Are you a cozy-office-with-tea type of writer?
Maybe you are more of a coffee shop writer, tapping away on your laptop amid a caffeinated crowd.
Or maybe you prefer the peace and quiet of a library to let your ideas form on the page.
No matter what kind of writer you are, you probably know that writing can be captivating and rewarding—but it can also be very challenging.
Especially if you are writing in a foreign language.
For ESL students, writing in English is an excellent way to get your text to the masses. But it can also be difficult to find the right words and grammar to express your thoughts.
Do not be disheartened!
There are ESL writing tools that can help you improve your skills and boost your motivation to write. You do not even need special instruction or classes—and in many cases, you do not even need to pay.
What Are the Benefits of ESL Writing Resources?
It is great to have a teacher who can point out the strengths and shortcomings of your personal writing. However, hiring a tutor is expensive. It is a luxury to have an English instructor who can examine your writing every single day.
Fortunately, you can find lots of writing support available affordably (often free!) online. We will discuss several below that you can use to improve a range of writing skills.
Even if money is not a problem, you may also prefer to study with writing resources because it is much more flexible than an English class or tutoring.
When you study by yourself, you can schedule English learning at any time—in the early hours before work, during your lunch break or any other time that works for you. If you have the urge to improve your writing skills at midnight, it is entirely possible. There is no need to schedule lessons a week or more in advance like you would with a tutor.
Write On: 10+ Top ESL Writing Resources for Self-study
Resources for Grammar and Usage
Some people learn to speak a language by picking up words and phrases from context. Having learned no formal grammar, they manage to communicate in everyday situations. Unfortunately, this is not so simple with writing.
If you want your writing to be clear and professional, you need to understanding grammatical rules. It is non-negotiable. Using the wrong verb tense or putting words in the wrong order will distract the reader from what you are trying to say.
The good news: there are plenty of resources to help you master English grammar. Some of our favorites are below.
I used to hate reading grammar books, and my high school English teacher who repeated every page five times to make us remember them.
Today, I am grateful for the grammar rules I learned through those books and my teacher’s repetitions. I owe her my solid English writing (and probably an apology). Grammar books can seem dull at first—but you will soon realize that they are the most efficient way to answer grammar questions and discover new, correct writing techniques.
Some of my favorite grammar foundation books are below. They are comprehensive, renowned and widely used even among native English speakers.
These books are also great if you need to solve specific grammar questions. Just flip through the table of contents or index to find what you are looking for.
- “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language”
- “Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English”
- “The Elements of Style”
Learning Tip: There is a game I use to make studying grammar less tedious. Each time I learn a new structure, I pick up my favorite book, open a random page and scan a few passages until I find a sentence using the structure. I note it down before moving to the next structure.
Instead of a thick paper book, this resource offers a searchable and easy-to-navigate website that you can access anytime.
Not only will you find explanations of English grammar rules, there are also quizzes to test your skills and a grammar blog for generalized learning. If you are struggling with a particular topic, there is a good chance it has been covered on this site. For visual learners, there are even grammar usage videos discussing everything from subjects and verbs to correct capitalization.
A lot of the grammar mistakes are a reflection of rules or habits from your native language. For example, in my native language, Vietnamese, there is no such thing as subject and verb agreement. Every subject takes the same form of a verb.
Thus, in English, my instinct is to write, “I speak at the same time as he speak” (instead of “I speak at the same time as he speaks”). Nine out of ten times I might catch the mistake when I proofread my writing, but sometimes it escapes me.
Luckily, tools such as Grammarly can point out your mistakes so you can learn from them and become a more confident writer.
Grammarly is probably the sleekest tool out there for grammar checking. You can use it on practically any type of writing, including emails, social media posts, blogs and more. Grammarly scans your writing for 250 different types of grammar issues as well as spelling mistakes. Plus, it will suggest synonyms as you write to help you expand your vocabulary.
There is a Chrome plug-in that is handy if you write a lot online. The desktop app for Windows covers the rest of your word processing.
I am an avid user of Grammarly, and the benefits are obvious to me. You can start with the free version, which pinpoints the most fundamental mistakes in your writing.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab
The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a comprehensive online writing resource. There are practice sheets and linguistic primers for students of all levels, plus a dedicated space for ESL students and instructors.
English learners can find many exercises to practice grammatical rules, sentence crafting and style, as well as resources for professional or academic writing. There is a separate section for ESL exercises.
But do not feel confined only to the ESL materials! If you are an advanced learner or just looking to diversify your study tools, you might enjoy the General Writing Resources section.
Here you will find tutorials for the writing process, mechanics, grammar and punctuation as well as in-depth explanations about various types of writing (e.g. undergraduate applications, correspondence and community engaged writing, among others.)
Dave’s ESL Cafe
Dave’s ESL Cafe is another comprehensive resource site, which is useful for both ESL students and teachers. It offers an extensive list of grammar lessons, including everything from verb forms and tenses to confusing English words. There are also lessons addressing word use like special expressions with colors or irregular countable nouns.
