Put Some English On It

by Nancy Vazquez
This article has been re-published from our faculty newsletter, Writing Matters, Fall 2008
Helping students learn to write is never simple, but with students who aren’t native speakers of English, the task can be exponentially more complicated. For these students—typically referred to as ESL students for “English as a second language”—writing even a basic academic paper can be an arduous process.

Perhaps the most valuable thing you as an instructor can do to improve the writing of your ESL students is to focus first and foremost on their message, not their mistakes.

Most ESL students are understandably intimidated by writing in a different language and terribly leery of making mistakes. When you hone in on their errors, you often further undermine their limited confidence and do little to help them improve.

Instead, as you respond to your students’ drafts, think about your priorities for that assignment and focus your comments on how well they achieved those pedagogical goals. Then, rather than marking every error, you can point out general patterns of error or mark a few representative mistakes.

As you do so, keep in mind that not all errors are created equal. Many of the surface-level mistakes found in the writing of ESL students are only minor annoyances, the written equivalent of speaking with an accent. Common ESL errors include omitting or confusing the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” using the wrong prepositions in idiomatic expressions, and using incorrect verb tenses. These are the kinds of errors students will begin to correct themselves over time as they become more fluent in English. Fortunately, they’re also the kind of errors that do little to obscure the writer’s true meaning.

Of course, if you encounter errors significant enough that they do interfere with your understanding of the author’s meaning, you should point that out, asking specific questions and encouraging the writer to clarify things in the final draft.

Differing cultural attitudes about writing can also pose difficulties for ESL writers, who sometimes have very different assumptions about what constitutes “good” writing. They may use elaborate and flowery language, decline to state opinions directly, or borrow extensively from other sources without seeing a need for attribution.

Instructors need to be alert for such differences and can help clarify their expectations by providing writing models for students to use as a guide. Fortunately, using models will likely be helpful to all of your students.

In fact, many of the teaching techniques that most benefit ESL writers are good practices for any writing class. Such tactics include providing directions for your assignment both orally and in writing, offering opportunities for students to revise after receiving feedback, and giving students a chance to practice their writing with low-stakes assignments, such as reading journals or observations about their field work.

While it may sound obvious, it’s also important to be patient in dealing with ESL students. Becoming fluent in a language takes time, so you need to accept that your students may not make much apparent progress in a single semester-long course. That doesn’t mean your teaching can’t make a difference, but you and your students should have realistic expectations.

It’s also important to be patient in the more immediate sense. ESL students may take longer to frame their responses to questions, whether in class discussions or in a one-to-one conference about their paper. Don’t be afraid of silences. In fact, the more talking you’re doing about their writing, the less students are likely to be learning.

While writing can be a source of difficulty for ESL students, you can also use it to their benefit. If some of your students find it difficult to speak up in class due to their lack of fluency, assign some writing exercises that will help everyone prepare for class discussions. Or, ask students to conduct a discussion online, perhaps through blogs or a message board. That way ESL students won’t feel rushed to contribute, and other students can hear viewpoints different from their own.

Finally, make sure your ESL students are aware of available resources. They can come to the UWC for consultations, access our handouts online, submit papers to us online, or seek help from other online sources such as www.eslcafe.com.