Expert Advice from Teachers to Avoid Common ESL Writing Mistakes
“Recognize that there will be failures, and acknowledge that there will be obstacles. But you will learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others, for there is very little learning in success”
– Michael Dell
As many entrepreneurs and business professionals would say: you are not moving forward if you are not failing. Unfortunately with many English-as-a-second-language (ESL) learners it is the other way around.
ESL students hate making mistakes and wrongly see no value in continuing to make them. Being praised by teachers for error-free English is way more appealing than being interrupted and corrected every other sentence. Furthermore nobody likes or appreciates being corrected, especially in a classroom setting.
That is most probably the No. 1 reason why ESL learners measure and benchmark their progress against how mistake-free their language use is. Such thinking is entirely wrong.
ESL learners try to speak as fluently as they can by avoiding structures and words, which meaning and proper use they are not entirely sure about. This is the surest way to learning stagnation – making very little progress and making very little regress.
Something that awaits all who stop making continuous effort at using and re-using newly acquired, or maybe even overheard but yet unknown idioms, words, phrases, language structures, etc.
Some people are of course more predisposed to learning English than others. Asian learners, for example, clearly struggle with pronunciation more than, say, Scandinavian learners. Other than culture-specific linguistic characteristics there are also personal learning styles, which may differ, and they generally do, from person to person.
Some learn better through auditory perception while others learn better through sight. If a word is learned through hearing, there is a good change an ESL learner does not know how to spell the word properly. Such issues pop up quite often and only time and dedicated practice can make things right.
We asked a few dozens of teachers to share with our readers their teaching experiences and expert insights on best practices to overcome unnecessary mistakes in writing and learning practice.
Yukari Peerless Owner of Lucid Communication. Services include ESL support, translation, wedding planning
Adriana Oberto English teacher. Translator to and from Italian, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.
Steven Ayy ESL teacher living in China. Hosts The Culture Bum Youtube Channel and Podcasts that cover teaching, traveling, saving money and other related topics.
Diana Dwyer ESL teacher, blogger and volunteer from Madrid, Spain
Jason R. Levine English teacher, teacher trainer. He has taught English and given workshops in 17 countries over the past 18 years.
Andrea Giordano English teacher, assistant director of ESL programs at Campbellsville University and creator of ESL Basics.
Eliza Claudia Filimon PhD Lecturer of English (17-year teaching experience), IELTS / TOEFL trainer
Vanessa Galban ESL teacher for a variety of different ages and levels; English/Spanish translator
Sarah van Diermen Dutch, Spanish, English Translator and ESL Teacher from Bogota, Colombia
Rosie Jo Nuttall ESL teacher, proofreader and editor from Faversham, United Kingdom
Lauren Mifsud Works as an ESL teacher in English training school, Shanghai, China
Therese Stevens TOEFL and IELTS Exam preparation tutor, TESOL teacher trainer
Varsha Hoopdeo ESL teacher, part time tutor in Life Sciences, Business Studies and English
Heather Gaddis English language teacher in both ESL and EFL settings with an M.A. in Applied Linguistics
Nicolette van Straaten Language school coordinator and ESL teacher, translator
Satoko Smith English / Japanese translator, voice actor, teacher based in Sydney, Australia
Hereby you are presented with the best opinions and strategies on learning English as a second language. Take care however, as the strategies presented may significantly decrease the amount of mistakes you make!
Writing, as one teacher wrote to us, is a productive skill. Good writing skills can only be cultivated through dedicated practice and constant feedback from teachers, which is hardly possible if you let others write your essays for you. If you don’t constantly write, reflect on your writing and try to improve your skill, it is highly improbable that your writing will ever improve.
In fact it won’t.
It takes years of practice to avoid fundamental and hard to eliminate mistakes, such as unconscious translating back and forth between English and your native tongue. This creates the misuse of vocabulary and has a destructive impact on language comprehension.
