ESL students and plagiarism

This page explains why some ESL students may plagiarise and what teachers can do to help them avoid it.


The rise in the use of the Internet as a source of research material has no doubt led to an increase in plagiarism, and not only among ESL students. Some web sites even offer to provide students with complete essays or reports on a particular topic.

@@ While most students will be aware that lifting a whole essay is academically and intellectually dishonest, there is no such consensus on the cutting and pasting of smaller chunks of text up to the sentence level. ~~

It is important that mainstream teachers understand the reasons why this practice may be widespread among the ESL students in their classes. They should also be aware of the various strategies that can preclude the temptation to plagiarise.

Why do ESL students plagiarize?

In my experience, @ plagiarism by ESL students is rarely as a result of laziness or the inability to think for themselves. ~ If they find part of a text that conveys the information that they wish to convey or expresses the idea that they wish to express, it is not surprising that many will simply copy the passage into their own work.

Some of them do not have good enough English to express themselves to their own satisfaction in their own words. Or they feel they haven't been given enough time to do so. They may prefer to plagiarise rather than lose face Copying another student's homework is another form of plagiarism. Often the student who has done the homework is a friend of the one who hasn't. The former may wish to avoid the latter losing face. Hence the agreement to the request to copy. by turning in what they consider is an inferior piece of work

Others may believe that it is showing respect to the author if they use his or her words without changing them. Many of them have no idea that copying without attribution will be regarded by most of their teachers as a kind of cheating.

What can be done to help ESL students avoid plagiarism?

There are several approaches that may help to reduce the incidence of plagiarism:

  • Make sure that students know the word plagiarism, what it means and what the school policy is on it. A typical plagiarism policy is stated as follows:
    "When a student uses the written or published work of another person, he or she must state or quote the source from which the material is taken. Any student deliberately taking another's idea, writing or work and passing it off as his or her own, is subject to failure on the piece of work or the term in which the work was done."
  • Have students practise note-taking skills. Require them to write the first draft of their reports etc. from notes without referring to the original. They can then use the original to include quotes that will help support their ideas or arguments, rather than be the sole basis of them.

    In ESL writing, for example, I allow students to include phrases that they have found. But I do not accept complete sentences, unless they are surrounded by quotation marks. And of course, the students must cite their sources in the bibliography.

  • Help ESL students understand that the process is often more important than the product. Particularly in the lower grades it is possible to reward (grade) an original piece of work higher than a more accomplished piece of writing that has been plagiarized.
  • Practice with students when and how to cite or quote, when and how to paraphrase. Show them examples in the readings they must do. Insist that they follow the guidance set out in the school's style guide.
  • Discuss plagiarism with students as an example of cultural differences, which include eye contact in class and responding to teachers' questions.


@@@ It is the school's responsibility to ensure that all students are reminded at the beginning of each year of its plagiarism policy. ~~~ Mainstream teachers assigning major written tasks should also make sure in each case that students are aware of what constitutes plagiarism.

ESL teachers also need to play their part by discussing the issue in ESL class and giving students the opportunity to practise the various plagiarism avoidance skills.

Read my advice to learners on avoiding plagiarism.