Some Problems Islamic Students Encounter When Writing in the West

February 21, 2012 By: Geraldine de Berly

wRAP-Up Volume 9, Issue 1 - March 2012

Note to Colleagues: This piece was written in 1986, hence the dated references. Nevertheless, it may still be applicable to current English as a Second Language (ESL) settings.

Clashes in culture are a normal part of the ESL classroom, and while differences between the backgrounds of both students and teachers often result in stimulating exchanges, there are occasions when profound differences will interfere with the foreign student's academic success unless s/he is willing to adapt.

Islam "is submission to God's will, and the Muslim is God's submissive servant" (Makdisi 1981, 73). Thus obedience and submissiveness are an essential part of a good Muslim's upbringing and the slightest inclination toward doubt is discouraged. Islamic learning has traditionally been based upon learning the laws of God through his representatives in a very institutionalized fashion; Islam is the law and the law is Islam.

For the Muslim living in his own country this submissiveness and unquestioning obedience to the laws of God is of no consequence, but for the Muslim who leaves his country and comes to a non-Islamic country where the system of law is based upon entirely different principles and in some cases where separation of church and state is stressed, the clash in philosophies is evident.

Students from Islamic countries, particularly countries that encourage orthodoxy often have great difficulty adapting to the writing requirements of North American and British universities. I do not refer to the English proficiency level, but rather approaches to critical and creative thought (as interpreted by Westerners) and the use of the essay as an expression of logical reasoning and argument.

In this paper, I will discuss examples of how these attitudes and beliefs can cause difficulties for Islamic students and how some of these difficulties can be overcome without offending or undermining the student's religion.

Some Problems Islamic Students Encounter When Writing in the West

Studies have shown that "semantic deviations are more likely to reduce the intelligibility and interpretability of utterances than are grammatical deviations" (Khalil 1985, 346). For the ESL teacher the implications are clear: not only must attention be paid to the teaching of syntax but also, and perhaps more importantly, the teaching of those meaning related skills that will enable the student to communicate effectively in English.

The teaching of writing skills through first correcting the grammatical errors, and dealing later with semantic difficulties, has long been traditional. There appears to be anecdotal support for the belief that native speaking faculty who mark essays by foreign students are more disturbed by errors in meaning than by grammar problems. The logical conclusion then is for ESL teachers to emphasize the communicability of ESL students' essays, as opposed to merely getting them to produce a grammatically error-free paper. This is precisely what many of us in ESL have been doing for a number of years.

In addition to semantic errors, it is my opinion that cultural differences further exacerbate the difficulties that non-Western foreign students face when writing in the United States, and this is particularly noticeable in those students of Islamic origin. Ingrained attitudes about what constitutes writing an essay and how to go about it often cause problems for these students. Many lack paraphrasing and synthesizing skills, which are essential for writing research papers and yet many of our students come to universities without them.

Islam "is submission to God's will, and the Muslim is God's submissive servant" (Makdisi 1983, 73). Thus obedience and submissiveness are an essential part of a good Muslim's upbringing and the slightest inclination towards doubt is discouraged. Islamic learning has traditionally been based upon learning the laws of God through his representatives in a very institutionalized fashion: Islam is the law and the law is Islam. Many Islamic students who have undergone and extensive study of the Koran, which involves an unquestioning acceptance of what is written, might run into obstacles when they meet the cynicism of Westerners regarding the printed word. Many of my students have great difficulty in synthesizing and then analyzing written texts. "College English skills require analysis and subordination of thought, Arabic requires synthesis and coordination" (Cowan 1978, 11). Cowan refers to the use of subordinate versus coordinate clauses in writing. He asserts that an Arab student will tend to use connectors such as ‘and' rather than using transitory words such as ‘therefore," which demonstrate a subordinate relationship in a sentence. North American academic writing tends to use subordinate clauses to achieve complexity of sentence structure.

On the face of it, it may appear that Cowan's point about Arabic requiring synthesis and coordination contradicts my view of the Arab students I teach. However, the majority of students who attend the ESL advanced composition course have not attended universities in their own countries and have, for the most part, come directly from high schools, having perhaps worked for a year or two. Therefore, they have not acquired even these synthesizing skills which Cowan expects from students who have been trained in home universities.

