How Faculty in All Disciplines Can Help ESL Writers Succeed (Part 1)

Uncategorized / Monday, July 29th, 2019

By Karen Best –

If you want to spend twenty minutes as the life of the party in a group of academics, tell them you train faculty and staff to better meet the needs of ESL students taking their classes. I’ve worked in the field of English language education for almost 15 years, but it wasn’t until my job extended to helping instructional staff help their ESL students that my profession garnered more than a requisite polite response, such a “mmm, that is interesting—where are you students from?” Now, I get pelted with questions, one professor grabbing another: “She knows something about working with ESL students—especially related to teaching and assessing writing!”

Karen Best has an MA in Applied English Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught English in various contexts and capacities since 2005, most currently in the UW ESL Program and Writing Center. She has lived and worked in South Korea two times and even spent a summer teaching in North Korea. Her teaching practice and research focus on second language writing, reflective teaching, and writing feedback.

When I started writing this blog post my plan was to discuss general information about ESL students, including the assets they bring to the class, and difficulties they may have. Then, I’d move into suggestions for creating clear and manageable writing assignments, assessing those assignments, and giving meaningful feedback all with the ESL student in mind. However, as the post stretched to almost ten single-spaced pages, I realized that while I think this topic is interesting and important, I’m not sure it is so interesting and important that readers would stick with me for that long. Therefore, in this post I’ll talk about the general strengths and difficulties of writing in a second language, leaving writing assignment design and assessment for next time.(1) Throughout this discussion, I’ll provide suggestions for helping ESL students improve their writing that could be taken up in disciplines as diverse as literature and mechanical engineering.

As the number of ESL(2) students at most US universities has grown during the last decade, instructors in all disciplines find themselves teaching—or needing to teach—academic English to some degree. Although some may feel that it is the responsibility of the ESL Program, First-Year Writing Program, or Writing Center to teach academic English—I find that many professors and instructors want to help their ESL students meet the challenges of studying and writing in English, but are often at a loss for how to do so.

You Don’t Have to Guess . . .

At UW-Madison almost 15% of the student body are international students, the vast majority coming from non-English speaking countries, which doesn’t include students not designated as ‘international students’ who speak English as an additional language. Given this, most classes have students for whom English is not their first language. However, you don’t have to just assume that or guess who these students are. Early in the semester include a few questions about linguistic experiences and background on a get-to-know-you type questionnaire or writing assignment. You can do this by asking what languages students speak at home; what language(s) they are most comfortable using; the language used in their previous education, etc. You can also find out if they are studying far from home or studying in the US for the first time. In UW-Madison’s Writing Across the Curriculum faculty sourcebook Locally Sourced (p. 196), Professor Kate Viera suggests that asking students such questions enables us to make decisions about our writing assignments and our teaching without having to guess at someone’s language background by the way they look, sound, or spell their name. It also shows students that we are invested in them as writers and as individuals who have experiences beyond the 150 (or so) minutes that they spend in our classroom each week.

Take the guesswork out of assessing the linguistic diversity in your class by asking your students about their linguistic backgrounds and their own views of their strengths and weaknesses as writers.
Linguistic Rock Stars

I have never heard someone say, “I just wish I didn’t know so many languages.” Yet when students know more than one language, instructors often treat it as a deficit. Of course, they might argue that speaking more than one language is not the problem. The problem is a student’s weak English language skills. I get this. I understand that it isn’t easy to have students in a class who haven’t mastered English—and may not even be close to mastering it. While this struggle is real, both for the students themselves and the faculty trying to help, let’s at least take a moment to recognize these students for the linguistic rock stars they are. Let’s acknowledge and help students utilize the benefits of being multilingual. Research studies have found the benefits of bilingual to be many and diverse, including improved performance on standardized tests, greater problem solving abilities, enhanced abilities to communicate with people who are different from themselves, memory protection in old age (e.g., later onset of Alzheimer’s disease), and even increased empathy (a fact that prompted me six years ago to seek out bilingual childcare for my kids).(3)(4) Recognizing, appreciating, and helping students draw from these strengths doesn’t mean that we don’t push students toward greater flexibility and precision in the use of English, but we do so from a place of respect with an aim to problem solve. Instead of feeling frustrated that a student’s English language ability is weak, can we ask ourselves: How can I help this student utilize all of their linguistic resources? And what kind of feedback or help can I give that might assist in the language acquisition process? (Some suggestions for how to do this will be developed below.)

