The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates

Corn flakes

Include information from your country or culture.

An American student writes in his essay, “Every morning, I eat corn flakes for breakfast.”

His English Comp instructor thinks, “Boring.  Many Americans eat corn flakes.”

An ESL student from China writes on her essay, “Every morning, I eat corn flakes for breakfast.”

Her English Comp instructor thinks, “Wow! That’s interesting!   They eat corn flakes for breakfast in China too. as we do!”

(This posting includes this handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)  Giving information about your country.

It can be liberating to ESL students to realize that almost anything that they can include in their essays/papers about their culture and country will probably be interesting to their American instructors.  This is a great advantage that they have over their American classmates.

However, just encouraging them to include this kind of information in their essays often results in paragraphs like this one from an essay about raising children:

     Sometimes even the most obedient child will misbehave and will need to be disciplined. Some people will spank their children in order to get their attention and redirect them.  However, in my country, parents very rarely do this.

The writer of the above paragraph did include information from his country, but he missed an opportunity to dig deeper in this cultural custom and describe something more specific.  After being challenged to include an example or some details, the writer continued the paragraph:

However, in my country, parents very rarely do this.  Instead, if a child refuses to listen to his mother or throws a tantrum, his mother will tell him to stand outside the house. The worse thing that can happen to someone in my culture is to be excluded from the group, so this type of punishment can be very effective.

An Inductive Approach to Teaching this Technique

Our challenge as ESL Writing instructors is to help students see that the details about their country/culture are what will be most stimulating to the readers.  By using an inductive approach, we can effectively lead them to this awareness.  This means that instead of just showing them some samples and expecting them to internalize the technique, supply opportunities for them to interact with samples.  Though that process, they will formulate their own understanding of it.

For example, we can juxtapose two sample paragraphs and ask students to identify the one which includes details about a particular country. 

Exercise 1: Write Good next to the two paragraphs that explain the details about information from the country.

Topic: The causes and solutions to the problem of divorce

________ 1) It’s true that some newlyweds will cling to their desire to be independent.  In my country, families try to help the couple realize that they can improve their lives by working together, for example by sharing household duties or helping each other take care of their children.

  ________ 2) It’s true that some newlyweds will cling to their desire to be independent.  In my country, we have a custom which is practiced in order to help couples realize how they can improve their lives by working together.  On the night before the wedding, the bride, groom and their friends and family members gather together and break dishes.  After this, the bride and groom have to clean up the mess.  We have this custom in order to show the couple how they will work together to overcome difficulties.

Topic: Sarcasm

________ 3) Sarcasm does not necessarily lead to tension between people.  It can be funny and a way to release frustrations.  For example, when our Korean former president was unable to stop the housing prices in Seoul from rising, some people said, “I am so happy that I’ll be able to pay for my home before I die because of our wise president.”  Those people weren’t seriously happy, but instead, were mocking the president.

________ 4) Sarcasm does not necessarily lead to tension between people.  It can be funny and a way to release frustrations.  For example, in Korea, if something bad happens to us, we might say, “Great.  That’s just what I needed.”

(I hope it’s clear that #2 and 4 are “good” because they include details about the country.)

To help students better internalize this technique, we can assign Exercise 2, in which they apply it in a writing task. 

Exercise 2:  Choose two topics from the list below and write a paragraph for both topics. Include information from your culture/country as a detail.

Topics

  1. A smartphone can be extremely useful.
  2. ___________________ is an invention that has had an important effect on people’s lives.
  3. Global warming has some serious effects on our environment.
  4. For people who are unpopular, there are some techniques that they can use to improve their relationships.
  5. There are some important steps that we can take to lower the crime rate among teenagers.
  6. There are several reasons why ________________ is a great web site.
  7. There are some techniques that students can use to improve their grades.
  8. There are some unusual superstitions.

Needless to say, this technique will not be conducive to every topic that students write.  However, if they are aware of this tool, they will be able to draw upon it in order to not only clarify their ideas but also engage and even entertain their readers more compellingly.

If you would like to try out this technique with your students, you can download two exercises which use the inductive approach here. Giving information about your country.

You can find more writing techniques and inductive exercises in these books:

Advanced levels: Writing Strategies Book 2

Intermediate levels: Writing Strategies Book 1

Low-intermediate levels: Write after Input

David Kehe

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