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Top 10 Ways ESL Students Can Improve Their Academic Writing


Learning English as a second language is a difficult task. English is well-known for being complex and confusing, even for native speakers. From spelling to definite and indefinite articles, there are seemingly thousands of rules to memorize. ESL students often struggle with spelling, organization, grammar, and punctuation, depending on their starting language.

While producing error-free writing will take time and experience, this article will discuss the top 10 ways ESL students can improve their academic writing now.

1. Learn how to use articles

One of the biggest challenges ESL students have is learning the rules for articles. Articles are used to define nouns and specify their relationship to the reader. They are difficult to learn because there are many rules that govern their use. There are two key features of nouns that can help ESL students improve their use of articles.

Countable vs. uncountable

Countable nouns are just that: countable. They are things that can be counted as individual items. For example, pen is a countable noun. One pen, two pens, three pens, and so on.

Use an article if the noun is countable

  • Example: "The author preferred to write with a pen."
  • Example: "They moved into the house."

Uncountable nouns cannot be counted individually or cannot be divisible. For example, water is an uncountable noun because it requires another noun to count it, such as a pint of water, a glass of water, etc.

Do not use an article if the noun is uncountable

  • Example: "Ice is frozen water."
  • Example: "She decided to bake bread for her family."

If there is a question of if a noun is countable or uncountable, some dictionaries will specify what type of noun a word is. One such dictionary that is great for ESL students is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

Definite vs. indefinite

If a noun is definite, that means that it is known by or obvious to the speaker and the listener. There are various situations that will determine if a noun is known. The TJ Taylor blog outlines five situations that make nouns definite:

  1. The object has already been mentioned. "I bought a laptop [indefinite] on eBay. When it arrived, the laptop [definite] wouldn't start up."
  2. The object is unique or represents a category of things. "The dog was barking. The neighborhood was upset by the noise."
  3. Context makes it obvious. "I have included the check for your services."
  4. Extra information makes it definite. "The laptop I bought ended up being broken."
  5. Ranking makes it definite. "Mark was the first person to finish the test."
Articles in English
Perfecting the use of articles in English will take some practice, but with these main ideas, anyone can master them.

2. Use effective headings and subheadings

ESL students often have a desire to be as clear as possible in their academic writing, but that can translate into unnecessary wordiness. Specifically, headings and subheadings are often too long to be effective in organizing their work.

There is a balance in the length of a heading. The point is to simply introduce the topic that will be discussed. Headings that are too long distract the reader from the information to come and can even be confusing. Headings that are too short don't adequately describe the point of the section.

  • Too long: "The history of English as the dominant language in political events around the world"
  • Too short: "Dominant English"
  • Just Right: "English as the global political language"

3. Limit use of contractions

Contractions are words made by combining two words into one using an apostrophe. These words are most often used in spoken English. They have less use in academic and professional writing. Instead of writing something like "The author shouldn't use sentence fragments in the book," write out the contraction to say, "The author should not use sentence fragments in the book." Some other contractions include can't, don't, wouldn't, and they're. Substitute those words with cannot, do not, would not, and they are, respectively.

Some words should not be combined into contractions. For example, "will not" should not become "willn't." In academic writing, ESL students can avoid those errors by not using contractions in their writing.

4. Choose the right verb tense

In academic writing, one key is to avoid writing in the future tense. Most situations in academics will call for the present tense or past tense. For example, instead of writing, "This paper will discuss advertisements throughout the 20th century," write "This paper discusses advertisements throughout the 20th century." This phrasing makes the statement stronger and reflects the present intent of the text.

When discussing part of an author's existing text, the most common verb tense to use is past tense. If the action happened in the past and was done by someone, use the past tense to identify what the person did. In a literature review, for example, the sentence might be, "In his 2001 article in Research Times, Andrews examined the functionality of petri dishes for various experiments." Andrews did the research in the past, so the verb tense should reflect that.

Remember to maintain the same verb tense throughout the sentence and paragraphs. If possible, use the same verb tense throughout each section.

5. Eliminate run-on sentences

Punctuation is the hero of this skill. Run-on sentences are sentences with two or more independent clauses without the correct punctuation. Understanding the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause is the first part of eliminating run-on sentences.

Independent clauses are statements that can stand on their own as a complete sentence. Dependent clauses are not complete sentences. To put two independent clauses together correctly, the sentence must use the right punctuation or the right conjunctions.

  • Wrong: "The man stepped on the scale to get his weight this was not something he wanted to do."
  • Correct: "The man stepped on the scale to get his weight. This was not something he wanted to do."
  • Correct: "The man stepped on the scale to get his weight; this was not something he wanted to do."

6. Use correct punctuation

Often, experienced writers and novices alike will write with a stream of consciousness, leaving out formatting and punctuation marks as they let their ideas flow onto the page. But punctuation helps to shape our thoughts and give readers the context required for a full understanding of the text. Understanding how to properly use various punctuation marks can make all the difference in ESL students' academic writing.

Consider the use of commas, colons, semicolons, em dashes, and en dashes. These particular punctuation marks elevate sentences into complex thoughts that are organized into an understandable structure. It's like presenting data in a table instead of just putting numbers on the page without any identifying columns or rows to show how those numbers are supposed to be interpreted.

7. Check your spelling

There are so many ways that things can go wrong with spelling in English. ESL students should be diligent in proofreading their academic writing to eliminate spelling errors. One way to do this is to use the spell check function in programs like Microsoft Word®. Unfortunately, many words are still correct even though they may not be the correct word for the sentence. For example, form and from are very often mixed up as typos. Spell check will not flag that, however, because they are both spelled correctly!

Another option is to hire a proofreader that is unfamiliar with your work. Their unfamiliarity with the text means they will look at every word within the context and identify mistakes that you may overlook because your brain already knows what the text should say.

8. Effective word choice

Vocabulary is a feature of languages that grows most naturally with time. Certainly, learners will have a base vocabulary to start with, but growing that foundation takes time. As an ESL student's vocabulary increases, they will naturally be able to broaden their word choice in their writing. Using synonyms is an easy way to keep sentences effective and lively. To vary the language in academic writing, use a thesaurus to find synonyms that fit within the context.

9. Use correct capitalization

Knowing when to capitalize words can be difficult. Some rules are obvious and easy to remember (people's names) while others are not (words in subheadings). Some of the most important rules for capitalization are:

  • Capitalize months and days: January, Tuesday
  • Capitalize cities and countries: New York City, Germany
  • Capitalize major events: World War II, Dark Ages

10. Read it out loud

One tactic that helps with cleaning up academic writing (and all writing in general) is to read the text out loud. When we hear our thoughts and write them down, things just seem to make sense. We recognize the thoughts because they have been a part of us. When we read verbally, however, the text can change into something more foreign, providing a reader's perspective rather than the writer's perspective. Changing that viewpoint will highlight inconsistencies and errors, allowing the writer to polish the content.

By using these 10 tips, ESL students can elevate their academic writing and continue on to great success. English isn't easy, but by taking time to review each of the topics presented in this article, students can make enormous improvements in a short amount of time.

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