Stopping Plagiarism Before It Becomes a Problem

When Students Use Some Else’s Words: Fighting Plagiarism at the Secondary Level

We usually know plagiarism when we see it. Our students submit something that shows much stronger grammatical skills and higher-level vocabulary than they seem capable of, and it only takes a phrase entered into Google to find those exact words written somewhere else. And, let’s be honest, the plagiarized paragraphs usually come from Wikipedia.

While all teachers are disappointed when they get a clearly copied assignment, our profession has to take a unique approach to solving this problem. English language learners rarely plagiarize because they think they are cleverer than the teacher or out of laziness. Rather, their reasons include everything from fear of making mistakes to a lack of understanding what a serious academic offense plagiarism is in the United States of America.

Secondary ESL/ELL teachers are in the perfect position to keep copying from becoming a bad habit. If we don’t take this opportunity, any of our students who move onto the college level will get a crash-course on it there—and they may face more harsh consequences than anything a high school principal can implement.

1. Emphasize why plagiarism is bad. The key word here is “emphasize.” Your students may have been told that they shouldn’t just copy, but do they really understand that? In some cultures, recitation and rote memorization are more valuable skills than critical thinking and coming up with your own answers (Schrock, 2013). In American academia, the goal is to have students find information, note where it came from, and then apply it to support a thesis. We value critical thinking and analysis of other ideas, which go far beyond cutting and pasting them.

2. Teach quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing as discrete skills. The goal is for students to use all three of these skills in a single paper, but in my experience it’s better to first show students how to reword an idea while attributing the source, condense information into a paragraph, and finally using the author’s words with proper attribution when it will have the most effect. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has some great resources to help you develop sample activities for any class.

3. Develop a rubric that clearly defines your expectations. Writing in a different language can be intimidating, and that alone can be enough to make students who lack confidence in their language ability start copying (Wilkinson, 2008). You need to show your students that they stand to lose fewer points by making lots of mistakes in their own words than by copying someone else’s perfect prose. That’s not to say you can’t focus on some forms you’d like students to focus on, like capitalization or complete sentences, but the main goal should be on having students produce content and make an effort to attribute any facts they find to the appropriate source.

By following these guidelines, you can make students understand why plagiarism is wrong, how they can avoid it while using information, and what you expect of them at each step. It may take a few drafts and several progressively more challenging assignments to develop their skills, but by the end the students should feel like they are capable of writing in their own words. Oh, and remember to keep Googling any suspicious phrases at any step of the process—you have to make it a habit to keep students from developing bad habits.



Gerwash, G. M., & Nall, S. (2013). Plagiarism and ESL writers: An overview. Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Retrieved from

Schrock, J. R. (2013). China vs. America: Quality, plagiarism, and propaganda. University World News, 275. Retrieved from

Wilkinson, L. R. (2008). ESL academic writing and plagiarism. The Internet TESL Journal, XIV(7). Retrieved from

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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2 Responses to Stopping Plagiarism Before It Becomes a Problem

  1. Andrew Gamm says:

    Thank you for the post. Just want to share a nice resource with everything about plagiarism, its types and consequences of plagiarism.
    Here is the link

  2. Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

    Awesome post. There are definitely some times that I could have handled plagiarism better. I love the idea of building it right into your scoring rubric.

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