• LINCS Topic 5: What are your recommendations for teaching writing to higher-level learners who have academic goals?

Cover 5 higher levels shot

 (This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) 

This posting is a more detailed response to my interview question on Day 5 .LINCS Discussion: Student-Centered Approach to Teaching Writing Skills. .

Below in blue, you’ll find the details that I’ve added to the Day 5 LINCS’ posting.

My top recommendation is to develop a clear understanding of the type of writing students will do in English Comp and academic class after they leave our classes.

With this as our starting point, we can apply our knowledge of language learning to help them develop the skills they will need.

In a survey of 360 college faculty members (of mainstream courses), it was found that, when asked to prioritize the most important components of an effective piece of writing produced by their ESOL students, the respondents chose, as their top three priorities (1) organizing content to express major and supporting ideas, (2) using relevant examples, and (3) demonstrating command of standard written English (Hinkel, 2004). 

I have found similar results from my face-to-face interviews of more than 40 mainstream college instructors in 8 different subject areas who assign papers in their first-year courses. Ten of these were English Comp instructors.

Here are some recommendations based on research.

1) Put a high priority on teaching logical organization.

One research study has shown that what arouses a greater negative reaction among native-speakers toward writing by ESOL students is not students’ level of fluency but rather inappropriate patterns of organization.  (Land & Whitley, 1989). 

This can be a special challenge for our ESOL students. English relies on a linear approach, in which there is a sentence-to-sentence connection and deductive logic.  Arabic writers, however, make abstract statements and expect the reader to “read between the lines.”  Romance languages consider good writing to include elaborate wording.  In East Asian languages, good writing is expected to be subtle and to possibly end with a vague conclusion or with one that merely asks a question.

Organizational structures provide a template for ESOL writers who otherwise may have little way knowing that the academic audience expects, for example, a thesis statement or ideas arranged in a “logical” order.

How teachers can develop this:

We can spend time focusing on the rhetorical modes (e.g., Exposition, Cause & Effect, Narration, Compare & Contrast, Argumentation) in order to put our ELL / ESL students on an equal footing with native-speakers—at least in terms of organization.

English Composition instructors may label essays organized according to rhetorical modes as too predictable.  However, ESOL students who write in these more formulaic styles, be it in English Composition on in other content-based coursework, may be preferable to those who have developed no recognizable discourse patterns at all. 

Once students are familiar with the different modes, we can introduce them to a “mixed-mode essay” (which was introduced to me by an English Comp instructor) in which a different mode is used for each paragraph. For example, a Korean student wrote about the benefits of mandatory military service.  In the first paragraph of the body, he compared and contrasted going to college directly out of high school with doing military service before college.  Then he wrote a “cause and effect” paragraph about what happened to him during his time in the army and its effect.  In the third paragraph of the body, he explained how some people think military service is a waste of time, and he refuted it (argumentation style), and he ended up with a narrative paragraph about a life-changing experience his friend had had during his time in the military.

For more about the basis for teaching modes and to see how to present a mix-mode essay to student, and an exercise, see • Why We Teach the Modes in ESL Writing Courses and a Mix-Mode Essay  

Also, for exercises for the mode Definition Essay, see • Most Stimulating and Engaging but Often Over-Looked Essay Mode  

2) Work with grammar in the writing context.

Advanced ESOL Writing courses will probably be the last ones in which students will have instruction and support for helping them control their grammar.  Although we don’t expect grammatically perfect papers, we have found that students who can apply their grammar knowledge to writing tasks are better able to write sophisticated ideas and show connections between their ideas more clearly.

For this reason, an especially important grammar aspect at the higher levels is subordination (dependent / independent clauses with subordinators, e.g., when, because, if, although, until while, after).

At one university that I taught at, the chair of the English Dept. told me during an interview about how they evaluated placement essays for both native and non-native speakers to decide if they are ready to take English 101. They only looked for one thing: the students’ ability to use subordination. They had found that students who use these correctly are able to show connections between ideas and have the potential to write more clearly and deeply.

 How teachers can develop this:

 For more about the importance of subordination, see • Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About? No, Subordination Is. (Part 1)  

For some exercises for higher-level students, see • Playing Computer Games until 2 a.m. or Lack of Awareness (Subordination Part 2) 

3) Include in-class essays (ICEs) written under a time limit.

Due to the problem with plagiarism and downloading essays off the internet, there seems to be a trend of assigning students to write some essays during a class period. Instructors have observed that non-native speaking students often struggle with these due to their overuse of dictionaries, poor time-management or weak editing.

How teachers can develop this:

In-class essays (ICEs) can give us the truest sense of our students’ writing ability. When we get out-of-class essays (OCEs) from our students, it’s possible to be misled about their skills. We can’t be sure who actually wrote the essay or how much help the student got.

There is an effective system for making sure our students have the necessary writing skills to be successful in academic classes. We can require that they demonstrate their ability on BOTH Out-of-Class and In-Class Essays (ICEs). Needless to say, we don’t expect the depth of content, the complexity of sentence styles, the level of vocabulary and the type of grammar errors to be the same in these.

For more about reasonable expectations on ICEs, strategies for writing them, and about the surprising benefits they have for students’ and for teachers, see In-Class Essays: More Important Than Ever.

Also, to make sure that students are showing us their true writing ability, it’s vital that they edit their ICEs before they turn them in. For a way to do this, see  • Easy Editing-Awareness Technique for ESL Students 

For more about dealing with plagiarism, see • Effective, Stress-Free Approach to Dealing with Plagiarism.

4) Work on developing paraphrasing skills instead of writing research papers.

I’ve interviewed nine instructors who assign papers that include a source(s). There was agreement that we Advanced ESOL teachers could best prepare our students by practicing paraphrasing. They all felt that it was unnecessary for our students to spend time writing research papers in our Advanced ESOL classes. If students could enter their academic classes with paraphrasing skills, the instructors said that they can easily teach the students how to write papers with sources for their courses.

How teachers can develop this:

Below are four activities designed to help students develop paraphrasing skills naturally.

See Developing Paraphrasing Skills: Oral Paraphrasing Before Written. 

Also, it’s possible to help our students develop paraphrasing skills without adding any additional work for the teachers. See • One of Best Uses of an ESL Program’s Funds—And a Giant Help to Teachers.  

The fluency writing activity that I discussed during Day 4 is another good way to practice paraphrasing.  See • Fluency Writing: Reading, Speaking In Triads, And Listening Culminating In A Writing Task

Also, see • Quick and User-Friendly Technique to Teach Summarize Skills of a Reading Passage 

5) Practice writing short paragraph answers to test questions about reading passages.

Some academic instructors noticed that their ESOL students were unable to complete these types of tests within the allotted time. Students also seemed to struggle with how to directly respond to the questions.

How teachers can develop this:

Here are links to how we can prepare our students for these types of test questions.

• A Simple Technique for Writing Focused, Short Answers and Paragraphs on Tests  Also, see • Developing Paraphrasing Skills: Oral Paraphrasing Before Written.


Hinkle, E. (2004) Teaching Academic ESL Writing. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Land, R. & Whitley, C. (1989). Evaluating second language essays in regular classes: Toward a pluralistic U.S. rhetoric. In D. Johnson & D. Roen (Eds.), Richness in writing: empowering ESL students (pp. 284-93). New York: Longman.

David Kehe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s