Learning Written Academic Language

Written by Valentina Temina-Kingsolver

Written on . Posted in Teaching Writing.

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Tagged with: Teaching Writing, English Learners, Academic Language

The main purpose of an ESL composition course is to educate L2 learners in the area of written academic discourse. This can be a very demanding task for the instructor and for the students. There are a number of issues involved in achieving the intended result successfully.

First, it is necessary to understand the differences between conversational skills and written academic language. Second, we need to explore the components of ESL composition. Finally, we will attempt to look into some similarities between L1 and L2 writing.

Two Types of Language Learning

Cummins (1979) differentiates between two types of language learning: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills ( BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Students can be proficient in BICS and lack CALP and vice versa. Thus, many PHLOTE students have no problems speaking English without an accent, but encounter significant hardships with academic writing; whereas some immigrant and non-immigrant students are often unable to comprehend and speak L2 language fluently while being able to express themselves in writing quite competently. This fact is another piece of evidence of the challenge that an ESL instructor has to meet in serving groups with disparate language problems.

In order for written academic language to develop effectively, students need to receive comprehensible input in the form of academic reading and academic talk/discussion. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that one cannot learn to write academically substantial texts accidentally, without being taught directly effective strategies for acquiring/learning academic vocabulary, grammar patterns, sentence structures, paragraph writing and development and organization of composition. All these components of L2 composition are extremely important in teaching ESL writing.

It is a matter of course that good writers are good readers. Thus, an exposure to a wide variety of academic texts is an indispensable requirement for acquiring the formal language of academia. According to Krashen (1984), the best way to learn to write is to get comprehensible input through reading materials of high personal interest at a level of difficulty slightly above the learner’s ability to understand. Still, he does not find it important to teach students grammatical and rhetorical rules of writing in English. My personal views on this issue coincide with those of Lily Wong Fillmore (2000:21) who affirms that, “For the most part […] academic language is learned at school from school teachers and from textbooks. Written texts are reliable source of academic English, but they serve as the basis for language development only with instructional help. Teachers provide the help that students need to acquire this register when they go beyond discussions of content to discussions of the language used in texts for rhetorical and aesthetic effect”.

Thus, an ESL teacher cannot deny responsibility for teaching his/her students the academic language of textbooks and making sure that comprehensible input that students receive through reading and academic talk finds its output in students’ own writing.

Developing Vocabulary for Academic Writing

One of the biggest problems for ESL writers is undeveloped vocabulary. Word choice can be a daunting task for them. Students can spend a lot of time searching for a better word and still might not find it. Unlike native speakers and some of the PHLOTE students, true ESL learners cannot rely on spoken forms of words in their writing. Their problem is not just that they do not know how to spell/use words correctly, their major difficulty is their limited knowledge of vocabulary in general and academic vocabulary in particular. According to Leki (1992:34), “If ESL students write ‘many informations’ instead of ‘much information’, no appeal to which phrase ‘sounds right’ will help, as it might for [BICS] students. To ESL students neither may sound better or worse.”

This proves that L2 learners need a lot of time to master vocabulary knowledge. Here, again, it has to be the primary concern of the ESL teacher to supply students with vocabulary learning strategies rather than expect them to learn words incidentally, i.e., through multiple encounters of the words in the text. To my mind, if students know the strategies, they can learn academic lexicon faster and more efficiently.

Acquiring academic English calls not only for extensive vocabulary knowledge, but also requires understanding of phraseology, grammar patterns, sentence structures and pragmatic conventions for expression and interpretation of academic written discourse.

Rhetorical Styles in Writing

Another vital component of ESL writing is the rhetorical structures of the English language. It is a well-accepted truth that students from different cultures construe their rhetorical role differently. Different cultures impose different rhetorical, ethical and moral norms on the users of the language. Thus, some immigrant and non-immigrant students experience confusion in applying their L1 writing skills in L2 composition. They sadly discover that the writing that was accepted as suitable in their home countries is seen as incomprehensible in their ESL classes.

It is crucial for students at least to be aware of the differences in rhetorical styles of their native language and English. Unlike vocabulary and grammar errors, rhetorical differences are not easy to identify. Nevertheless, a teacher can use the study of contrastive rhetoric to demonstrate dissimilarities in rules and strategies for presenting ideas in different languages.

The study of contrastive rhetoric investigates how different cultural and language groups organize their ideas in writing. For example, according to this study, English rhetoric is viewed as direct and straightforward. This study also presents the English paragraph as a straight line that is equated with a strict logic that, as the study claims, is valued in the English-speaking world. Written expressions of other cultures are seen as twisted and their logic as hard to follow.

Of course, it is difficult sometimes to disregard the acquired rhetorical rules of one’s native language. Thus, in Russian, for example, it is allowed and even required from the writer to avoid direct statement of the main idea calling for the reader to think and figure it out on his/her own. It may even be considered rude to tell the reader directly what you want to say, as it might imply the reader’s inability to infer the ideas using his/her own perspective and knowledge.

Many experienced ESL writing teachers claim that they can identify fairly accurately the national origin of L2 student writers by recognizing certain characteristic features of their written discourse. To them, this distinction is as easy to see as one can see the various styles of various writers.

Choosing a Topic for Writing

The next imperative problem that ESL writers can discover is the many different forms of writing that they are not familiar with – articles, research papers, essays, creative writing, etc. Though some of these types of writing are similar, each one has its own nuances and peculiarities that L2 students have to stick to.

Unforeseen problems can also occur when a teacher selects a topic for a writing piece. The teacher has to take into account how familiar and comfortable students are with the suggested topic. Some students are reluctant to write about personal issues, while others can find it impossible to write about things that they have never experienced in their lives.

Leki (1982:70) insists on considering the question of how information is stored in brain while assigning topics for writing for L2 learners. She refers to Friedlander’s study (1990, cited in Leki, 1982:68) that showed that, “students tend to write better if they are writing in the same language in which their memories are stored”; hence, it is easier for ESL students to write about their national holidays in their native language, and about their life in the U.S. in English.

Students learn to write in the target language more successfully if they understand what they write, have good patterns to follow, and make several attempts in writing until they are satisfied that the work is done well. That is why ESL students need to learn to apply the steps of the writing process in their work. Many immigrant and non-immigrant student are unfamiliar with this procedure. Some of them do not consider it to be necessary to rewrite their papers multiple times in order to attempt to create a flawless final product. Thus, it is the task of the ESL teacher to accustom his/her students to the writing process so that they could develop revising and editing skills that would allow them to improve their writing as a whole.

As we see from the discussed issues, ESL writers have a great number of disadvantages over their native-speaking counterparts: undeveloped written academic language, unfamiliarity with the English rhetorical style and different forms and topics of writing. Yet, many of ESL learners have at least one considerable advantage over their native speaking peers, and that is their knowledge and ability to function in their first language. There are obviously some similarities between L1 and L2 writing. Consequently, experienced L1 writers can rely on their L1 effective writing strategies and processes while writing in L2.

As a conclusion to this discussion, I would like to cite Raimes (1985:248) who declares that “ESL students need more of everything: more time, more contact with English, more opportunity to read and write”. It is the ESL teacher’s task to consider all these important factors.


Cummings, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence in educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222-251.

Krashen, S. D. (1984). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Leki, I. (1992). Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Raimes, A. (1985). What unskilled ESL students do as they write: A classroom study of composing. TESOL Quarterly, 19, 229-257.

Wong Fillmore, L., Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

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Error Correction in ESL Writing

| Valentina Temina-Kingsolver | Teaching Writing
The problem of correcting errors that ESL students make in their writing has been extensively discussed in professional literature on ESL writing.

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