Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Areas of Challenge for ELL writers

Main content start

All writers are different and there is no one model of an ELL text. A diverse number of factors, from cultural and educational background, social context, motivation, personal history, personal experiences of writing, and individual personality and preference shape a writer's text (Tran 60). Nonetheless, there are some areas of challenge that we can be particularly aware of when reading ELL texts. 


International students' perceptions of textual organization will be influenced by the organizational pattern they were trained in when using their L1 (native language) and their experiences in writing English (L2). Their writing, therefore, may appear to follow a non-standard US academic structure, or may even appear to be disorganized—at least to the native eye.

The first thing to consider when reading an ELL text for organization is that rhetoric is cultural. An ELL text that appears to lack structure might actually just be structured in a way that is less visible to the US academic reader. For example, Robert Land and Catherine Whitley conducted a study in which native-speaker and non-native English Composition instructors read essays by native-speaker and non-native speaker writers. The US-born readers consistently marked the ELL texts lower than their non-native speaker colleagues, citing organization problems specifically. This study demonstrates the influence of culture in the perception as well as use of rhetorical organization (Land and Whitley 138).

Strategies for working on organization with ELLs include:

  • Be aware of cultural differences. An essay that appears disorganized at first glance may be written following a different rhetorical model. It can be worth learning from multilingual readers/ writers: Land and Whitley argue that multilingual readers are more likely to adapt to and value writing of diverse rhetorical organizations.
  • Be explicit about the expectations of an assignment. Do not assume the student is well-versed in the style of the US academic essay.
  • Provide models: Model student essays can be more effective than—or at least should supplement—published scholarly essays.


According to Matsuda and Cox, a particular organizational feature that can be improved in many ELL texts is signposting language. She recommends that tutors/ instructors look carefully for the implicit logic of the text and then guide the student in making this implicit organization explicit through metadiscourse and signposts—topic sentences, transitional language, etc. (48).


Many ELLs can benefit from guidance on audience awareness. Students from exam cultures may be less experienced in considering issues of audience (Leki 10). In addition, ELL's anxiety about error may lead them to focus more on teacher-as-audience. 


Some international students will not be trained in standard US academic research methods or, in particular, engaging with sources in an essay. A superficial introduction to methods of integrating sources through direct quotation, summary, and paraphrasing is not sufficient to introduce students to intertextuality. Ly Thi Tran suggests that students attempting to mimic a US academic model of intertextuality may assume a single approach such as challenging all sources or accommodating all sources' views.

Instructors can help students learn to meaningfully engage with sources by using a variety of activities to help students conduct research, think critically about the sources, and then respond to these sources in writing. Instructors and Writing Center tutors can help work on student drafts by asking the student to talk explicitly about the relationship between their argument and their sources, and the rhetorical moves they use to demonstrate this relationship. 


Ken Hyland and John Milton offer another explanation for non-native speakers' apparent difficulty in engaging with sources' arguments and to making sophisticated arguments more generally. They argue that qualification and certainty are particular areas of challenge for language learners because they lack the vocabulary to indicate nuance in degrees of doubt and certainty. L2 texts, then, may appear overly direct, opinion-based, or uncritical.

Instructors can help students qualify their statements by exposing them to means for expressing degrees of doubt and certainty, such as:

  • Vocabulary to qualify an event or claim (may, might, possibly, perhaps, quite, suggests, etc.)
  • Epistemic clusters, phrases often used to qualify a claim (it might be possible, it would seem, etc.)
  • Impersonal forms: it is certain, apparently, scholars suggest, etc. in place of an overuse of personal forms such as "I think," "I believe," "I know," etc. 


Plagiarism, as it is seen in US academic contexts at least, is a significant issue in the international student population. Students, however, are not likely to fail to document sources for personal gain. They are more likely to simply not be aware of the rules for when it is appropriate to cite sources, particularly if they have only been taught the simple paraphrasing-quoting-summarizing model of integrating sources.

To avoid problems with plagiarism, instructors and tutors can:

  • Talk explicitly about the concept of intellectual ownership.
  • Discuss documentation as an important scholarly practice rather than a potential source (in its lack) of punishment.
  • Expose students to reliable sources of documentation rules, such as the OWL at Purdue.
  • Read student texts carefully for moments that seem to call for documentation. Ask students to talk through their process when you sense documentation is missing. 


(see also "Practicing Sentence-level intervention"

According to some ESL scholars, ELL writers need the most guidance most often in lexical issues. There are three types of lexical needs: 1) Facility (ease and fluency in producing language); 2) Flexibility (access to alternatives); and 3) Intuition (having a sense of what "sounds right") (Nakamaru 4). According to Nakamaru, ELLs tend to need the most help with facility. In addition, many language learners will not yet have developed the intuition to judge what "sounds right" or hear the nuances that distinguish lexical alternatives generated by a thesaurus.

Strategies for helping students with word choice include:

  • Discuss Alternatives: Similarly, instead of simply “fixing” an issue, you can offer alternatives to students who do not have the proficiency to generate lexical alternatives themselves. Instead of using a “pick a card, any card,” approach, suggest possible alternatives and explain the differences in register and nuance, etc. Then ask the student which alternative seems most appropriate to his/ her meaning.
  • Invite the student to be an active participant in working on word choice.  For example, instead of simply changing ineffective word choice, explain to students why the word choice is an issue (too colloquial, etc.) and ask if this is the meaning they intend. The student then can actively choose to keep the original word or seek an alternative. 


Land, Robert E. and Catherine Whitley. "Evaluating Second Language Essays in Regular Composition Classes: Towards a Pluralistic U.S. Rhetoric." Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures. Eds. Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998.

Leki, Ilona. Undergraduates in a Second Language : Challenges and Complexities of Academic Literacy Development. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.

Matsuda, Paul Kei and Michelle Cox. "Reading an ESL Writer's Text." ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed. Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook, 2009. 42-50.

Nakamaru, Sarah. “Lexical Issues in Writing Center Tutorials with International and US-educated multilingual writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 19.2 (2010): 95-13. 

Shapiro, Shawna; Raichle Farrelly, and Zuzana Tomas. Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press, 2014.

Tran, Ly Thi. "Turning the Spotlight to International Students' Internal Negotiations: Critical Thinking in Academic Writing." Voices, identities, negotiations, and conflicts: Writing academic English across cultures. Eds. Phan Le Ha and Bradley Baurain, eds. Vol. 22. BRILL, 2011.