Common Struggles for Writing in a Second Language

While speaking multiple languages does have many benefits, we know that it isn’t easy to write in a second or third language. Knowing common problems enables us to communicate empathy rather than judgment in our feedback. Note the difference between these two comments:

  1. “Incorrect use of prepositions throughout.”
  2. “Prepositions can be very difficult but try to work on distinguishing between common uses of ‘in’ and ‘on.’”

The latter comment acknowledges that this is a common problem; it also hints at a realistic understanding of the level of change that could be expected in the short term, i.e., greater attention to this issue and some improved accuracy with these two prepositions.

Similarly, knowing common difficulties can also help us develop a clear vocabulary around both grammatical and rhetorical elements of writing. This vocabulary allows us to write a comment like—“I’d like to work with you on hedging and showing degrees of certainty.” Without this vocabulary we might write something like, “You make claims that your evidence does not support.” While sometimes students do make claims that they do not support, often it is a matter of using the right language—hedging just the right amount to match the strength of the evidence. If that is the case, this is a linguistic problem, not a research problem—and the student should be steered toward a linguistic, rather than research fix. Awareness of these kinds of difficulties can make identifying the real issue a little easier to do.(5)

Difficulties at the Global Level


Organizational norms are highly related to culture, context, and training. On a cultural level, not all writing cultures place such a high value on being explicit about an argument from the beginning, writing clear topic sentences that fully convey the purpose or argument of a paragraph, and so on. However, even within the same broad culture, each writing context has its own norms. Therefore, it is good to be explicit about some of the organizational expectations and demands of the assignment. Is the assignment part of a larger genre? What are the hallmarks of how ideas tend to be organized in that genre? For students coming to the US after completing their high school education in their home country, their academic writing in English has likely consisted of 5-paragraph essays for standardized English exams such as the TOEFL. Therefore, students coming from such educational contexts may have little experience writing longer, more complex papers. Providing models to students and discussing those models in class can be a very effective way to help students grasp the organizational options available and/or that are required by the rhetorical context of the assignment.

Source integration and documentation

ESL students may have difficulty with the complex process of reading, summarizing, and documenting source material. This is not an easy, straight-forward task for anyone. When students struggle with this task they are sometimes immediately accused of “plagiarism” even if the issue is highly related to this complex process rather than of a desire to cheat or even a clear lack of understanding of the expectations of US academic discourse.(6) I am not saying plagiarism is not an issue, just that it may be more effective to approach it, first, as a linguistic and writing error, rather than a clear case of cheating.

If you have students struggling with this, consider first taking more time to scaffold the process from the early reading and note-taking to the integration of sources with one’s own argument. For example, in the early weeks of a research paper, have students bring hard or soft copies of all their sources to class. Find a student who did an especially good job interacting with their sources (e.g., taking notes, highlighting, etc.) and show it to the class. In small groups, have students discuss both the articles’ content as well as their reading and note-taking processes, while you walk around taking questions and checking in on these discussions generally. This can be done with good effect in a 15-minute portion of class or can be turned into a longer lesson. Even if you are a history, political science, or engineering instructor—consider taking time to help students with these skills since it is possible that it isn’t just that students don’t know how to read and take notes well, but it is also an issue of cognitive load. Reading and note-taking is not difficult when the content is basic, but when the content is difficult, simple things such as taking notes can become a lot more difficult to manage.

You can do something similar with teaching source integration and citations. Take ten minutes at the end of class to show how writers in your discipline transition in and out of source material. Similarly, take a few minutes to point out the basics of the citation system you require, especially if it is something other than APA or MLA. In the Writing Center, I recently consulted with a student on the citations for a paper, in which the only information provided by the instructor was that the paper was to include footnote citations. While I’m versed enough in citation systems to know this likely meant Chicago Style, this first-year international student had no clear way to know this. I’m assuming most instructors’ instructions are not so vague, yet it still may be helpful to give the students some pointers and basic instruction in the citation style you require.


I have seen few writing assignments that explicitly tell students who they are writing for, despite the fact that knowing one’s target audience is central to every writing context. In a classroom context, should the students write for their instructor, (i.e., the person who likely already knows the basic issues surrounding the topic presented in the writing prompt)? Probably not, because then the students could assume a very high level of shared knowledge, and thus wouldn’t have to explain their own knowledge and understanding of the issue. I’m guessing most instructors have a slightly different audience in mind. I often tell my students to assume an “educated but not expert audience” (e.g., a roommate not enrolled in the class). When I give assignments in which students write on a topic of their own choosing, I usually explain that I literally am their target audience. Since I am not an expert on their chosen research topic, they need to explain what they’ve learned in a way I can understand. Whoever you imagine the audience to be for your writing assignment, consider making that explicit. Brainstorm with the students what that real or imagined audience would expect to learn from the paper, and what detail of explanation would be expected.

