Writing Right: 7 Sure-fire Steps for Effective ESL Editing Practice

What’s one of the hardest skills to teach ESL learners?

Listening? Speaking? Writing?

If we jump past the generals and get to the specifics, I’d argue that editing your own writing is a tough skill to teach ESL students.

After all, have you ever corrected a class of native English speakers’ papers? Editing is difficult for them too!

ESL students will often have writing mistakes because they don’t know how to proofread effectively. Simply telling students to read through their work before handing it in will not fix the errors. The editing process is difficult, and it’s especially difficult for ESL students.

Due to the nature of their mistakes, and the difficulty students have with recognizing them, we need to take steps to teach an effective approach to proofreading—not just proper grammar.

So let’s begin by looking at what makes this skill so tricky.

Why Is It Difficult for ESL Students to Proofread Their Work?

No one has an easy time proofreading their work; it doesn’t matter what your linguistic background is. I’m a trained editor and I can’t proofread my own work immediately after writing. We need distance from our work to be able to see the mistakes we’ve made. We know what we meant to write, so our eyes and brain conspire against us by making us believe we wrote it correctly.

This is even more difficult for ESL students. Even with distance, it’s much more difficult for ESL students to recognize their mistakes. Students need to know what to look for, and even if they can find the problems, they may not know how to correct them.

The more you review grammar and point out writing mistakes for the entire class to see, the less likely students are to write incorrect sentences.

The proofreading process can be taught in one lesson, assuming your class is at least an hour and a half, but it will take time and practice for students to fully learn to use the process.

How can you make this editing practice effective? We have seven steps that will show you the route. Note that the beginning and ending steps to teaching proofreading in general will need to be reviewed multiple times throughout a course to reinforce specific corrections and grammar points.

7 Sure-fire Steps for Effective ESL Editing Practice

1. Identify common mistakes in ESL writing.

To begin having your students practice editing, you’ll first need to identify the most common mistakes your students make. These mistakes may be based on recent grammar lessons, or they might arise throughout the course (I’ve had classes in which students repeatedly made mistakes on points of grammar that they learned in much lower levels).

Sometimes you have to go back and repeat grammar lessons that students should already know (don’t believe them when students say they know it; make them prove it). The most common mistakes I’ve seen are subject-verb agreement, verb tenses and prepositions, but different ESL levels and linguistic backgrounds produce different errors.

Once you have identified some of the problems, show the students sentences that contain those errors. Write them on the board or provide students with handouts. Either way, ask the class if they can see what’s wrong with the sentences.

Most times ESL students will not notice the mistakes unless they know what type of mistakes they’re looking for. If the students have a difficult time finding the mistakes, give them hints. For example, tell your students the number of mistakes or which specific grammar point the mistakes are related to.

After correcting the sentences, review the points of grammar with the class to ensure they understand what is incorrect and how it can be corrected. This step may take longer depending on the level and the understanding of the grammar point. You may want to incorporate some online grammar exercises or integrate other technology into your lesson to spice it up.

You can also add a visual element to the learning by using FluentU videos that show the grammar point in action.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

This will allow students to see correct usage in action by real native English speakers.

2. Have students practice editing for specific mistakes.

As mentioned before, ESL students have an easier time identifying problems in a sentence if they know exactly what they’re looking for. You will have to tell the class what you want them to find in the sentences you provide them. Over time, students will be able to find such mistakes on their own.

For a class of lower level students, focus on just one or two grammar points every time you want to practice editing. This can be accomplished in a warm-up exercise with the entire class or as an exercise to review what they have learned.

For higher level ESL classes, you can use multiple grammar points when practicing editing. However, you should still begin the process by having students proofread sentences that only have mistakes involving one or two grammar points.

3. Provide students with editing practice for multiple undefined mistakes.

This can get frustrating for lower level students. You want to challenge them to find more, but don’t push for too many. For the lowest ESL levels, stick to one type of mistake in the editing exercises. As students progress, you can include two or three types of mistakes for them to identify.

Also, for these lower level students, you shouldn’t give them more than a short paragraph to edit at one time.

Advanced students should be able to handle many more types of mistakes in editing practice activities. At the advanced levels, it can be helpful to use a few grammatically incorrect sentences as a warm-up exercise each day.

When giving advanced ESL students proofreading exercises, you should provide them with a paragraph or two.

4. Explain the editing process for essays.

Now that the students have learned the basics of editing, you can offer them a more in-depth process to follow so they can proofread their own work.

“How do we know what to look for?” will be the most common question from ESL classes. The students may not know what types of mistakes they make most often.

Begin by asking the class what mistakes they think they make most often. Write these points on the board. You can add your own to the list when students run out of ideas.

Ask the students which points are most important and/or easiest to find. Now you should have a list of grammar points that the students know how to correct, plus an order in which they should look for the mistakes. Provide the students with a hard copy of that list so they always know what to look for when editing.

5. Teach students to peer-edit to reinforce the process.

Have the students work in pairs for this exercise. In longer classes, this can be an in-class exercise, but may also be used as homework. The first time you use this exercise, do it in class to ensure students are following the process you’ve explained. You could begin the exercise in class with only a paragraph to edit, and have the students finish the essay for homework.

Have the students follow the checklist and only look for one type of mistake at a time.

Students should also make their corrections in pencil instead of pen in case their edits aren’t correct. If students think there is a mistake but are unsure how to correct the sentence, tell them to circle or underline the word/phrase/sentence they think is incorrect.

After students have completed this peer-editing exercise, collect the essays and review the corrections. Both students should later review your corrections and comments to see what they did right and what needs improvement.

Advanced students tend to find more mistakes than actually exist, while beginners miss many mistakes.

6. Give students the chance to self-edit, using what they’ve learned.

The students are now prepared to edit their own work; they have the grammar skills and know the process.

After students have completed an essay or other in-class writing exercise, have them use the proofreading checklist to edit their own work. Instruct students to mark each list item as they check for it, along with how long they spent on that grammar point (approximately). This will give students an idea of how much time they’ll need to proofread their essays in the future.

Students should again use pencil to make their corrections. And just as you did with the peer-editing exercise, collect the writing assignment and make your own corrections and comments afterwards.

7. Practice editing daily with exercises to reinforce skills.

As mentioned before, the editing process takes time for students to learn and use effectively. You’ll need to review the process with daily exercises, but this can double as grammar practice if you’d like.

It’s easy to review grammar from previous lessons with short editing exercises. This practice can be done on the board or with handouts, or you can even assign proofreading as homework.

Over time, students will improve their grammar and editing skills. The more often they practice editing, the less likely they are to make the same mistakes again in the first place.

As your ESL students continue to practice editing, they’ll be able to catch their own mistakes before handing in their assignments. It’s a win-win!

So start at step one, and you can have your ESL students practicing their editing today!


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