ESL students’ essays are full of mistakes and hard to read. To improve their writing, we carefully plan our lessons to teach them how to write, correct their mistakes, and make them do all kinds of exercises. To our dismay, we found that their writing does not always improve much. Why? Well, there might be problems on our side. We may not be focusing on essential things that we should focus on.
Teaching them how to write is important, as is correcting the mistakes in their essays. However, one thing that is more important is that students must be given enough reading assignments. I saw some syllabi that require students to read only 50 pages one semester. That is probably not enough for any level. ESL students must be given enough, appropriate and interesting reading materials. Our experience tells us that when a student reads more, he or she will write better.
When we talk about writing, we often talk about the writing at discourse level. We talk about the organization of an essay, how to write an introduction and a conclusion, a thesis statement, coherence, and so on. This is definitely correct and it is what we should do when we teach writing, especially at high school and college levels. However, when it comes to ESL writing, we may have to deal with it differently. The writing problems of ESL students are different from the writing problems of students of native speakers. ESL students’ writing problems are mostly at sentence and word levels. They have problems with spelling, grammar, and word usage.
One big difference between ESL students and students of native speakers is that native students can speak English and ESL students cannot. When you can speak English correctly, generally you can write English correctly. The problem may be only how to organize sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into an essay. ESL students may have learned writing skills in their native language. They have ideas and know how to structure an essay, but their problems are grammatical errors. They don’t know how to write a sentence correctly.
For ESL students, we don’t need to worry about their writing skills at discourse level because they can be transferred from their native language. What they need help with is at sentence level. They need to learn how to write a sentence correctly. They should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from mistakes. They need to understand what sentence is wrong, and possibly why it is wrong. Once they learn how to write sentences correctly, they don’t need to be taught how to organize an essay because that knowledge can be transferred from their native language. -Ron Lee