Difficulties at the Local Level

Qualification and certainty

Issues with qualification and certainty can be related to linguistic development, cultural norms, or simply being a novice academic writer. Students often think that a strongly stated argument is synonymous with a strong argument; they don’t realize that for an argument to be convincing and persuasive—for it to be “good”—it has to be believable. For it to be believable, it must be made with language that carefully matches the strength of the evidence. If there is only evidence that “X is beneficial to most college students,” it should not be argued that “X is extremely beneficial.” It is important to raise students’ awareness about qualifying their arguments based on how strong and certain the evidence is and also to help guide students toward the linguistic resources to do so.


Often students’ texts seem disorganized and disjointed. This may not be due, however, to a lack of sound underlying logic, but to difficulties in communicating that logic to the reader. Sometimes logical coherence can be developed with subtle linking devices at the sentence level. An aptly placed “this” or “such” can make a huge difference in conveying how sentences and ideas are related, but this is rarely taught in any writing class, let alone English as a foreign language classes that many of our international students took in high school. Therefore, at the college level it may take time to learn to develop a repertoire of linguistic and rhetorical devices that show how all the parts of a paper fit together.

Word choice and grammar

That students would struggle in this area is probably fairly obvious. All of us who have learned a second language have struggled not only to remember vocabulary, but also to understand the nuances of each word. Learning to provide meaningful feedback to students on grammar and language takes time (more on this in Part 2 of this blog), so for now I’ll just say that from time-to-time, as we are able, let’s help our students with key academic vocabulary, especially as it relates to our specific disciplines.

As mentioned previously, my original goal for this blog was to provide some background and general principles about working with ESL students and then to go on to provide more in-depth suggestions about creating, responding to, and assessing writing assignments, especially keeping ESL students in mind. However, at almost 10 pages, it seemed ill-advised to stick with that plan. Therefore, look forward to a second installment that goes into more detail about individual writing assignment creation and how to coach (and assess) students writing in a second language.


  1. For those looking for this information sooner, rather than later, I recommend the UW-Madison Writing Across the Curriculum faculty sourcebook, Locally Sourced, Sections 4 and 7.
  2. Let me add a word on terminology. In this blog post I am going to use the term English as a second language (ESL) as it is the most widely used term by people not steeped in the world of language and writing pedagogy, and even in many language learning contexts (for example, most universities have ESL programs, rather than English language learning (ELL) or multilingual writing programs). While I often use the terms English as a second language, multilingual, or English language learner depending on the context, in this blog, I’ll be using ESL.
  3. Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(4), 240-250.
  4. Chibber, K. (2015, Aug 3). How languages foster greater empathy in children. The Atlantic.
  5. Difficulties of writing in English as a second language have been researched extensively and many “lists” of common difficulties have been created. However, I find the article “Areas for Challenge for ELL Writers” on Stanford’s Teaching Commons especially useful and draw off of it heavily for this blog post.
  6. For a thorough discussion of the issue of plagiarism and teaching source use and integration, see Mott-Smith, Tomas, Kostka’s Teaching Effective Source Use, Chapters 1-2.

3 Replies to “How Faculty in All Disciplines Can Help ESL Writers Succeed (Part 1)”

  1. Karen,

    Thanks for writing this post, which I think encapsulates some essential info for helping multilingual students succeed. And I like how you model feedback (the prepositions example) that is specific for students and offers them a vocabulary (about grammar and language) to draw on when they write and revise their drafts.

    I also appreciate your points about organization and source integration. As I was reading, I was thinking about how paraphrasing can be a difficult task for L2 writers. Here’s an article from the literature that frames paraphrasing as a challenging task :'-Hirvela-Du/3667790178ada7d3f831fcf35331851b196bf1c8

    I’m wondering: what advice you would have about helping L2 writers succeed with paraphrasing? What are some things that instructors in discipline-specific courses could do to help students paraphrase effectively?

  2. Hi Karen,
    This is such a fantastic post! I love how your description of ‘linguistic rock stars” pushes back against deficit thinking about multilingual students. I also really appreciated your emphasis on making expectations explicit (especially the part about describing an audience for the assignment). What a useful resource for instructors. I eagerly await the second installment! 🙂 Thank you so much for your work supporting our students.

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