Writing can undoubtedly help you with that. It can also help you form clearer thoughts, so if you do practice your writing skill, your speech will improve, your English comprehension will improve and, most importantly, you will be able to speak and write translate-free speech.
Stylistic Mistakes in Writing
- Not realizing that there are culture-specific writing standards that you have to follow
“One of the biggest errors that advanced ESL students make is not realizing that writing is specific to each culture and/or language.“ - Heather Gaddis
“Not organizing a piece of writing like an English speaker. Every culture has a specific way of organizing writing.” - Andrea Giordano
“Writing in English brings with it cultural expectations about what good writing is and is not.” - Heather Gaddis
- Not realizing English is a writer responsibility culture
“For example, many English-speaking cultures are writer responsibility cultures, which means that it is the writer’s responsibility to draw connections between points and to lead the reader to understanding the main idea.” - Heather Gaddis
“And finally, another issue in writing is students writing either incomplete sentences or sentence fragments or run-on sentences.” - Nicolette van Straaten
- Forming unnecessarily complex structures
“Another common mistake ESL students have the tendency of making is forming wordy sentences. This is when a writer uses too many words or unnecessarily complex or abstract words.” - Lauren Mifsud
“Using unnatural (and often wordy) phrases and clauses instead of collocations.” - Jason R. Levine
- Misuse of the vocabulary
“Many times students try to find alternative words to words they want to use, but often times this leads to the misuse of the word.” - Lauren Mifsud
“One error that beginning and intermediate ESL students make is constantly translating between their first language and the target language.” - Heather Gaddis
“Translating collocations from your first language into English (when in English the words don't collocate)” - Jason R. Levine
Example: let’s make a dinner party on Sunday (wrong) & let’s have a dinner party on Sunday (correct)
Grammar and Punctuation Mistakes
- Not knowing punctuation rules
“Another error that advanced ESL students make is not paying attention to the punctuation rules in English.” - Heather Gaddis
“Using a comma instead of a period. If you have come to the end of an independent clause, it's time for a period.” - Andrea Giordano
Example: She refuses to go to bed early and she thinks she will miss something (wrong) & She refuses to go to bed early. She thinks she will miss something (correct)
- Position of the adverb and position of the preposition
“The most common error made in writing is incorrect syntax. Students often confuse the position of the adverb in the sentence.” - Therese Stevens
Example No. 1: we play often soccer (wrong) & we often play soccer (correct)
Example No. 2: we unfortunately could not meet (wrong) & unfortunately we could not meet (correct)
“However, learners may also confuse the position of the adjective and preposition in the sentence.” - Therese Stevens
Example: he was of frightened losing her (wrong) & he was frightened of losing her (correct)
- Misuse of articles
“The next big ESL mistake students commonly make is misusing or leaving out articles. However, this is a simple mistake to fix. To steer clear of this mistake students should reread the rules on articles and always reread their sentences out loud or to a friend. Proofreading is also another critical aspect fixing this mistake!“ - Lauren Mifsud
Example No. 1: It was an historical event worth attending (wrong) & It was a historical event worth attending (correct)
Example No. 2: animal that bit me disappeared (wrong) & the animal that bit me disappeared (correct)
- Subject-verb agreement
“…subject-verb agreement mistakes are always going to happen, at all levels. This problem is encountered in speaking and in writing…” - Vanessa Galban
Example: people is crazy (wrong) & people are crazy (correct)
- Using wrong verbs and tenses
“Using the simple present tense instead of the simple past tense is another frequent mistake.” - Rosie Jo Nuttall
Example: John goes to the movies yesterday (wrong) & John went to the movies yesterday (correct)
“Many students use the wrong verb tenses when they speak and/or write. For example, often times, students will use the present perfect to refer to something that happened at a specific moment in the past. In this case, students should use the past simple.” – Lauren Mifsud
Example: he has gone to the movies (wrong) & he went to the movies (correct)
- Not understanding homonyms
“Words that sound the same and are spelled the same, but have different meanings are called homonyms.” - Lauren Mifsud
Example No. 1: mail and male
Example No. 2: ant and aunt
Behavioral mistakes can keep an ESL learner away from learning the language at full potential. Perhaps the No. 1 mistake is to miss out on culture exchange and language practice while abroad. If you find yourself in a foreign country earning a degree or just learning the language, it may be very tempting to actively seek out people who speak your mother tongue. That’s a behavioral mistake. Being in a foreign country, one must utilize every opportunity to ‘lose’ their native tongue for as long as possible.
