Let’s face it, having to write an essay for most people is a daunting prospect, even if it’s in your first language, let alone trying to write one in your second language.
There are a number of barriers for ESL students to overcome that native speakers don’t have to deal with when it comes to essay writing.
- Most ESL students are far better at speaking than writing because they have a lot more opportunities to engage in conversation. As a result, they know they lack ability in writing and are afraid to expose this to others.
- Their first language, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the student, will impede their ability to successfully write using their second language.
- ESL students don’t have a fully developed lexicon. This means that they will find it hard to write in a clear, appropriate, or nuanced way.
- Essay writing is a skill that they can’t improve on their own because they don’t have an instinct for the language. They need instructions and feedback from a teacher in order to progress.
Given these barriers to learning, good TESOL teachers will ensure they have a very clear lesson plan when teaching essay writing.
I recommend that you start by giving your students a clear and defined process to follow – one that will work for whatever essay topic they need to answer. My process is called ‘The 3 Ps’ – Planning, Paragraphs, and Polishing.
My first writing professor in college told me that there are two unbreakable rules in essay writing. The first of these was…
‘What you leave out is more important than what you leave in.’
What he meant by that is that any essay writer will only mention 0.00000000001% of information that can be written on any given topic. This concept is especially salient for ESL writers.
When considering an essay topic, ask your students to brainstorm every point they can think of and then put them into two categories – important and less important.
Explain that they should focus on the most compelling ones – and leave out minor ideas or things that are too difficult to explain because of language issues.
Now let me share with you a maxim that I teach my students…
‘Essay writing is essentially about making assertions and then
backing them up with evidence (reasons, examples, statistics,
reliable news sources and expert opinion).’
The key pieces of evidence are reasons and examples. When they choose the most important points to write about, make sure they add reasons or examples for each point before they start writing.
The second unbreakable rule my writing professor taught me was…
‘When you’re writing, imagine your readers are idiots.’
Often when I read an essay written by an ESL student, there are logic gaps – missing links in chains of reasoning.
Students sometimes mistakenly believe that the thinking behind their writing is self-evident, so some links are quickly glossed over or not mentioned at all. If this is the case, I tell them it’s necessary for them to very carefully explain every single link in all chains of reasoning – like their readers are idiots.
Many ESL students are prone to having a breakdown in communication between what goes on in their minds and what they end up writing in their paragraphs.
This is because of their lack of practice in developing this skill.
I impress upon my students that…
‘Writing is the evidence of your thinking.’
I tell them that there needs to be a well-constructed bridge between their mind and their hands when writing their paragraphs.
The better the bridge, the less chance there will be a disconnect between their thinking and writing, resulting in them displaying their writing skills at their optimum level.
Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘putting lipstick on a pig’? Let me explain…
Polishing an essay is overrated. As an Academic Director at various Language Schools and Universities, I have seen some TESOL teachers who think that all that writing teachers need to do is to make as many corrections in red pen as possible.
Yes, proof reading an essay for spelling, grammar and punctuation needs to be done. But there is little point if the planning and paragraphs are substandard.
‘Polishing an essay that fails in the planning and paragraph stages
is like putting lipstick on a pig.’
Or to put it another way, a hard, dry, crumbly cake with delicious icing is still a cake fail.
My teaching experience with ESL students has shown me that the vast majority of them have reached or are close to reaching their CURRENT potential with regard to spelling, grammar and punctuation.
They are usually a long way from reaching their CURRENT critical thinking potential.
By all means, spend some time on polishing techniques. However, it’s imperative that English Language Teachers create essay writing lesson plans that emphasise developing critical thinking in the planning and paragraph stages.