Having worked closely with English as a second language (*ESL) students over many years, I have found some common difficulties they experience, irrespective of their first language or cultural background. Some common issues for ESL students, particularly in written English, include the following:
- Use of articles – wrong use or omission of a/the
- Verb endings/agreements – wrong verb endings and/or confusion with singular and plural
- Verb tenses – confusion with past, present, conditional and other tenses
ESL students’ writing also often requires attention in the following areas:
- Cohesion – wrong use or misunderstanding of connectors and transition markers
- Syntax – unnecessary repetition in the same sentence; inappropriate length of sentences (too long and rambling)
- Structure – wrong use of headings and sub-headings.
As well as the above, punctuation errors sometimes occur. However, these are common to all writers. Indeed, in my experience, ESL students are often more careful than native speakers with punctuation and show, for example, a better understanding of aspects such as the use of apostrophes, than do Australian students.
Some examples are provided below.
Many ESL student have trouble with articles. This could be because the equivalent does not exist in their first language, as is indeed the case in many other languages, or they cannot see standard patterns in their use. There are pages of suggestions in grammar books, of course, but a simple rule can help in most cases. If you are referring to a specific issue or thing, you usually use the article (the) but not if you are speaking in general terms. For example:
Lecturers expect students to submit assignments on time. (not specific, in general)
Lecturers expect students to submit the unit assignments on time. (specific unit, specific assignments)
War is a terrible thing. (war in general).
The war in Vietnam was a terrible thing. (a specific war).
Students seem to have trouble with verb endings which distinguish singular and plural, the equivalent of which, again, may not exist in their first language. So, for example, they will write ‘she speak/ he invest’ instead of ‘she speaks/ he invests’. It is important to remember that the verb must agree with the subject, as indicated below:
The manager (singular) edits the accounts each week.
The team leaders (plural) edit the staff sales each week.
Two different accounting systems (plural) are used in our company.
A new accounting system (singular) is used in our section.
Again, verb forms may be very different in a student’s first language. As well, English tenses in academic English do not always follow the rules of everyday usage. Academic English often uses the present tense, even when the writer may be referring to something in the past. This is particularly the case when an academic writer is citing another author. For example:
In his recent study, Li (2019) discusses the causes of market fluctuations in that year.
Bertram (2018) analyses the reasons for high unemployment in some areas.
Jackson and Meng (2015) argue for a different approach to teaching reading inprimary schools.
However, if the writer is referring to an actual event in the past, then this requires a past tense:
The SARS virus epidemic occurred in 2003.
Cohesion – connectors and transition markers
Connectors are often used in academic writing to illustrate the writer’s argument and ensure that a piece of writing has cohesion. Words such as ‘however’, ‘therefore’, ‘moreover’, ‘in contrast’ serve to help the reader follow the writer’s logical argument. They help to link sentences within a paragraph. ESL writers sometimes misunderstand the effect of these connectors or use the wrong word, so that their argument is not clear.
Elegant academic writing usually has cohesion – this means that the text ‘hangs’ well together. This does not happen by chance; it happens because the writer uses cohesion devices to link ideas. Phrase such as those listed below are like ‘signals’ for the reader and contribute to cohesion
As was indicated earlier…..
The next section will explain…..
Another example could be…..
Good writers avoid unnecessary repetition in the same sentence, and sentences which are too long and rambling. Unnecessary repetition in the same sentence often just makes for clumsy expression. Repetition in the same sentence is only necessary if meaning is not clear. See the examples below:
The teacher discussed students’ work and informed students that they would need to resubmitthe assignment they had already submitted.
The teacher discussed students’ work and informed them that they would need to resubmit the assignment.
‘Student’ does not need to be repeated and ‘re-submitting’ means that something has already been submitted so this does not need to be stated.
Sometimes sentences are just too long and rambling, and therefore, clumsy. It is better to write shorter, crisper sentences, which are usually clearer. See the two examples below:
There is a lot of debate about climate change with people having a whole lot of different opinions about what does and does not contribute to climate change and about how serious it really is and what we can do to avoid contributing to climate change.(too long and rambling, too much repetition, clumsy casual expressions)
There is much debate about climate change and people have many different opinions about what contributes to it. There is also much discussion about its seriousness and what we can do to avoid further contributing to the problem. (shorter sentences, less repetition, more precise and less casual expressions)
Structure – headings and sub-headings
The headings and sub-headings in a piece of writing should be like traffic signals – leading your reader to a clearer understanding of the structure of your writing and your argument. They therefore need to be carefully considered. Your major headings (such as ‘introduction’, ‘literature
review’, ‘conclusion’) should clearly indicate the major sections of your writing. The sub-headings will vary, according to your topic and purpose. You should clearly distinguish between different levels of headings by, for example, using different size fonts, or bolding, or italicising. You should
not put a full stop at the end of a heading.
You need to read and edit your writing in order to ensure clarity and precision. Remember, writing should be aimed at making it easy for your reader to follow what you are expressing. Have you made yourself clear? Will the reader understand your argument? Is your writing precise?
And……..hopefully, is your writing interesting and worth reading?