What I Learned From My ESL Students

Last summer I taught my first class. The regular teacher wanted the summer off and the academic writing class fell in my lap.

That was fine with me – it was a good fit because I finished my doctorate and scholarly writing was fresh in my mind. The challenge was to teach academic writing to adult ESL students.

ESL Student Realities

The school had its own syllabus for the academic writing class – text books, handouts, sessions on writing different of papers. Other instructors used a syllabus so I had a collection of samples to choose from.

Students could improve their writing by practicing both informal writing (journal entries, their responses to readings for class) and formal writing (essays, research papers, in-class writing).

While I had no problem with the syllabus, many students complained about it – it was “too much work.” Most were working adults with families. Many had low-paying jobs and school was an additional drain on their limited time.

Some students felt the class was “too hard.” They transferred to an instructor who as “easier”.  I explored other ways to teach academic writing. I revised the syllabus: fewer assignments and tests, more quizzes, and group projects. I encouraged more class participation in place of these changes.

Little did I know that many ESL students are not comfortable speaking in class. Some did not like to speak in public because they felt their English skills (speaking and reading) were poor. For example, the only time some students practiced English was at work, not at home.

For these ESL students, reading assignments were also a challenge. While I suggested skimming the readings and not focus on every word  – I learned this was not an easy task.

Students first had to read the English words, translate them into their language, then write out a response. They read each word. It was meticulous, slow, and the process added more time to their reading and writing assignments. Homework became a major chore.

While I thought a short essay and journal entry would take an hour to complete, many students worked for two or three hours on one assignment.

Unexpected Turn

During the first week of class, we reviewed the syllabus. Each student signed an agreement that they would not plagiarize any material. While students understood the expectations of the class, they struggled with the plagiarism concept.

Midterm papers reflected a pattern of plagiarism. While I reminded students that they signed an agreement not to plagiarize their work, it didn’t seem to help.

I gave students a chance to revise their papers and improve their grades. While I was trying to be fair, I wondered if they were truly learning anything about academic writing.

Most revised their papers. But those who protested the loudest complained to the department head.

What I Learned

Next time I teach academic writing, I’ll let students edit their own work. It’s a waste of my time editing their mistakes. My mistake in grading papers was to grade each sentence, tell the student what was wrong, and have them fix it.

I learned about their writing habits – but in reality, the students should learn from their own mistakes. Next time, I’ll use class time for group editing projects. A process of students helping each other learn can improve grammar mistakes. Students can make their own corrections.

Also, I’ll encourage more public speaking exercises each week. When students become more comfortable speaking in front of others, their English will also improve.

I also learned that in some cultures, perfection was the goal. For example, a quote that was copied without attribution was an acceptable practice in some cultures. Students were not encouraged to use their own words. Independent thought was not part of understanding or learning the material.

Finally, I’ll revise the syllabus for my classes to say “Any plagiarized work will result in a failed grade in this class.” This policy should be very clear.

In hindsight, maybe I was too flexible in my grading policy. I was taught that plagiarism was unacceptable in any circumstance. Next time, my policy will be a strong warning and a failed grade.

Would I teach ESL adults again? Absolutely. I enjoyed learning about the cultures of my students, their understanding of the English language and how their writing reflected their realities.

Last week I received a wonderful email surprise from a former student: To an awesome teacher!

She included her picture, dressed in her cap and gown, at the graduation ceremony.


Dr. Bessie

To have another language is to posses a second soul.
~~~ Charlemagne ~~~


Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

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