How to Teach Writing to ESL Students Through Bad Writing
Do you consistently receive subpar writing from certain students?
Are you looking for a new way to improve your students’ writing?
What if I told you there were a way to actually use poor writing samples to boost writing quality?
By teaching your ESL students to correctly identify the differences between great and bad writing, they’ll be able to better produce good writing themselves.
How to Efficiently Improve ESL Students’ Writing
Let’s take a look at a sample text. Can you point out the problems with this passage?
There are many reasons to have a college degree, like getting a good job in the future. The cost of college education is increasing and making it difficult for some students to get a college degree nowadays. It’s important to have a college degree.
It’s grammatically correct, but it’s poorly executed. Phrases are repeated without adding anything to the development of the idea. If this were part of a longer essay, you could expect more of the same lack of specifics to develop the main idea.
ESL students often write sentences like these because they don’t know what else to write, and because it’s grammatically correct, they assume it’s acceptable writing. As ESL teachers, we need to be able to show students how to turn passages like this into clear, coherent sentences for their essays.
When we teach students to write better, we usually use grammar explanations and provide examples of proper sentence structure. We may also provide students with mistakes to improve their proofreading skills.
So what happens to the students’ comprehension of sentence structure if we present them with examples of poor writing instead?
Showing Mistakes vs. Showing Poor Writing Examples
When we give the students sentences that contain mistakes, we’re reinforcing grammar lessons, like the difference between gerunds and infinitives. This is an important skill for ESL students to learn, but it will only take them so far in essay writing.
If we want our ESL students to reach the next level, we need to show them what we mean by poor writing. The sentences and paragraphs in examples of poor writing will be grammatically correct, so the writing mistakes will be weak vocabulary and a lack of sentence variety, cohesion and logic.
These are not writing problems that most ESL students will be able to identify easily. In some cases, the writing style and logical flow of sentences will make sense to students from certain cultural and linguistic backgrounds; circular reasoning and generalizing are common in some regions.
It’s the teacher’s job to ensure students understand style and logic in an English essay. And this method of discussing poor writing will assist in the process.
How to Present Poor Writing Examples to Your ESL Class
When presenting bad writing examples to students, it’s important to remind them beforehand that what they are about to read is, in fact, not the type of writing you want from them. There is, however, no need to go into detail at this time about why it’s unacceptable.
When you introduce a poor writing sample to your students, they’ll begin to read with the intention of finding what’s wrong with the text. If you have them reading the text to themselves to begin the lesson, they’ll focus on finding mistakes.
But because the text is grammatically correct, they’ll have a difficult time understanding what’s wrong. However, it will still get them thinking about content.
This is where you need to begin the classroom discussion.
Ask your students what information they got out of the text. Was the text clear? Did it present an argument with specific examples to back up the argument? If it presents an argument, is it logical?
After tearing the specific arguments apart, you can move on to the flow of the sentences and paragraphs. Are there clear transitions between the sentences and paragraphs? Are there sentences that are off topic or in the wrong place in the paragraph? What words or phrases should be replaced in the text because they’re vague or confusing? What suggestions do the students have for improving specific parts of the text?
Depending on the ESL level, you can introduce terms such as “sweeping generalization,” “slippery slope” and “logical fallacy” to help students understand what’s wrong with the text they are given. When students understand such problems with logical arguments, they will attempt to avoid the same problems in their own writing.
Comparing Good and Bad ESL Writing Examples
While it’s useful to discuss why a text is considered weak writing, students need to see ways in which to improve such writing. When they see the changes that can be made to weak writing, they’re more likely to incorporate such changes in their own writing.
After reviewing the weak writing with the class, provide the students with another version of the text that is clear and has a logical flow of ideas. Point out the similarities, especially in relation to the overall ideas presented in the texts, so students can better recognize how ideas can be developed.
What ESL Students Will See in the Writing Examples
As students approach the texts, they’ll begin to recognize the problems in their own writing.
Ask students if they can identify weak words and phrases in the original text and the improved, more specific word choices in the rewritten version. The more that the students can identify on their own, the easier it will be for them to improve their essays.
Prior to this activity, many students can’t recognize what’s wrong with grammatically-correct sentences that are vague. When teachers write comments on essays that say, “Needs more development,” or “Be more specific,” students may not understand what they should do to improve. ESL students will often revise such essays with new sentences that are equally underdeveloped. So students need to see concrete ways in which to improve their essays.
As your students see more examples of poor writing, they’ll be able to recognize patterns: the empty words and phrases—which are often repeated in multiple essays—that aren’t necessary in an essay.
As ESL students compare weak and strong texts that are similar, they will be able to see what their essay revisions were lacking.
How Students Will Make Progress from Using Poor Writing Examples
Because ESL students will be able to compare the good with the bad writing, they’ll be able to relate the differences to their own writing. When you assign essay revisions to students, you should remind them of this activity to ensure they remember what to look for when making corrections. Over time, these lessons will become clearer to your students and they’ll no longer need a reminder prior to revising their essays.
More motivated students will attempt to replicate the style they’ve learned in order to revise older essays. As they see the progress made in their revisions, the improvements will carry over to their first drafts.
When used multiple times in a semester, the activity of presenting bad writing to an ESL class will generate greater interest in improving your students’ specific writing problems. Before the end of the semester, you’ll no longer need to present a revised version of the text because your students will understand how to improve the writing and make their own suggestions based on previous lessons.
So for a new, effective way to improve your ESL students’ writing, start showing poor writing examples in class—not just isolated grammar mistakes.
You’ll all benefit from the experience, as your students’ writing quality will notably get better, and in turn you’ll have an easier time correcting compositions—so try it out today!