The use of the essay as an expression of logical reasoning and argument is a totally foreign concept to many of our Islamic students. They see the essay as an opportunity to ‘report' everything they have read, often taking huge chunks of text from the original source and presenting it as their own. This problem arises when students fail to understand the importance of using quotation marks. I have on more than one occasion pointed to a piece of prose which clearly could not have been written by the student and asked its source. Students often respond, "But, I wrote in the text that I was going to present so and so's ideas, do I have to keep repeating the author's name?" So the problem is not willful plagiarism but rather total misunderstanding that, in the West what is written is not unalterable and is not only perfectly open to interpretation, but interpretation is encouraged. Sources must always be given and properly credited.

Paraphrasing also causes problems as students need to understand that changing the odd word here and there and inserting a synonym does not alter a text sufficiently to warrant the term ‘paraphrase.' Plagiarism is a problem at North American universities and not just with foreign students. However, my assertion is that in most cases when dealing with Islamic students, plagiarism is not seen as a form of stealing, but rather an extension of the literal belief in the written word and in the effrontery of anyone who tries to criticize or change it.

Those are some of the problems. What then are the solutions? In our writing course, which is necessarily skill-based, we work on paraphrasing, synthesizing, and analytical skills by first doing short exercises which give the students practice in those tasks. The students must then write short essays of two pages on specific topics, and later write a 10 page paper by the end of the semester. Much time is given to individual conferencing with the student. The shorter assignments give the instructor time to get the papers back to the students for a rewrite. Rewrites are an essential part of the course and it often helps the student to overcome any organizational or semantic difficulties he is having. (Outlining is taught at the beginning of the term.)

Classroom writing is encouraged and students are often requested to show their writing to their classmates to further encourage more critical commentary. If a student tells another, "I'm sorry, I do not understand what you mean here," it usually triggers a spoken explanation that the student can then incorporate into his paper. Proofreading skills are encouraged, with penalties for reading a partner's essay perfunctorily and not providing helpful comments.

As a result of an exercise that I developed for a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop, I found that students could indeed learn to proofread relatively effectively with guidance from the instructor. They do not become perfect proofreaders and miss many grammatical and spelling errors, but what they do well is to point out semantic deviations: precisely the type of error that tends most to disrupt the native speaker's interpretation of a text. The instructor, therefore, picks up the syntactical errors while that students themselves work on analysis and interpretation. They are helped in this by the instructor's provision of checklists of questions that must be answered by the proofreader.

For the majority of the students, particularly those of Islamic origin, this will be the first time they have worked as a team to produce written work. The work they produce must be, and is, their own, but the concepts of proofreading; of second, third and even fourth drafts; of crediting sources; and of providing not only summaries but analyses, are firmly implanted by the end of the term. Naturally, the students need further practice, and for many it is a shame that these skills will not be required of them in their courses until their senior year. Many of my students claim that they do not have to write essays in their classes and are faced with multiple choice or short answer tests. I can only maintain my assertion that they will eventually need to be able to analyze texts and to express themselves well in written English.


Cowan, James W. 1978. "Factors influencing Arab and Iranian students in-country and in the United States." In Students from the Arab world and Iran, ed. Gary L. Althen. 1-13. Washington, D.C.: NAFSA.

Khalil, Aziz. 1985. "Communicative Error Evaluation: Native Speakers; Evaluation of Written Errors of Arab Learners." TESOL Quarterly, 19, 2: 335-351.

Makdisi, George. 1983. "Institutionalized Learning as a Self-Image of Islam." In Islam's Understanding of Itself, ed. Hovannisian and Vryonis. 73-88. Malibu, CA.: Undena Publications.

Thompson-Panos, Karyn, and Maria Thomas-Ruzic. 1983. "The Least You Should Know About Arabic: Implications for the ESL Writing Instructor." TESOL Quarterly, 17, 4: 609-623.

Scarcella, Robin C. 1984. "How Writers Orient their Readers in Expository Essays: A comparative study of Native and Non-Native English Writers." TESOL Quarterly, 18, 4: 671-687.

Additional Resources

AMIDEAST. 2006. Egyptian Education and Training for the Global Economy, Summary Report of the Proceedings of a Gala and Symposium Marking AMIDEAST's 50 th Anniversary in Egypt, Cairo, December 5-6, 2006. Summary Report.

Coombe, Christine, and Lisa Barlow, eds. 2007. Language Teacher Research in the Middle East. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL).

 Nydell, Margaret K. 2006. Understanding Arabs, A Guide for Modern Times , 4th ed.  Boston, MA: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Obst, Daniel, and Daniel Kirk, eds. 2010. Innovation Through Education: Building the Knowledge Economy in the Middle East. New York: Institute of International Education.

Olofsson, Gwyneth. 2004. When in Rome or Rio or Riyadh… Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Wells, Colin. 2003. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Saudi Arabia. New York: Marie Butler-Knight.

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