Teaching Writing to ESL Students


  Teaching composition to ESL students is like teaching someone how to drive a stick-shift on a car you love. Some students will probably choose the simplest routes, with the least chance for stalling on a steep incline, while others will lurch toward the highway, frantic to keep up with the rate they believe everyone else is driving. In any case, the teacher can't cringe when the car sputters to a stop from a 10 mph crawl, can't flinch when gears grind like an ogre's gnashing teeth. At the same time, that teacher does have to know when to stop a student from pulling a maneuver that could lead to a five-car pileup or send the car's engine into heat stroke.

  Below are some strategies for dealing with ESL students' needs. Much of the material is adapted from Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers by Ilona Leki, published by Boynton/Cook Publishers, and Chapter 7 of Writing in the Center: Teaching in a Writing Center Setting by Irene L. Clark.

Personal Influences on How ESL Students Learn to Write

Language Overload
International students will commonly backslide, making errors they had seemed to master on previous papers, because their knowledge of English (and how it interrelates with the language or languages they already know) is constantly shifting and stretching. A student may indiscriminately apply rules, writing "She cans do it" because he has learned that a third-person singular, present tense verb will have an "s" on the end. This can be frustrating for the teacher and the student, but it may (as long as the student tries to understand mistakes) be integral to language acquisition.


Gender Issues
Some female students may come from countries where women are not supposed to speak in a group of men unless addressed, while some male students may find it difficult to share power with female students in groups. Still other students may find a female teacher threatening or alien, not being used to women in authority positions.


Political Issues
Leki notes that some students may have negative feelings about America because of the effect of American foreign policy and business on their home countries. Some students may have experienced prejudice in America--for example, Iranian students were harassed during the hostage crisis, Iraqis during the Gulf War. Asians may feel other students are hostile toward them because of the stereotype of Asians as hard-working and competitive. Some students also may have experienced racism from instructors.


Cultural Issues
In reading for composition classes, international students face the obstacle of cultural assumptions that underlie many essays and stories. In literature, students may be baffled by Biblical symbolism that American students take for granted, or they may need a crash course in pop cultural history in order to decipher a compare/contrast essay on punk rock vs. heavy metal.

Some Issues to Keep in Mind

Students may be surprised by the level of informality in the classroom--they may feel students are challenging your authority when they eat during class or wear cut-offs and sandals. Your manner--sitting on the edge of the desk, using slang, swearing--may also surprise them.


Students may interrupt others during class discussions because the cues for taking turns in a conversation may be different in their home countries, and they may still be learning the cues here. Also, if they have been rehearsing how to phrase a response in their heads, they may want to get it out before they've forgotten how to say it.


Volunteering in Discussions
Students may be reluctant to volunteer answers or comments because they don't want to look as if they're trying to one-up native-speaking students.


Composition classes often emphasize considering one's audience, but ESL students may feel they don't know their audience's expectations or background.


Page numbers and dates may be difficult for some students to hear, so make sure to write them on the board or give them in writing in a hand-out.


Plagiarism and Cliches
The concepts of plagiarism and cliches may require some extra explaining, because in some cultures, notably Chinese culture, students learn by memorizing aphorisms and passages from classical literature, and they are encouraged to use other people's "words of wisdom" without formally quoting them. The concepts of "personal expression" and "finding your own voice" may strike some students as ridiculously egotistical, as in "Why should I write my opinions when this ancient thinker has already said it so much better?"


One-on-One Conferences
When discussing a paper with a student one-on-one, don't assume that the student understands because he or she nods or answers yes. Try to ask questions that require more than a one-word answer, and try to balance your talking with getting them to talk and ask questions of you. Choose an error in a paper that's representative of other errors, and after explaining that error, ask the student to find similar ones and talk about how to correct them.


Another important consideration is how you use humor in talking to the student. You may feel that smiling or making a joke about errors in a student's paper will help "lighten up" a grueling session, but many international students fear looking comical or "cute," and they may feel humiliated by jokes. The best strategy is to get to know the student before kidding around with him or her.


Types of Rhetorical Discourse
Cultural differences may come into play in terms of methods of developing ideas--Chinese students are often trained to "circle around a subject," and they consider explicitly spelling out an idea insulting to the reader, while a Spanish student who comes from a tightly-knit, family-oriented community may seem to over-generalize because he or she expects everyone to understand the context of his or her conclusions. No cultural generalization can cover each individual student, so the best strategy is to ask questions to gauge a student's familiarity and comfort level with American composition standards.

Some Guidelines for Commenting on ESL Students' Papers

Use a Holistic Approach
Irene L. Clark advises teachers to approach an ESL paper much as they would approach a native speaker's paper--looking at it holistically at first, in terms of focus, organization, development, and then moving on to grammar and coherence errors. Many teachers and ESL students become so fixated on usage that the writer's creative process gets short-changed.


