Most ESL students step into the classroom for the first time brimming with enthusiasm and ready to improve their English communication skills. And by “communication” they’re thinking of speaking skills. Which is great! But what happens when they’re faced with the challenge of communicating in writing? In today’s world where a lot of our communication and interaction is digital or online or electronic, ESL students need to learn to communicate well in writing, as well as orally.
Once you’ve gained some experience as an ESL teacher, you start seeing writing mistakes that pop up again and again, mistakes which are typical in ESL students in particular, and which are connected to the fact that English is their second and not maternal language. As teachers, it is not enough to identify these mistakes; we must deploy all of the strategies and tools we have in our arsenal to bust these mistakes once and for all.
The 10 Writing Mistakes ESL Students Make Most Often
Native English speakers who speak nothing but English, often make this mistake – it happens just as often with ESL students. Homophones are words that are pronounced the same way but have a different meaning. Classic examples are: their, they’re, there; new and knew; here and hear; its and it’s, etc…
Punctuation can be a problem for those who are honing their writing skills in any language, and ESL learners are no different. The most common problem is the use of the comma (,). Students either don’t use it at all or insert it everywhere. Semicolons (;) are also misused often.
Different languages have different rules for capitalization. In Spanish, for example, the names of languages and the adjectives for nationalities are not capitalized, which is why students often write english instead of English.
The use of definite or indefinite articles is also no man’s land. ESL learners typically omit them entirely when they should be used or use them when they’re not necessary. This is when students write something like: The fruits and vegetables are good for you.
Word order is tricky particularly when there are several adjectives involved. Consider this typical mistake: I have blond long hair. Students forget that the length of the hair has to be mentioned before the color.
Even very advanced ESL learners, who make very few grammar mistakes, will on occasion choose the wrong word or one that is not entirely wrong, but may not be the best choice. Consider this example: I am looking for an economic hotel. The word that is misused is economic; it should be an economical hotel.
I drove quick to my house. What’s wrong with this sentence? The student should have driven quickly or fast. Quite often students forget to use the correct adverb.
Comparatives and Superlatives
Raise your hand if you’re tired of correcting writing assignments that are full of “more better”, “more bad” or “expensiver”. Yeah. I thought so.
The dog was sleeping on the cat’s bed. You might thing this sentence is correct. Except the writer is referring to two cats who share a bed, not just one. Students have trouble with possessives in plural nouns (the cats’ bed), as well as nouns that end in s (Socrates’ ideas). They also use apostrophes when they shouldn’t (CDs is the plural of CD).
This is one of the mistakes that crops up again and again in ESL students’ writing assignments. I’m talking about sentences like:
- People is excited about the World Cup.
- She have two dogs and one cat.
- He speak English fluently.
How to Bust These Mistakes:
You carefully correct each and every mistake, and hand back the writing assignment to your students. They look over all of your corrections. They see how many mistakes they’ve made. But this is not enough. If this is all they do, your students are doomed to keep repeating these mistakes again and again. In order to bust these writing mistakes once and for all, your students must go from being passive receivers of your corrections, to actively recognizing and correcting their own mistakes.
How do you get students to correct their own mistakes (engage in self-correction)? You can go about this in a number of ways:
- If the writing assignment is short, simply write down and circle the number of mistakes they’ve made, which they must look for and correct.
- For longer assignments, you can break it down into paragraphs or type of mistake, for example preposition mistakes, verb tense mistakes, vocabulary mistakes, spelling mistakes, etc...
- You can choose to correct some the mistakes, then single out a particular type for them to correct. For example, you can correct all of the spelling mistakes but make them correct grammar mistakes.
- Underline entire problem sentences and have them change them or rephrase them.
- Do what makes sense for your class and for the type of writing assignment. Just make sure they are self-correcting something.
By having students correct their own writing mistakes, you’re forcing them to take a closer look at their writing, to dig deeper. Self-correction increases awareness, and it is precisely the kind of awareness that will help them stop making these mistakes. It also boosts confidence. And we all know that confident ESL learners are happy learners.
Which other typical writing mistakes would you add to this list? Share them below!