How to help ESL students improve writing skills



Learning a new language is challenging, requiring a student to master four basic skills–listening, reading, speaking, and writing–from scratch. And it becomes even more challenging for ESL learners.

Not only do they learn a language but they also have to deal with other school subjects in it. And while listening and reading aren’t that difficult to conquer (both are passive skills about consuming the language, so they are easier for students to handle), active skills like speaking and writing are another thing:

Why is writing so critical for students to master?

Speaking and writing are about producing the language, requiring a different mental muscle from learners. ESL students won’t be able to succeed at school or college if they can’t use the language well enough: Their grades and overall subject knowledge will suffer.

The reasons for the importance of writing skills for ESL learners are obvious:

  • Mistakes make them look uneducated. It’s especially true when it comes to writing assignments: With poor writing skills, students can’t deal with essays and other homework the way they need to get a good grade. Not to mention their further education when the time comes to write dissertations and other research papers: Afraid of poor grades and stipend loss, ESL students get tempted to plagiarize from others or use writing services from third parties to prevent failures and get the desired diploma.
  • Writing is essential for professional and long-distance communication. Whether they’ll use English online in chat rooms, messengers, forums, and social media profiles, or they’ll need it for professional communication with colleagues and clients (business emails, project discussions, task setting, etc.), all these require proper writing skills to avoid mistakes and misunderstanding. A wrong vocabulary word or grammar error can change the context and cause problems with comprehension.
  • ESL students need stellar writing skills to pass exams and language tests or enter the university. Think of SAT requiring essay writing or IELTS and TOEFL measuring writing abilities. Above-average writing skills are a must here to succeed.

Ways to improve your ESL students’ writing skills

As a teacher, you can help your ESL students improve their writing skills. Here’s how:

Encourage them to find an online pen pal

The big chances are that your ESL mentees communicate with many native speakers, but it doesn’t mean those native speakers help them polish their writing skills. What they need is a written exchange with a person who is ready to correct them and help them actually see mistakes.

Specific websites for language learners, such as My Language Exchange or Interpals, can come in handy here.

They are platforms for practicing languages with native speakers, aimed at learning through communication rather than mere chatting. Introducing such websites or apps to your students can encourage them to try another instrument for writing practice.

Ask them to write short stories

Teachers know that students don’t like writing assignments, especially those with strict requirements and deadlines. To break up the monotony of those typical tasks, ask ESL students to write short stories from time to time.

Not only does it help awaken their creative side, but it also encourages them to think of language learning curiously. Short stories can be about everything: Let a student choose a plot, characters, and resolution.

Such creative writing tasks motivate students to explore new words and topics they might avoid in the classroom or everyday conversation. They will examine literary devices and play with word combinations for their texts to sound better – all this will strengthen their writing skills.

You can also reveal the power of journaling to students and motivate them to keep their diaries in English rather than their native language. It’s an actionable practice to learn new words, improve grammar, and smash doubts about their writing abilities.

Assign summary writing

As you know, summarizing things you’ve read is one of the best ways to practice writing:

ESL students read materials in their target language, learn new vocabulary and sentence structures, and then fix that newly acquired knowledge by writing a summary and using that vocabulary and grammar constructions in their works.

Encourage them to write for publication

If you haven’t thought about teaching digital writing to your students in 2022, it’s high time to start. Gen Z writes more than speak now, sharing tons of text messages, social media posts, and comments daily. As a teacher, you can use it for educational purposes.

Encourage them to participate in online writing contests in their target language: The idea of strangers reading your text is a powerful motivator to write it in the best way possible.

Or, suggest they try blogging in English: free platforms like Medium are perfect to start.

Teach specialized writing styles

As you understand, writing skills go far beyond academic essays, and ESL students will need different writing styles outside of classrooms. Help them master specific formats: emails, resumes, cover letters, reports, etc.

Each format requires using the correct vocabulary and writing rules, so teach proper greetings, set phrases, and punctuation for different types of writing to students. Be one step ahead of the curriculum to not just tell mentees how to write academic papers but to help them master the writing skills they will need later in life.

It’s a challenge to learn a language, but your ESL students were brave enough to accept it. As a teacher, you have instruments to help them along the way: You can find fun and appealing writing practices for mentees so they won’t feel like language learning at all.

Make this challenge engaging and encourage your students not to give up halfway.

Lesley Vos, Contributing Writer, eSchool News

Lesley Vos is a former teacher of the French language for high school students from Chicago. Now she blogs about college life and writing, contributes to publications on business and self-growth, and plans to visit Australia this year.

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