• Introduction to Teaching Academic ESL Writing: A Proven Approach for Success (Part 1: Logical organization)

How to teach ESL writing

academic-writingThe ultimate goal of an academic ESL writing course is to help students develop the tools that they will be able to use in writing assignments in mainstream academic class like English composition, psychology, history, business etc.

The job of the ESL writing instructor is not, contrary to what some might think, to lead students to write deep or complex ideas.  That is what mainstream instructors will do.  Our job is to help them develop the tools or techniques that they can use to clearly organize and explain their ideas, no matter how simple or profound those ideas might be.

The success of this approach

At our college, we’ve based our academic ESL writing courses on teaching those tools.  To determine the effectiveness of our approach, we’ve track the success rate of students who have completed our academic ESL program.  Over the past 15 years, approximately 95% of those international students received an “A” or “B” in English 101.   In the years prior to using this approach, when the focus was on deep ideas and research papers rather than clarity of expression, only about 75% got an A or B.

What writing skills do students need?

The foundation of our writing courses is constructed on what skills mainstream instructors would like their in-coming (first-year) students to have. To find this out, I interviewed over 50 instructors at two universities and a community college.

In brief, all the mainstream instructors said they wanted students who (1) wrote with logical organization, (2) connected ideas clearly and (3) had control of grammar.

Do students need to know how to write research papers?

For those courses that would involve research papers, the instructors said that in addition to those three points above, they said it would be helpful if students understood how to paraphrase.  Interestingly, in contrast to what many academic ESL instructors assume, NO mainstream instructor said that first-year college students need to know how to write research papers before taking their course.  They said that they assumed that students (including native-speakers) would need to be introduced to that during their course.

 Tools and techniques that we can teach our ESL students

Three important concepts that guide our teaching of writing: logical organization, connecting ideas and control of grammar.

Logical organization.  Native-English speakers have an expectation about how a piece of writing should be organized.  Usually, there is an introduction which includes a one-sentence summary of the main point (thesis statement).  We can teach our students techniques for writing these well.

There is an expectation that each paragraph will have a controlling idea (topic sentence).  We can teach our students how to write clear topic sentences.

Also, paragraphs will include details which will help the reader better understand the controlling idea.  Some of the techniques we can teach our students for adding details are:

            give examples

            tell your experiences

            tell information from own country/culture


            hypothetical situations

We can also teach our students a variety of ways to write interesting conclusion.

A common term related to ESL writing is modes.  These are the most common ways that American students are taught how to organize their ideas.  Some common modes are compare and contrast, cause and effect, narration, and argumentation.

Many (most?) international students have little background in these prior to taking ESL classes.

Although Americans don’t usually approach a writing topic and start by deciding which mode to use, we are familiar with how to organize our ideas in logical ways that will help the reader understand us.  By teaching the modes to our ESL students, we are giving them tools that they can draw from.

In the posting for Part 2,   Introduction to Teaching Academic ESL Writing: A Proven Approach for Success (Part 2 Connecting ideas & Grammar), I explain the other two important concepts: connecting ideas and control of grammar.

David Kehe

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