Watch Your Words
Try to use non-idiomatic, complete sentences, and be especially aware of how you use critical words--a student once misinterpreted a teacher's comment that "it's a shame you didn't have more time to work on this paper" to mean that he should be ashamed of himself.


Rather than marking every grammar error in a paper, choose to focus on two or three important ones, while making it clear to the student that these are not the only problems, but the ones to focus on for now to build up to the next step. Make sure students understand this one-step-at-a-time approach, because they may feel cheated if they "fix" marked errors but do not see an instant rise in their grades.


Read for What Isn't There
Don't just count errors to judge the writer's language acquisition--also notice the types of sentences the writer avoids. For example, a lack of run-ons and dangling modifiers may not indicate improvement if the writer never takes a stab at coordinating and subordinating independent clauses.


Typical Errors Found in ESL Papers

  This list is adapted from Mark S. LeTourneau's "Typical ESL Errors and Tutory Strategies" in the Writing Lab Newsletter Vol. IX, 7 (March 1985), Ilona Leki's Understanding ESL Writers, and Diana Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual.

  Grammar Troublespots: An Editing Guide for Students by Ann Raimes is an inexpensive, well-organized workbook worth recommending to students. It's important to urge ESL students to have a good dictionary that lists the principal parts of verbs and to make sure they know how to use it.


1. Nouns
  • Omission of the -s plural (two university)
  • Pluralizing non-count nouns or nouns used in noncount sense (homeworks)
  • Using indefinite article a(n) with a noncount noun or a noun used in noncount sense (a flour, a wine is good to drink)
  • Failing to make nouns and noun determiners agree (this doctors, seven page)


2. Verbs
  • Omission of 3rd person singular "s" (he walk)
  • Omission of the "ed" of the simple past tense (Yesterday he play ball)
  • Omission of the "ed" in formation of passive voice (The scientists were honor for their work)
  • Use of intransitive verbs in passive forms (The earthquake was occurred last Friday)--verbs such as occur, happen, sleep, die, and fall often cause problems because they seem to have passive meanings even though they are intransitive.
  • Misuse of progressive verb forms (I am reading the paper every day, What are you wanting?)--it can help to emphasize that certain verbs expressing a state of being or mental activity are generally not used in the progressive sense. Examples include appear, believe, have, hear, know, like, need, see, seem, taste, think, understand, and want.
  • Misuse of perfect forms--while English uses present perfect to describe an action that began in the past and continues to the present, as in "I have been here for six months now," other languages would just say "I am here six months now." Other students may omit the -ed ending on the past participle: Many churches have offer shelter to the homeless.
  • Misuse of modal auxiliaries--Out of the twenty-three English helping verbs, nine, called modals, can only work as helping verbs. These are can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, and would; verbs that can be either helping or main verbs are forms of do, have, and be. Some students may have trouble coordinating helping and main verbs, but it can help to tell students that modal auxiliaries do not agree in number with the subject (He cans do it) and that modals are followed by base, not finite verb forms (He can does it)


3. Preposition Errors
Preposition meanings are highly idiosyncratic from language to language-- (I prefer to live in home, at the day of her arrival)


4. Articles
  • Failing to use a(an) with singular countable nouns whose specific identity is unknown to the reader (Mary Beth arrived in limousine)
  • Using a(an) with noncount nouns (a sugar, a furniture, a patience) Commonly used noncount nouns include words for food and drink (bacon, beef, candy, milk, pasta); nonfood substances (air, water, coal, snow); abstract nouns (advice, anger, intelligence, fun); and others (biology, clothing, luggage, homework, furniture, money, news, work)
  • Failing to use the with nouns whose specific identity is known to the reader (Gun on top shelf was loaded, Don't slam door when you leave)
  • Using the with plural or noncountable nouns meaning "all" or "general" (In some parts of the world, the rice is preferred to other grains.)
  • Using an article with proper nouns (the South America, the Lake Geneva)-- this can be confusing because some proper nouns do take an article (the Mississippi River, the Sahara Desert) The best strategy is to check the dictionary, an atlas, or an encyclopedia when in doubt.


Adverb Clauses
Misconstructing adverb clauses by using two conjunctions (Although international students need money, but they are not allowed to work in the U. S. )

  These certainly don't cover all the bases, but they do touch on some of the major errors you'll see cropping up in papers. More detailed discussion of strategies for dealing with these errors can be found in the original sources mentioned above, all of which are available at the Writing Center.


  ESL students challenge teachers to question their own assumptions about culture, writing, and how the English language works. Explaining the use of articles to a student from Iran, a teacher may actually realize something about the difference between "the" and "a" that he or she always took for granted--hearing a student from China complain that American writing teachers "want everything spelled out for them, like they are children," may inspire a teacher to question the rigidity of the three-point enumeration essay. With open-mindedness and patience, teachers can learn lessons from ESL students that will make them better teachers of every student.


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