Teaching ESL students to write essays can be frustrating for both teachers and students.
Students need to be able to write more than a sentence or two, and the additional effort necessary for writing an essay can lead to a lot of unclear and confusing sentences.
Those same sentences can give teachers a headache when correcting the writing exercises.
Luckily, there’s a secret to dramatically improving the clarity in ESL essays.
The problems of clarity can almost always be traced back to one element: the thesis statement. If students aren’t taught to write a coherent thesis statement, the rest of their essays will remain unclear.
So below we’ll look at four simple ways to impressively improve clarity in your students’ writing – just by focusing on the thesis statement. But before we get there, let’s consider the ins and outs of a thesis statement, plus some common problems you’ll encounter in ESL writing exercises.
What Is a Thesis Statement?
To improve clarity in ESL writing exercises, you must first teach students what a thesis statement is. Students who do not understand what it is will not be able to effectively follow any instruction on improving that all-important sentence in their essays.
Because most ESL teachers now instruct students how to write five-paragraph essays, the thesis statement is easier to identify and write. In such essays, the thesis statement can be formulaic; students answer the essay question and provide three reasons/points of discussion related to the topic in a parallel construction.
Example: People should learn a foreign language because it improves career prospects, develops creative thinking and decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Once the students have their answer to the question, they can see that this sentence is directly related to their three body paragraphs. Teachers should explain that the students can write their topic sentences to the body paragraphs using the ideas in the thesis statement. This will keep the students focused on the topic throughout the essay.
When students understand what the thesis statement is and how to use it in their essays, they will have an easier time writing essays for future courses. They will also be able to more easily identify main ideas when reading.
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Common Problems in ESL Writing Exercises
When it comes to the thesis statement, the majority of problems are related to grammar. Many students will write an unclear thesis statement because they don’t know what to write about and just continue writing until they get to what they believe to be an idea for their essay.
Teachers must make it a priority to instruct students in ways to write clear, concise sentences. I used to tell my students the same thing my graduate professor told me, “Write as though words cost money.” When students use more precise vocabulary, they eliminate wordiness and improve clarity. Teaching students to write in this manner takes a lot of time and effort, but can be achieved. FluentU’s interactive videos can be used to teach this type of vocabulary.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With those five-paragraph essays that most ESL students learn to write, parallel construction is important. When students write the reasons for their answer to an essay question, they don’t think about parallelism.
Many students have a difficult time understanding parallel construction, but if it is reviewed often throughout a course, the students will have a better understanding of it. Combined with brief lessons on concise writing, the problems of parallelism in thesis statements can be minimized.
So here are four simple ways to address these common problems in ESL writing exercises to dramatically improve clarity in your students’ writing.
4 Simple Ways to Dramatically Improve Clarity in ESL Writing Exercises
1. Provide Clear Writing Examples to Your ESL Students
The best method for getting students to write with more clarity is to provide them with clear examples of good thesis statements.
Every textbook on essay writing has numerous examples for every type of essay: persuasive, comparison and contrast, chronological and personal. Some textbooks will have better examples than others; it’s your responsibility to focus on the ones that are most effective.
There are also plenty of university writing tutorial websites that provide additional examples for use in class, such as the Purdue OWL.
However, there is no substitute for in-class examples on the board. Using possible essay topic questions suitable for your class’s level, you can show the class how to write a clear, concise thesis statement – including the process and word choice.
And while it’s important to show students how to write an effective thesis statement, it is also helpful to provide them with examples of ineffective thesis statements. Show students thesis statements that are vague, confusing and wordy so they understand what you mean by vague, confusing and wordy. When students understand what those terms mean, they will have an easier time identifying and correcting the problems.
2. Dissect the ESL Writing Examples with Your Students
After providing examples to your students, be sure to review why these examples work. Ask the class what they see in the example – Does it answer a question? Does it provide reasons for the answer? Point out how the thesis statement addresses a question. If their example mirrors the standard five-paragraph essay thesis statement, show the students how parallel construction is used.
Since ESL students should recognize the need to directly address the essay prompt, provide sample questions/topics in class to help demonstrate. If the essay question is, “Should every citizen be required to vote?,” then the students’ thesis should begin with, “Every citizen should/shouldn’t be required to vote.” From this phrase, the students can explain why they agree or disagree with the idea. Based on this model, students should be able to identify whether or not an example in class fits this formula.
Some ESL students learn to write better by correcting others’ mistakes. Use examples that have common mistakes and have the students identify and correct those mistakes. Teachers can also write an essay prompt on the board and then write a thesis statement, including some errors, based on that prompt. This activity will give students an opportunity to understand the thesis statement and improve their editing skills. Be sure to include mistakes involving parallelism and wordiness, as well as examples that don’t actually answer the writing prompt.
3. Practice Writing Thesis Statements
Students will get bored of the examples unless they’re broken up throughout the course. As teachers, we need to offer more hands-on activities to give students the opportunity to show that they have learned the process of writing thesis statements.
Depending on the type of essay that your students are learning to write, provide a sample essay prompt and have the students write a thesis statement. This can be done with handouts of multiple essay prompts or with the prompts written on the board.
You can walk around the room and see how the students are doing with the writing prompts. This may help with suggestions during the review period.
When the class has completed the exercise of writing multiple thesis statements, you can review using volunteers who want to share their answers. Take examples from at least two students for each practice writing prompt. When doing so, have the students write their thesis statements on the board and review them with the entire class. The other students should be able to provide feedback and corrections for their classmates. You should provide further feedback after the class has finished evaluating their classmates.
After completing an evaluation of the answers to the first writing prompt, have the class go back and proofread their other thesis statements and then review their writing the same way as before.
4. Write Theses in Small Groups
Another form of practice to review students’ thesis writing abilities is to write theses as a group. After students have learned the basic structure of a thesis statement for each type of essay, they should be able to help each other out when working together. For this exercise, it’s best to pair students with weaker writing skills with ones who better understand the structure.
As with the previous exercise, provide your students with multiple essay prompts, and the groups will write a thesis statement for each. So in groups of three or four students, they all have to agree on what to include in the thesis statement. This will not only improve students’ ability to write a clear thesis, but may also improve their logical division of ideas in essays.
Adding exercises like these to an ESL writing course will greatly improve the quality of student essays over the course of a semester.
Students and teachers need to realize that these writing exercises are not a quick fix for the problems of unclear writing, but rather a tool for gradually improving. Some students may need a reminder of this as they may become frustrated with their mistakes, but the ability to write a clear and concise thesis statement is the first step towards writing a clear essay.
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