Teaching Plagiarism and Citations to ESL Students: 8 Things to Consider

One of the most difficult aspects of preparing ESL students for college is getting them up to speed with citations and plagiarism. They’re still learning the language, but they must also learn how to correctly cite sources that they use, a skill that many of their native-speaking peers are still trying to master.

1. What plagiarism is and what the consequences are

“Plagiarism,” with its consonant clusters and soft g, is a hard word to pronounce, but as a concept, it’s not so difficult for students to understand. If your students have had any kind of formal education, they should know that it is not okay to copy another student’s work and pass it off as their own. Perceptions of plagiarism might vary depending on culture, but not as much as some have been led to believe.

Explain to your students what “plagiarism” means and have them do some practice picking it out. Purdue OWL has great resources for that (I’ll be referring to that website quite a bit).

From there, you can discuss the penalties for plagiarism. I’m not always a fan of scare tactics, but for a topic as potentially boring as citations, it helps to have a stick along with the carrot. When I teach the topic, I show my classes the university policy on plagiarism to let them know that it’s a serious issue. If your institution has something similar, you can do the same.

2. Explain why (and not just the negatives)

It’s helpful to have a discussion about the benefits of citations as well as the punishments for plagiarism. Some points to discuss:

  • Sources make your essay look more credible.
  • Also more professional.
  • Readers can find extra information about the topic.
  • It shows that the writer did their research.

3. What plagiarism isn’t and what Common Knowledge is

It’s a bit tricky to teach what should be cited versus what doesn’t need to be. Some students get nervous when they realize that they’ve learned almost everything they know about their topic from somewhere else…do they need to cite all that?

The key here is to teach what “common knowledge” is. Again, Purdue OWL has a great resource. Here are a few key points:

Common knowledge is

things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents)


generally-accepted facts, e.g., pollution is bad for the environment, including facts that are accepted within particular discourse communities, e.g., in the field of composition studies, “writing is a process” is a generally-accepted fact.

But students inevitably have the same question: “How do I know if something is ‘generally accepted?’ And what if I don’t know a certain myth or legend?”

Purdue OWL has the answer again:

[…] you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources.

4. How to find good sources

So now students know what they need to cite and why they should cite it. Time to start hunting.

Most internet-savvy students generally have a good sense of what sources are reputable, but it’s often helpful to have a quick discussion. Some points to consider:

Do use sources that are:

  • Recent
  • Well edited (no typos or formatting problems)
  • Well designed (not painful to look at)
  • From well-known institutions (government, universities, etc.)

Don’t use sources that are

  • Outdated
  • Amateur in editing and design
  • From commercial or independent websites (“Uncle Bob’s Facts about the US Guverment”)

5. How to choose information and quotes

The best source in the world won’t help a writer if there isn’t any information to support their thesis. It’s very important that students understand that. Everything that they find needs to be connected to their essay.

For this reason, it’s often best to have students write their thesis statement and topic sentences out before they start hunting for support. Especially with ESL students, who can misunderstand the information they find, it’s very important to stay focused on only what is relevant.

Once appropriate support is found, it needs to be incorporated appropriately as well. A statistic or quote could help support the thesis, but it should also be put in the right place and connected to the rest of the essay with transition words. Teach your students about paragraph unity and how every sentence within a paragraph needs to be connected to the same topic (Here is a good exercise for that). They could have a great statistic about literacy rates in Canada, but it won’t help them if their essay is about pollution in Chile.

6. MLA, APA, or Chicago

The different citation styles can be overwhelming – mostly for the teacher. In general, don’t stress out too much. Teach your class the one that you’re most comfortable with. However, if you do have a certain group of students who are all studying in the same field, you might want to choose the citation style they are likely to use. Purdue OWL has information comparing the big three.

7. In-text Citations and Works Cited

Once you’ve got a style you want to use, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty with in-text citations and Works Cited pages. Again, Purdue OWL comes to the rescue.

My students always have trouble with this. Almost every time I teach citations, no matter how much time spent on explaining the distinction between the in-text citations and Works Cited, there is at least one student who puts at least a partial (but sometimes entire) Works Cited entry right in the middle of his/her essay. It just takes several examples and sufficient practice (see point 8).

Another option for the Works Cited page is to use an online citation builder like Citation Machine. Some students have heard about these from their friends or will find them anyway, so there’s no point in hiding them and forcing students to make their Works Cited pages from scratch. In fact, getting it out the open can lead to better results. Citation Machine doesn’t always do a good job of automatically filling in Works Cited entries. For example, it will locate something bizarre as the author’s name, or not reverse the first and last name (e.g. “JOHN SMITH” instead of “Smith, John”). It helps to show students an example of bad output so they can see the problem and address it pre-emptively.

8. Practice, practice, practice (with feedback)

Most native-speaking students won’t cite everything correctly on their first try. Since ESL students have the additional hurdle of not knowing every word in a source, they are especially prone to making mistakes.

For practice, I think it’s best to start with just one paragraph that includes only one or two in-text citations and Works Cited entries. If students try to incorporate everything they learn about citations into a longer, more complete essay, it tends to get very messy and confusing. Start small and simple so that they understand the basics of in-text citations and Works Cited pages, and work your way up from there.

I’ve found that students learn these skills by doing them, receiving feedback from the teacher, and then doing them again. So, like with all language skills, practice is essential.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Dan4th Nicholas

3 thoughts on “Teaching Plagiarism and Citations to ESL Students: 8 Things to Consider

  1. It would be very helpful if you mentioned what age group of students you have in mind for these lessons and how much time it would take to teach all these skills. The points you have made are, for example, not appropriate for grade 6 students. They want to be prepared for college, but are not developmentally at the stage of in-text citations. As well, I would suggest co-planning or co-teaching with your school librarian, if you are working in a secondary school. We actually have lots of experience teaching these topics. If you want to use the BEST citation builder I have found, go to this site: http://secondary.oslis.org/cite-sources/mla-secondary-citation

    1. Hi Lynne – sorry about that. These are adult students who are seeking to enter university. The amount of time ranges depending on the group of students. Usually we spend a week of five hour-long classes to learn the basics, and then continue to practice as needed throughout the semester.
      Thanks for your insight on teaching this to younger learners, and thanks for the link to the citation builder!

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