Under the Stuff for Students section, you can find learning support from a community of English speakers, learners and teachers. Check out the Help Center and Student Forums to ask your questions and help others with theirs.
Grammar Girl is a comprehensive grammar resource available as a podcast and website. Here you will find brief and accessible tips to improve your writing. This is a very popular site where almost any grammar or word use question has an answer.
The great thing about the Grammar Girl podcast is that it makes complex grammar questions simple. You will often learn memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. The podcast is free to access and an excellent way to boost your English skills while you are driving, doing chores or during any other down time.
This site, launched by writer Melissa Donovan in 2007, provides materials not only for improving your writing skills, but also for developing ideas to write about.
Go to Grammar Tips and you will find blog posts on specific grammar rules, using homophones and punctuation and quirks of the English language. Scroll down to the search bar on the lefthand side if you are looking for guidance on a specific topic.
Writing Forward will also help you develop as an author. There are tons of writing prompts for fiction, poetry and other creative writing. You will also find general writing exercises that will help you get consistent (and enjoyable!) practice writing in English.
Resources for Vocabulary
While correct grammar will make your writing strong, an enriched vocabulary makes your text shine. You can think of grammar rules as the bones of your writing and vocabulary as the flesh.
The following are resources to help you expand your vocabulary so that you can flesh out concepts, ideas, stories or any imaginary worlds you want.
Macmillan and Merriam-Webster Online Dictionaries
Online dictionaries are becoming more and more popular as a vocabulary learning tool, since they give users the meaning of a word in a split second. When I started learning English, my print Macmillan dictionary was a possession of pride. It still stands proudly on my bookshelf, but I no longer use it. I go online.
I would particularly recommend the online dictionaries from Macmillan and Merriam-Webster for ESL students. Aside from looking up specific words, you should also use the thesauruses and quizzes on their websites. Macmillan even has themed quizzes that you can use to show off your vocabulary, or discover gaps in your knowledge.
If you are looking for additional useful online dictionary tools, Merriam-Wester has weekly quizzes to test your vocabulary (go to the word games section to find the latest). They are indeed very challenging!
“A Way with Words”
“A Way with Words” is an hour-long radio program that will help you build your vocabulary in an engaging way.
The hosts discuss the English language through history, culture and family. During the hour, they also take calls from listeners who ask questions about particular words or share expressions that, for example, their grandfather used to say.
You can find the show on your podcast players and tune in to learn about slang, word origins or regional dialects. The hosts also play word quizzes and discuss language news and controversies.
“6 Minute Vocabulary”
If you are looking for a podcast with bite-sized episodes, “6 Minute Vocabulary” is for you. As the name indicates, the show discusses linguistic matters in six minutes. It is short, sweet and very easy to fit into your everyday routine.
The podcast is updated weekly, and each episode is available to download for free for 30 days. That means you will not be able to dig through the archive for specific grammar topics, but it is great for learning new topics you might not have thought about otherwise.
Out-of-the-box Resources for Writing Practice
The most challenging part of self-studying is that you do not get personalized feedback on your work. You can write a 2,000-word essay, but you do not know how much of it is up to the standard of, say, a college application. Luckily, you can take advantage of online communities to get feedback or validation for your effort.
Here are two useful sites for practicing writing and getting some feedback.
Goodreads is a community for book lovers. It is where people share books that they are reading or want to read. Users recommend books to friends and set up reading challenges for motivation. People also rate books and leave reviews, which is where our study can come in.
Here is how you can use Goodreads for English writing practice:
- Set up a Goodreads account or just link it with your Facebook account. Find a book (in English) that sounds interesting. Buy it or borrow it. Read it.
- Once you read it, sit down and write a review on Goodreads. It is advisable to add an overview of the book before sharing your opinions on it. Summary writing is the secret to improving both ESL writing and reading skills.
Make the review as long or as short as you like. You can even do two or three versions. It is about the practice of capturing the main ideas, expressing them in your words and improving your skills.
- When you are happy with your review, share it with the Goodreads community. You should also read other reviews and compare them with your own. How did others summarize the book? How different is your version from theirs?
Be critical. Feel free to leave comments on other reviews and discuss the matter. As long as you are thinking and discussing in English, your writing skills are getting a workout.
Quora is where people ask questions and seek answers from online communties. It is becoming a major player in the social media world.
Here is what you can do to use Quora for improvement in English writing:
- Set up a Quora account and provide details about yourself. Quora will match your experience with questions that you might know the answer to.
For example, you might get questions about the customs of your home country if you specify where you were born. The more details you give, the more questions will be suggested to you or requested of your from other users—and the more writing practice you will get.
- Once you see a question you can answer, write a clear, concise and compelling explanation. Run the response through Grammarly first if you are not confident. Then you can share it.
- I guarantee you will feel pleased each time someone upvotes your answer. It gives you the motivation to keep writing and interacting with English speakers.
Using the right resources makes learning a second language easier. If you want to improve your writing skills, these grammar and vocabulary resources will help. Also, do not forget to keep practicing. Practice makes perfect!