14 Tips for You and Your L2 Writing Students

This is a guest post by Dr. D.R. Ransdell who is the coordinator of writing program at the University of Arizona. She holds degrees in Spanish, ESL, and Rhetoric and Composition. She is also a published author and violinist. You can follow her on Twitter @dr_ransdell. 

Brief Tips for Helping Your Second-Language Writing Students

The students often struggle, but there are several things you can do to help them succeed in your classes.

While the students are drafting:

1)     Encourage them as much as possible. Many are living under difficult circumstances and may feel displaced. What they need more than anything else is a friendly pep talk from their own teacher—a person who recognizes that they are struggling. Working with these students will take extra time on your part, but the majority will appreciate your efforts.

Brainstorming is important

2)     If the students seem really stuck, suggest that they map out their points on a big piece of paper so that they can see connections. They might also want to try brainstorming in their L1 (but writing in their L2).

3)     Recognize that the students may have internalized rhetorical patterns from their home culture or language. Remind them that the way they’ve been taught to organize their thoughts is correct in their own cultural environments, but it is probably ineffective for American college readers. Asian students, for example, usually place their theses at the end of the essay to avoid sounding rude. Hispanic students may entertain tangents. Arab speakers often create meaning through comparison.

4)     Advise them to edit their work as a final step.  Many students are rightly worried about grammar/mechanics.  However, they often get overwhelmed with grammar issues during the initial drafting process, which gets in their way.

5)     During office hours, help your students edit a single page of their work. Talk them through easy mistakes: “That’s a third-person, present tense, singular verb. What goes on the end of it?” Note that if you can help your students see patterns of error, they will quickly improve.

Don’t underestimate the power of a good grammar book

6)     Teach your students to use the grammar book to find answers to simple problems. The examples in Rules for Writers are especially clear. The extra sections edited by Kristin Little are also very helpful.

7)     In addition to making use of your office hours, encourage your students to take advantage of other campus resources such as the Writing Center. Send especially needy students to the Writing Skills Improvement Program for semester-long tutoring. (Remember, however, that these tutors are not trained for ESL.)

When grading your students’ essays:

1)     Read for content first, making margin and end comments accordingly. Then go back and scrutinize a small section of the essay (a page or long paragraph) in terms of language. Point out mistakes, preferably in a different font or color. Note that there are different kinds of mistakes and that some are more egregious than others.

2)     Look for patterns.  I’ve never seen a student with 100 different problems. (Maybe once or twice.) Students usually have 10 errors (internalized mistakes) that they repeat 10 times. If you can help them eradicate repeated problems, their writing will improve considerably.

3)     Recognize that most English grammar rules have tons of exceptions. Collective nouns and their articles are particularly difficult. For example, while “Society is ruined by money” (no articles with the collective nouns), “The society we create is governed by the money we make” (articles with both collective nouns).

4)     Note that prepositions are a nightmare! For example, you can turn something in, off, on, over, or around! If the student writes that “I’m well acquainted to Arizona,” don’t bother to explain why “to” is wrong–just write in the correct preposition.

“Grading is fun!” said no teacher ever.

5)     Prioritize your students’ problems. Let some things go, but point out errors native speakers don’t make (correct “peom” before you worry about “occurence”), jarring errors that make you cringe (“the author has wrote many books”), and  errors that make meaning incomprehensible.

6)     Make students accountable for their use of language; i.e., dock their work accordingly.  A few mistakes per page might drop an A- essay to a B+. Incomprehensible work riddled with multiple mistakes in each sentence should probably fail.

7)     Without going overboard, exercise a degree of tough love. It’s tempting to think, “My poor student is trying hard, so I won’t count off,” but students need to have a realistic understanding of the effectiveness of their writing. Not all UA professors will be sympathetic to their language issues; prospective employers throw away CVs that contain mistakes. If your students don’t lose credit for their language problems, they won’t work to solve them.  This is true for native speakers as well. They too make many mistakes.

Above all, assure your ESL students that their English will get better every day. Tell them to practice, practice, practice. Tell them that for the first time in their lives, watching TV is actually a good thing, that they have a perfect excuse for going to the movies, and that socializing with other English-speakers will help them get through college. You might also want to share your own worst language/culture mistakes. We learn through mistakes. This is a normal process. All language learners go through it.

(Thank you DR. Ransdell for these great tips!)

Please click on the photos to access the sources of them.

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