115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Teaching L2 Digital Natives English Academic Writing: Insights from a 1,000-student Study into Their Use of Technology

David R. Albachten, Bogazici University

The term “digital natives” defined the generation born after the 1980’s, ostensibly comfortable and confident in using computers. Does this hypothesis survive examination?  A 1,000-student study of L2 English academic writing points to contradictions.  25% of the errors made by these students were preventable through the correct application of technology.  Their facility with computers also leads to plagiarism/documentation problems.  However, there are methods to teach-out these issues.


“Digital natives” was coined by Marc Prensky (2001, pp. 1) to define the generation born after the invention of the personal computer in 1981 (IBM Archives, 2017) and for the purposes of this study, Microsoft Word in 1983 (Microsoft History, 2017).  These digital natives use computers as casually and effortlessly as earlier generations built with Legos. 

However, one of the key insights collected from a 1,000-student, 8,700 paper study of L2 English academic writing students, all born after 1992, (started in 2011 at Istanbul Sehir University’s Academic Writing Center and on-going at Bogazici University’s Foreign Language Department) is how inadequately these students use computer technology.  Most English language learners (foundation year students), undergraduates, and even gradates (Master’s/PhD students) had difficulties properly setting Microsoft Word to assist them in simple correcting tasks (spell/grammar check).  As a result, 25% of the 121,000 errors they made in their papers were easily preventable.

On the other hand, these students’ facility with computers and search protocols can create other concerns.  The accessibility of online sources can initially lead to serious plagiarism/documentation issues.  Moving from opinion essays, where the student generates their own ideas/evidence, to documented research papers, where sources are required, can give rise to serious complications.  34% of the students in the study initially produced research paper first drafts that could lead to disciplinary action.

Fortunately, there are ways to teach these problems out.  At the lower levels, preparatory and freshman, providing the students with MS Word templates pre-set to spell and grammar check bring up the level of compliance.  After a few months, this spell/grammar check habit is engrained in the majority of students and the rate of spelling and simple correctable grammar errors drops from the third most common error to the least, dropping some 75%.  At the higher levels, requiring the paper to be setup properly before accepting the assignment can increase spell/grammar check compliance to 90%.  Also, using tools such as Turnitin®, which can be purchased with a robust spelling/grammar checker (ets e-rater®), through which students are required to submit their papers, can help enforce digital hygiene.

Plagiarism is a serious issue in academic research writing.  Documentation was one of the main areas of focus in the study.  Since 2014 in Turkey, all Master’s and PhD theses are required to be submitted with a plagiarism detection report before the degree can be awarded, it was the Academic Writing Center’s responsibility to control plagiarism for the graduate departments.  Both Turnitin and a stand-alone software, iThenticate, were used in the study.  Both software use the same detection engine and create identical documentation/plagiarism reports.

These reports were key to teaching students what plagiarism is and how to prevent it.  Running every documented paper through a plagiarism detection software and providing the report to the student clearly teaches the point.  The study showed documentation errors fell from 34% to 3% after one writing-reporting cycle.  And the incidence of documentation problems stayed at 3% or lower for the entire undergraduate and/or graduate career of students in the study.

Digital natives may seem facile with technology.  We “digital immigrant” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1) teachers might marvel at the student’s facility with WhatsApp, but when it comes to English academic writing, the old dog can teach the young some new tricks.


IBM Achieve (2017). http://www.ibmarchive.com

Microsoft History (2017). http://www.microsoft.com

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9:1-6