Here Are Some Methods Helping English Language Learners Avoid Plagiarism

Photo: Chrissine Rios/Scotland Cairns Flickr stream, Creative Common License

Photo: Chrissine Rios Flickr stream:

Sometimes instructors and tutors miss the mark when teaching students how to avoid plagiarism.  With a TurnItIn® report as evidence of the offense, plagiarism is treated as a matter of ignorance–of citation rules, the plagiarism policy, or the 80/20 principal, and for some students, some of the time, an overview of these conventions is all it takes for the students to apply the lessons in their revisions and get on track.

However, plagiarism can also be the unintentional result of faulty paraphrasing, and for many students, learning to paraphrase is more complex than simply putting text in their own words.  Assimilating a text takes strong reading skills, comprehension of the subject matter, an academic vocabulary, and time.   If one of these elements is missing, faulty paraphrasing will result.

English Language Learners, most of all, need time and help with their textual analysis in order to write about their research without unintentionally plagiarizing.

When English Language Learners haven’t had enough time to read and comprehend their research, especially when they are reading at more than one level higher than their own reading level, they may “[search] for written materials to find language adequate to express their ideas” (Hu, 2001 as cited in McDonnell, 2009, p. 6).  They will then string together the phrasing of multiple sources (mosaic plagiarism) or copy sentences directly and replace the words they can with their own (patchwriting) in order to “merge their voice with that of others” (Lankamp, 2009, p. 1).   The intent is not to cheat but to put forth the words that best convey what they think.

Helping ELLs and all students craft original sentences in response to a text therefore begins with helping them understand the text. Methods that work include:

  • During-reading strategies such as annotation and graphic organizers
  • During-research, one-on-one conferences: instructor-student, tutor-student, or peer-peer
  • During-research, small-group peer workshops

Each of these methods helps increase reading comprehension and build an academic vocabulary.

Providing students a course-content, academic vocabulary list with definitions or having students search for the definitions as part of an assignment will also better position English Language Learners for assimilating their research texts and introduce ELL students to collocations that they wouldn’t understand or know how to use without first seeing them modeled.  With this, an excellent blog post to share with graduate ELL students is 70 Useful Sentences for Academic Writing.  

Most importantly, when that TurnItIn® report identifies mosaic plagiarism or patchwriting, let that be an indication that this is likely unintentional plagiarism and remediation should begin further back in the writing process than with editing for compliance with APA guidelines.  Instead, the student would benefit from discussing the source texts and practicing paraphrasing in a peer group familiar with the subject matter as well as with a writing tutor.

Also, if revision is an option, some allowances should be made for the students’ authentic language abilities, keeping in mind that native speakers also began writing with simple sentences and small vocabularies, and only through more reading and more writing do writers acquire more sophisticated styles and advanced methods for avoiding plagiarism.


Lankamp, R. (2009). ESL student plagiarism: Ignorance of the rules or authorial identify problem? Journal of Education and Human Development, 3(1), 1. Retrieved from

McDonnell, K. E. (2003). Academic plagiarism rules and ESL learning—mutually exclusive concepts? Retrieved from

By Chrissine Rios, Kaplan University Writing Center

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