- Lack of immersion into English culture
“…common ESL mistake students make is not getting enough immersion” - Vanessa Galban
“…I can understand how having a friend from your own country can sometimes be your sounding board, but students really need to get out of their comfort zone” - Yukari Peerless
“When a student arrives to the United States or other English speaking country to study English, it can be very tempting to surround themselves with people that they can understand easily.” - Heather Gaddis
- Not differentiating between street English and proper English
“Excessive exposure to incorrect spoken and written language in mobile messages, e-mails, and other social networking activities is a threat looming at every corner of your journey in learning English.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
- Not using different methods of study
“The most frequent error in study practice among ESL students is the method of learning English directly through one means only.” - Therese Stevens
- Doubting yourself
“…a common error ESL students make is to doubt their own ability to become fluent and bilingual in English.” - Therese Stevens
“Everyone is capable of becoming fluent and each student should be encouraged and inspired by his teacher to do so.” - Therese Stevens
Strategies for Overcoming Mistakes
There is always hope for an ESL learner precisely because there are so many excellent pedagogues.
The following are behavioral, learning and writing strategies that can help you realize some of the mistakes you’ve been making as well as achieve a qualitatively better grasp of English language.
- The more you write, the better you are at it
“…writing is a productive skill and it helps you build up vocabulary, it improves your fluency and it ultimately impacts on your confident speaking.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
- Stop translating back and forth
“The best advice I can give to students is to stop translating! Students should focus on the language you are learning, not every word in your language can translate to English!” - Vanessa Galban
- Keep your sentence structures simple to avoid wordiness
“Wordiness also occurs when writers say the same thing many times, but in different ways. To avoid this ESL mistake students should try not to use similar words in the same sentence. In addition, students should keep their sentences short and sweet while getting across what they want to say to their reader in a unique way.” - Lauren Mifsud
- Get out of your comfort zone
“ESL students should look for opportunities to interact with a variety of English speakers, including students from other countries.” - Heather Gaddis
“If you study at college/university, there are plenty of opportunities to join clubs/teams. If you study at a private language school and everyone in your school are international students, ask your teacher or staff for volunteer opportunities in your community.” - Yukari Peerless
- Set clear objectives
“The lack of set objectives and time-frames could be another issue contributing to your unease.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
- Get talking
“While these means [textbooks, podcasts, television] are useful, they can never substitute the most important method of studying English – using it directly in spoken exchange with other people.” - Therese Stevens
“I encourage language learners to talk, talk, talk, even if it means narrating your thoughts out loud when there is nobody around to hear.” - Diana Dwyer
“Instead of listening passively, you might actually try to understand why certain sounds are pronounced as they are.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
“I’m a fan of italki, a site that connects language learners worldwide to do online language exchanges. Another great feature is the journal entries. You can write on a topic, and within hours native speakers will correct your entry and provide feedback.” - Diana Dwyer
“Ask a native speaker about expressions you hear often. Also, ask them to correct you if you use them incorrectly. ” - Yukari Peerless
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
“The final tip I would like to offer language learners is to avoid obsessing over rules or mistakes.” - Diana Dwyer
“Although you have a wide range of vocabulary, spark up your enthusiasm to learn more synonyms, idioms, collocations, sophisticated language patterns, and you will never be at a loss for words.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
- Split your study into sessions
“Don’t try and digest chunks of information in one long study session. Make your study session short and effective and set a realistic goal. ” - Varsha Hoopdeo
- Use a variety of materials
“…students should load up on music and movies in English. Try identifying words in the songs, or watching short series in English without the subtitles. ” - Vanessa Galban
