How to teach ESL writing
The 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 addition to having logical organization, the other two aspects of good academic writing are connecting ideas and having control of grammar.
A problem we sometimes see with ESL writing is that their paragraphs look like just a list of ideas. In other words, their writing lacks coherence.
As writing instructors, we can teach them techniques for bridging sentences within a paragraph to show the reader how they are connected. Two important techniques for doing this are:
Effective pair conversation
How to teach ESL conversation
(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching a conversation class is that when you teach your ESL students conversation techniques, you get to hear them talk about their culture, their experiences, opinions and dreams.
A student-centered approach doesn’t mean the teacher just puts students in groups, gives them a topic and tells them to talk about it. It doesn’t even mean that the students are put in pairs (Student A/Student B), given two different “information gap” papers and told to complete the exercise by talking.
A student-centered approach to conversation-skill development is much more than that.
Teaching ESL is teaching a skill.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “the student-centered lessons.” Teachers who experience this type of approach for the first time will often say, “I don’t feel like I’m ‘teaching’” using air-quotes when they say “teaching.” In their minds, a teacher stands in front of the class lecturing.
But in a student-centered approach, the teacher is more like a coach because teaching ESL is mostly about skills not about teaching content.