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  Helping Students with Basic Skills








Helping Students Write

- by Karen Carlisi

Where to Get Help for Students Who Have Writing Problems
  • The Writing Center, a service of the English and ESL departments  
  • The Learning Assistance Center (may have a different name on your campus), where there are tutors available.  
  • Campus libraries often offer mini-courses on getting information, which today involves far more than searching the library database.  
  • Recommend continued enrollment in English or ESL classes for students who are struggling with writing skills.

Difficulties With Underprepared ESL Students

Be aware of the difficulties that may arise in a writing-intensive class with underprepared ESL students. (Some of these may also apply to non-ESL students.) If an ESL student comes to you, this is often a huge and difficult step.  It is helpful to identify where the difficulty may lie and then to consider where or how best to direct the student. 

You may also notice some of these issues in the classroom.  If you chose to initiate the contact, do so with significant consideration for cultural cues.  Approach the student with kindness and consideration for their efforts. Often these students put enormous pressures on themselves and are doing the best they can at the time. It is also common to have international students or recent immigrants who have experienced or whose families are currently experiencing war and other violence. Often these students will not volunteer information about the recent loss of close relative or the family home. Their lack of attention on a particular day may be due to extenuating circumstances many Americans cannot imagine.

Resistance to Expected Classroom Behavior (Culture) ESL students may think that writing is a painful activity because they have done poorly in the past and because they have "fossilized" errors. They may think they donít fit in, or that only certain things matter, such as work handed in. So, they may not understand assignments (in this case, not an issue of language skills) or come to class unprepared.
Lack of Study Skills (Academic Culture) Taking notes, library use, and other issues related to study skills may differ across cultures. Office hours are often not an option in other cultures, so they may not know how to use them Ė when they should go, or what actually happens.
Underdeveloped Language Skills (Language)

There are a few possible reasons for this situation, but the two most frequent are:

  • ESL students who have not had enough ESL training
  • ESL students who never went through an ESL program

As a result, they may have problems with grammar, essay form, vocabulary, academic vocabulary, listening comprehension, and clarification techniques.

Unawareness of Sociolinguistic Rules (Language/Culture) ESL students may not be familiar with differences in register and may apply spoken forms and slang expression inappropriately to written assignments.
Argumentation/Critical Thinking (Culture/Language) In many cultures, critical thinking is taboo and argumentation can be a frightening prospect. Also, they may have been taught not to go into details or to explore why and how. For example, in Chinese culture, the writer insults the reader by giving too many details.
False Cultural Assumptions (Culture) Students may be afraid to question instructors, ask for clarification, or participate in class discussions. They may also be afraid to question texts since what is said or written by an authority is considered correct.
Lack of Cultural Literacy (Culture) ESL students often donít have access to cultural references. Many donít recognize references to popular culture, recent events, historical events, cultural activities, official procedures, literary allusions, and slang.
Unprepared for Discrimination by Other Students and Instructors (Culture/Psychological)

Non-ESL students may resent ESL students for their weaknesses or for their strengths. Instructors sometimes discriminate against "quiet" or "passive" students which may be a cultural trait, and are then surprised to find that written work is actually at level.

Unrealistic Assessment of Their Own Skills (Culture/Psychological) ESL students are often very goal-oriented and sometimes ashamed of their status, so they may idealize themselves to advance. An ESL student may have been high in the ESL class, but low in a mainstream class.
Unrealistic Expectations of the Course (Academic Culture) ESL students may have heard that a class is relatively easy from an American friend, but find that the material is unfamiliar and very complex.
Feelings of Dependency and Inadequacy (Psychological)  

STRATEGIES:  The following strategies can be helpful when addressing the above ESL-related issues.

At the beginning:

  • Do a diagnostic writing activity and identify language weaknesses that threaten success in the class
  • Inform students about the weaknesses in their writing skill
  • Make suggestions, e.g. tutoring, supplemental texts, additional ESL class.
  • Give assignments at the beginning that will help weaker students to understand the challenge ahead
  • Do peer interviews the first day of class with students from different cultures - topic can be "content-based" to address issues to be brought up in class later
  • Introduce the idea of critical thinking early in the course and clarify expectations for student learning (e.g. questioning what they read and what is said in class)
  • Give interpretive exercises early in the semester.

Midway through the course:

  • Address specific language issues as they relate to individual assignments. For example, if students have to write a research paper, encourage them to plan ahead, see a tutor, etc. Another example: for nursing reports Ė do a very quick review of distinctions in verb tenses that affect reporting.
  • Often instructors donít get enough feedback from ESL students, so they donít know if they understand:
    • give concrete examples to ensure comprehension of directions
    • have students repeat directions for written assignments or complicated or potentially dangerous in-class activities
    • have students write the directions
    • write directions on the board or an assignment sheet.
  • Do an anonymous learning evaluation survey 2-3 weeks into the term.
  • Donít call on shy students when all the good answers have been given - call on them when they have a good chance of success.
  • Give a variety of ways for students to participate - "mix it up" - groups, pairs, whole class, journal.
  • Give more praise discreetly to those students to encourage them.
  • Use choral responses occasionally.
  • Have students ask each other questions.
  • Empathize and act accordingly - remember a teacher that intimidated you.

Group work: give the more reticent student the chance to be the "expert."

  • Pair ESL students with students who donít speak their language: set up peer groups with mixed native languages to encourage bonding and cooperation across language groups.
  • Encourage questions as a way to develop critical thinking.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Be aware of cross-cultural differences that may inhibit students from arguing, questioning, criticizing, engaging in debate.
  • Don't be offended when they donít laugh at your jokes.
  • Understand that "active" student doesnít necessarily mean "good" student.
  • Use cultural diversity to enrich the class.
  • Be sensitive to specific aspects of American culture of which ESL and other disadvantaged students may not necessarily be knowledgeable.
  • Evaluate studentsí language skills only as they affect performance most relevant to expectations of the class- at the same time don't be too forgiving of their competency - strike a balance.
  • Give students opportunities for self-evaluation.
  • Recognize areas of language skills that are not as significant or developmentally advanced. The following are developmentally advanced grammatical skills for which ESL students may need to seek continuous reinforcement:
    • Use of articles
    • Prepositions in discreet pairs
    • Usage of Passive Voice
    • Specific Verbs followed by Gerunds and Infinitives
    • Reported Speech
    • Conditionals
    • Comparatives
    • Past Modals
    • Perfect Tenses
    • Participles


On a more humorous note, here are some rules that are based on the most consistent, persistent problems that students have in their writing.

Rules for Writing "Real Good"
  1. Donít use no double negatives.
  2. Make each pronoun agree with their antecedents.
  3. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
  4. About them sentence fragments.
  5. When dangling, watch your participles.
  6. Verbs has got to agree with their subjects.
  7. Donít write run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  8. Donít use commas, which arenít necessary.
  9. Try to not ever split infinitives. Perhaps the most famous is, "To boldly go where no man has gone before" (from Star Trek). In proper grammar it would be, "To go boldly..." Infinitives are frequently split in advertising for emphasis.
  10. It is important to use your apostropheís correctly.
  11. Proofread your writing to see if you any words out.
  12. Correct spelling is esential.
  13. Eschew ostentatious erudition.
  14. Avoid clichťs like the plague.
Unsure of the humor in the previous sentences? It may be helpful to organize a workshop on common grammatical errors.


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