ESL Writing: What are the best ways to improve my ESL Writing?
July 16, 2007 5:05 PM   Subscribe

ESL Writing: What are the best ways to improve my ESL Writing?

Hello everyone. I am looking for ways to improve my ESL writing assignments. (English as a Second Language) As a ESL student, paper editing takes me a long time. I have gone to the ESL Writing Center at my school, but there advice isn't very helpful. Does anyone know ways that I could improve my essay editing / essay writing abilities so that I could finish my homework faster and get better grades?
posted by clsubmit to Education (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Quick question: are you in an English-speaking country? Knowing where you are will help people answer with specific resources.
posted by mdonley at 5:15 PM on July 16, 2007

So we don't tell you something you've already heard: what were the unhelpful suggestions?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:16 PM on July 16, 2007

This works for some writers: Read out loud. And ask the ESL Writing Center to read your work out loud with you.

Good luck. I recommend taking the long view and try to be satisfied with very gradual increases in "correctness."

Also you can browse Purdue OWL.
posted by Aghast. at 5:28 PM on July 16, 2007

I live in Brookline, MA in the United States. I don't have many English speaking friends, so that makes thinking in English slow for me.

The advice was not helpful because they did not take much time to help me and there advice was too fast. I left feeling more discouraged than I did when I came to them. Most of the problem was that I felt they didn't care to help me or make sure I absorbed what they were saying. If they gave me more time and a way to think about it to make sense of things, I might have learned it better.
posted by clsubmit at 5:36 PM on July 16, 2007

I'm convinced that once you reach a certain stage, then only by allowing a proficient English reader to review your work, or pull you up on your mistakes, will you make further improvement.

For example.. your English, as demonstrated by your post, seems extremely good, yet you made two errors that you probably wouldn't detect even if you read your post out loud, or that even an average English reader would spot:

As an ESL student, paper editing takes me a long time. I have gone to the ESL Writing Center at my school, but their advice isn't very helpful.

The problem is that you can reach a point where your English skills actually surpass those of an average speaker, which means that to improve further requires you converse with very proficient native speakers who will pull you up on every little detail until you absorb the finer points of the language.

So, my advice? Find an online pen pal, or similar, who's anal enough to highlight all of your grammatical errors. Alternatively, post to Slashdot regularly.
posted by wackybrit at 5:40 PM on July 16, 2007

I would also recommend searching for generic sample essays, or academic essays to read; then try to compare them in terms of layout and grammatical structure to your own essays.

If you can find essay writing guides for ESL (I know the TOEFL test has an essay, so TOEFL prep books have essay practice), then you might find sample essays followed by explanations of what was good or bad about the sample.

Also, I'd second the Purdue OWL (or other similar university help sites). This OWL page has good examples of how to make sentences more concise and direct.
posted by p3t3 at 5:49 PM on July 16, 2007

Thank you. Yes my English looks good here, but I am sending it on Skype to a friend in England who is correcting it for me. Writing these sentences takes me many minutes and I don't always have a friend around to check it.

If I posted without him checking, you all would probably cry.
posted by clsubmit at 5:57 PM on July 16, 2007

Reading out loud is a great way to notice quirks in your writing, but only if you are comfortable with speaking English. If you are very comfortable having a conversation in English and would notice when someone phrases something oddly, that could be a great exercise for you.

I used to work in my college's writing center as a tutor, and would often tutor ESL students. I am really sad to hear that your school's writing center isn't more helpful! If there are specific tutors, perhaps you can see about setting up appointments with different tutors to see if one might be more helpful.

The OWL help site was always a resource we would refer to and point students to, so I nth the suggestion. I also think wackybrit's suggestion to find a native English speaker to e-mail back and forth with to be a good one.

I would be happy to have a back-and-forth e-mail conversation with you, and point out any awkward grammar, if you'd like. My e-mail is in my profile.
posted by tastybrains at 6:08 PM on July 16, 2007

Mastering English has been a struggle for me too. I've tried several different websites and tutors for help, but I, too felt very discouraged. Last semester, I came across the editing website Editing by Amanda, and Amanda has a really good ESL Writing section. She edited my final English paper- I got the highest grade in that class! She gives you a list of ways you can improve and it has helped me so much. I recommend her to all my friends- in the fall I'm going to have her edit all my papers. She costs so much less than a tutor, and it's very quick and painless.
posted by MassaPatricia at 6:27 PM on July 16, 2007

I've found that reading helps... newspapers, novels, anything that's well-written. Also, Garner's American Usage is my favorite reference guide.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:33 PM on July 16, 2007

I feel that you might benefit from Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which is standard reading for most high school students writing essays.
posted by misha at 6:41 PM on July 16, 2007

If you're interested in improving how fast you write, I'd suggest IM over email. I don't think it will help you form essays better, but it might help you think faster in English and form sentences more quickly and easily, which I think you indicated is a problem for you. I'm not an ESL expert or anything, but I think IM might help you get faster at communicating your thoughts by writing in English
posted by MadamM at 7:06 PM on July 16, 2007

Elements of Style helped me a lot- Amanda recommended it to me, too. I also agree that reading materials like this helps. Also reading out loud helps tremendously. If you can convince someone to listen to you read your assignments, it makes a big difference.
posted by MassaPatricia at 7:09 PM on July 16, 2007

I'm an ESL teacher, but I teach students in non-English speaking countries.

It's great that you want to improve your writing, because it will help you begin to learn and then use more and more new words and phrases in your speech, as well as read faster, both of which are very important in academia.