- Always be on the lookout for new words
“Try to avoid fluency achieved with over-reliance of lower-level grammar structures and brace yourself to master the most sophisticated structures, or even the exceptions from the rules of grammar.” - Eliza Claudia Filimon
“Not all students take this [the importance of compiling one’s own vocabulary bank] to heart though, and I can always see a big difference between students who do this and students who don’t.” - Nicolette van Straaten
“It is said you have to encounter new vocabulary 10 times for it to be added to your long term memory and keeping your own new word bank will definitely contribute to that process.” - Nicolette van Straaten
Takeaways for Teachers
- Teaching homophones
“First I have my students make a list of the homophones in their native tongue and then I give them a homophone list in English. I find the best way to learn homophones is practice.” - Sarah van Diermen
- Teaching subject-verb agreement
“Again at the start of a course I usually hand out a list of correction symbols, SV for Subject-Verb agreement being one of them. So, when students make this mistake in writing, I underline the subject and verb concerned and write SV above it to allow students the opportunity to self-correct.” - Nicolette van Straaten
- Teaching adjectives and prepositions
“To overcome such errors [confusing the position of the adjective and preposition in the sentence], teachers can devote a writing lesson dedicated to syntax, followed by written dialogue exercises to practice the formulation of questions, affirmative and negative statements.“ - Therese Stevens
“To deal with grammatical issues, I usually like to bring each rule that they struggle with in to focus one at a time and teach it separately. ” - Varsha Hoopdeo
- Teaching correct sentence structure
“However, to teach students how to write correct sentences, I find I usually have to break sentences down into their individual parts, from words and their function as parts of speech to phrases to clauses to sentences, while paying attention to the difference between independent and dependent or subordinate clauses.” - Nicolette van Straaten
- Teaching countable and uncountable nouns
“When I work with countable and uncountable nouns, I like to focus on food, and I bring in food, or we go to the supermarket. I think that visually seeing the object, being able to touch the object, is the best way to learn the difference. ” - Vanessa Galban
- Teaching pronunciation and thinking in English
“A great way to resolve this problem [lack of fluid, natural sounding of English] is through movie reenactment. Choose movies that the students know but which have strong accents; English, American, Canadian or Australian. In groups students must replicate a scene with particular attention being paid to the accents and speech rhythm of the characters.” - Rosie Jo Nuttall
- Teaching verb tenses
“A strategy I suggest to overcome this ESL mistake [using wrong verb tenses] having students write down a list of every verb tense, how to use each tense, and an example sentence.” - Lauren Mifsud
- Mix different methods of learning for better results
“Blended learning is the best approach to language acquisition and activation: merging the visual, aural and oral means of learning through E-learning, group activities and one-on-one interaction.” - Therese Stevens
- Be aware of language transfer
“I think that becoming aware of language transfer can help both students and teachers. ” - Vanessa Galban
- Think of effectiveness
“The class is not for your benefit, it is for the students. I would rather my class master 3 or 4 words per session than be exposed to 20 in a hodgepodge whirlwind they won't remember. ” - Steven Avy
The hard science of learning a foreign language says that in order for your learning to be more effective, it has to be systematic and guided. Doh! Of course!
Learning English there will be many obstacles. Recognition is the first step to overcoming them. You must not only be able to identify the mistakes you keep making but also understand what learning practices work best for you.
Different people process information in different ways. As a result, their learning style is a unique mix of cultural, biological, cognitive and personality factors. So, try to take a close, critical look at how you learn, as this will provide for efficiency in your study and will keep you away from learner’s burnout.
Resources for further reading:
- Effective Teaching Strategies for English Language Learners
- Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English for Language Minority Students
- Links of Interest to Students & Teachers of English as a Second Language
- 13 Experts Share ESL Learning Advice (Plus Over 70 Online Resources)
- Dave's ESL Cafe: Free English Grammar Lessons