty policies that are in line with university standards. It’s important to build in a first-strike step in these policies. Often, the students who copy from a source are the best in the class, eager to demonstrate their thorough research and proud to display their respectable sources. When a plagiarism case comes up in tests or homework, explain why it’s unacceptable and help the student work through the necessary steps to fix it.