One of the best tools for helping you improve your writing has been mentioned above - reading it aloud. This means you have to leave some extra time for you to make changes to things you think don't sound or look right. It's also amazing how many mistakes you will actually find - it really boosts your confidence to find things to change.

The best reason to do this, though, is that it ensures that you do actually edit - for some people, it's very easy to write an essay all night and turn it in the next morning, but taking the time to change it slows you down and helps you see mistakes you make over and over again and gives you more of a chance to add detail or make arguments stronger. I recommend actually finishing a draft of the paper, and then printing it out and editing it by hand with a pencil - sitting in front of the computer screen, I find, might make you go too fast.

Boston has some meetup groups that are focused on helping members improve their English, and most of them are free! Here's an example. That would be an excellent place to find people who are on all different levels of learning English, as well as their native-English speaking friends. You also might end up helping someone with their English - and that's also a good way to improve your own!

One warning I have is that many books, articles, and websites claiming to "teach grammar" and show you common "mistakes" might be full of things which not even English speakers can agree on! Because there's no official "academy" that determines how English develops (though there are bodies and groups which have rules for their own fields), the language changes really quickly, and things which were thought to be wrong many years ago might be viewed as more acceptable today in many situations.

For example, many people like to talk about "rules" like "never split an infinitive", but if the rest of the world thinks it's now OK to do so ("to boldly go where no man has gone before!" - Wikipedia link to split infinitives here), then it's up to you to find out whether a certain way of writing or saying something is correct for the audience you're addressing. It's a good idea, then, to make sure you consult multiple sources to make sure that you have made a "mistake" in the first place, and whether or not you need to correct it.

Finally, you might want to contact our own languagehat, who is experienced in many areas related to language and linguistics - I've seen him recommend alternatives to some of the books linked above.


- edit your papers on your own
- seek out other learners and native-speakers
- be aware of the audience you're writing to
- consult multiple resources when checking things you think are errors
- contact languagehat!

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 7:39 PM on July 16, 2007

First of all: read as much as you can. Watch as many movies as you can. Listen to as much radio and as many songs as possible.

The next bit won't directly help you with your essays, but with your English is general. But this is the best advice I ever got while trying to learn a second language, and just couldn't master it:

1) Get a well-written book about something you know well ( is good for looking for subjects). You Catholic? Get a book on Catholic history. Whatever.

2) Read the book, look up the vocabulary you don't know.

3) Write the book out, either by hand, or typing it all. Not the entire book -- I say, for every 4-8 weeks, you should have written 20-40 pages (double-spaced).

5) Bring the 20-40 copied pages you made to a friend (or e-mail them the copy -- in which case, type it up!), go through it together to make sure you understood everything, then highlight phrases you liked. Make sure the friend tells you if the phrase is too casual for essays. I remember accidentally swearing in French essays.

Don't try to remember full sentences -- just phrases or idioms, like "think faster in", "a certain stage", "too casual for". For example, "raining cats and dogs" is too casual for an essay, but useful to know.

If you copy it, you'll remember it -- not only the phrases, but the grammar etc. If you remember it, your English will sound more natural. The above advice was given to me by the best French teacher, and possibly just the best teacher, I've ever had. It made a huge difference. My grasp of grammar, and the complexity of my sentences, jumped.

And congrats, your English is already pretty good! :D
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:47 PM on July 16, 2007

Thank you for all your comments and kind words. I will definitely practice your suggestions. How many of you have learned English as a second language and become proficient in your English writing? How long did the process take? How much time did you need to put into it? Did any major realization speed up the process for you?

I'm taking in everything you're saying and I'm excited that I found such an active forum with so many people willing to help.
posted by clsubmit at 8:27 PM on July 16, 2007

I learned English as a second language, but didn't have to use it as my main language for school until high school. In my case I wrote much better than I spoke, due to my constantly reading books in English even during those years in which I didn't have anybody around with whom to practice the language. And I was reading everything - pulp science fiction, children's books, the latest paperback bestseller, etc. I wasn't understanding everything I read. The thing is, I'd been reading for quite some time but didn't have to write or speak in English until I hit high school. But when I had to write, I just could. There wasn't anything that sped up the process for me, it was just an accumulation of the language in my brain.

I think you have to put yourself in a position where you are forced to think in English. I am wondering if listening to audiobooks might help - there are no captions or other cues from which to ascertain meaning, you have to rely solely on the words that are being said. I don't think this would be quick-fix solution. But perhaps after listening to the whole Harry Potter series on audiobooks on the T instead of say, the latest pop music sensation in your native language, you might find sentences in English coming out from you with less of a struggle.
posted by needled at 5:09 AM on July 17, 2007

Yes, read. Music might not help much, since most lyrics are not written in a formal style. Find a good author you like, and analyze what it is about his or her writing that works well for you. By good writer, I mean one who writes clear description, not necessarily one who's on the best-seller lists.

Oh, and you choose 'a' or 'an' depending on whether you pronounce the first letter of the following word as a consonant or a vowel. So:

an ESL student
a half-dozen
a history (if you're speaking American)

Other than that, your use of articles seems OK. I'd guess your native tongue uses them, too. My wife's Mandarin doesn't, and it still sometimes trips up her English.
an hour
a uterus
a utensil
an underpass
an upset
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:06 AM on July 17, 2007

Failure to preview knows no linguistic barriers, it seems.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:07 AM on July 17, 2007

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