Shelley Reid .


Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
Working with ESL/ELL Students


(Some material here has been adapted from chapters in J. Reid and P. Byrd, Grammar in the Composition Classroom.)


Colleges nationwide are seeing an increase in students who speak languages other than English as their native language -- the traditional designation for these students is "ESL" or English as a Second Language, but scholarship in the area also now refers to such students as English Language Learners (ELL), as non-native speakers of English (NNS) or as Multiple Language Learners. ("L1" is commonly used to refer to a person's native language, while "L2" refers to an additional language someone speaks.)

While some schools have the resources and preferences for creating separate writing courses for non-native speakers of English, more often -- by necessity or by preference -- they take the same writing classes as other students at their schools. (See articles by Matsuda and Silva regarding the "mainstreaming" of NNS students in writing classes.)

These students share some challenges as they join a writing class with native-speakers (NS) of English, but they cannot be identified in a single bloc. Some some are temporary immigrants who have studied English abroad, while some are resident immigrants who have graduated from US high schools. Their successes are determined also by their overall educational level, their formal English-language preparation, the amount of time they have spent in an English-speaking culture, and the challenges posed by switching from their individual native language to English.

Writing teachers should thus be on the lookout for broad strategies that might help a wide range of writing-learners, and also be attentive to different needs that individual students may have. In response to a high sentence- and word-level errors in the writing of NNS students, writing teachers should both "read around" the less-serious errors to help students develop competent organizational and argumentative strategies, and help students learn to identify error patterns, leave extra time for editing, and develop a range of other long-term coping strategies.

In addition, Faculty should...

Prepare for some key challenges of working with ESL writers in the writing classroom:

  • adapting to cultural differences, including differences in attitudes about rhetorical approaches or writing processes, differences in ideas about what topics are appropriate for public writing, differences in interactive styles in the classroom

  • encouraging class participation across cultural boundaries

  • adapting to various speaking vs. comprehension vs. writing proficiencies

  • addressing challenges of "grammar" and editing for Standard Edited American English (SEAE)


Consider the different needs of "eye-learners" (international ESL students, L2) and "ear-learners" (resident ESL students, L1.5)

International students: Cultural challenges

  • students may experience culture shock, may have to adapt sophisticated cultural knowledge to a new setting, may need to change culturally-appropriate student-behaviors (question-asking, group work)

  • students may be aware of and experienced with culturally-different rhetorical styles: they may know that "good writing" should be inferential rather than directive, be objective rather than personal, or include statements of the author's opinion/argument only after all evidence has been presented

  • students may have more advanced educational backgrounds, better generalized reading skills, and/or lower spoken/written fluency and oral comprehension than other students in the class

  • students may bring different expectations about rules for acknowledging outside sources


International students:  Language challenges

  • students learned grammar by rules, so language-exceptions and idioms are more difficult to master

  • students may transfer word order or cognates from their first language (L1) into their writing in English

  • students may use a "translating" approach to writing that may slow them down, resulting in shorter essays

Resident immigrant students:  Adjustment challenges

  • students may find that their high school coping strategies are inapplicable or unavailable in a faster-paced, more independent academic environment, and struggle more than they had expected

  • students face high stakes in developing relationships with a new peer group: it can be difficult to admit they face writing challenges, to ask for help, or to identify themseves as "ESL" students

  • students' strong oral/aural skills may mask reading and writing difficulties


Resident immigrant students:  Language challenges

  • students often learned language (grammar, spelling, sentences) by ear rather than by rules

  • students may have difficulty with dropped (unheard) endings or small words (articles, prepositions, auxilliary verbs)

  • students may, like native-speakers, follow invented rules or apply rules inconsistently

  • students may have difficulty shifting from informal to formal register, especially if most of their vocabulary comes from informal conversational English

  • students may handle idiomatic language well but may struggle with (unhearable) sentence boundaries

  • students may write quickly but not have strong proofreading/editing skills

Note that both groups of ESL students

May have difficulty using traditional editing skills to recognize and/or fix errors (e.g., won't "hear" all errors simply by reading aloud)

Will -- even more than native-speaker students -- produce more sentence- and word-level errors when other cognitive challenges increase (each new assignment/class/level/topic)

Can be helped to develop coping strategies and will continue to progress


Develop strategies for working with ESL students' writing

"Rising Tide" strategies:  All students may benefit from policies that help ESL students:

  • Define writing situations (early in semester) in which "grammar" is not a primary criterion

  • Require writers to complete early (partial) drafts; encourage peer-proofreading; allow revisions

  • Ask students to keep track of their own most common types or patterns of error, and address one or two of the most serious at a time

  • Discuss cultural influences on US Academic Prose specifically (e.g., why living in a highly heterogeneous, argument-based society necessitates "spelling out each point in excruciating detail, the way we talk to children," as one of my Japanese students once complained)

  • Discuss strategies for fixing common errors (particularly using exercises that have students work with their own writing) and adapting at the sentence level to different tones, registers, or styles

  • Give split grades: rhetorical achievements v. syntactic correctness

  • Define writing situations (later in a semester/assignment process) where correctness is highly valued; explicitly discuss proofreading strategies and allow additional (post-cognitive-struggle) time for editing


L2 and L1.5 strategies

  • L2:  Determine patterns of error; describe in terms of grammatical rules; encourage rule-reading; provide corrections for idiomatic errors (prepositions, phrasings, infelicities)

  • L1.5:  Determine patterns of error: describe in more general terms; encourage sentence re-writing; provide corrections for unhearable differences ("why" vs. "while")

  • Both:  Prioritize comments to direct teacher and student energies to the (a) most communication-blocking and (b) most clearly-patterned errors


Individualized strategies

Ask students what actions of yours will best help them

Recognize individual strengths and progress as well as challenges

Ask students to make improvements according to individual abilities

Assess student writing in ways that help now as well as later: tolerance in an early draft or early assignment may be good, but false praise -- giving grades that don't account at all for serious sentence-level errors -- can bring later problems when students are held accountable for meeting SEAE expectations



Last updated June 2008.Email Shelley Reid