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Differences Between Writing in ESL and Composition Classrooms

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Some of the features of ELL writing that may strike composition instructors and Writing Center tutors as in need of improvement may result directly from students' earlier experiences in ESL courses. In order to help students make the transition from writing for an ESL course and writing for a PWR or other academic course, it can help to understand the differences between writing in ESL and composition classrooms.



ESL courses tend to teach a rigidly deductive writing style that is seen by composition instructors as lacking in the sophistication required to succeed at the university level. According to Dwight Atkinson and Vai Ramanthan, the five-paragraph essay taught by ESL courses "acts a symbol of bad student writing—formulaic, stilted, mechanical, predictable" (560).

ESL courses teach the five-paragraph essay, however, to help students in the short rather than long-term. This form is a quickly-learned, easily deployable tool that students can use to meet their immediate academic needs (559). 


Because ESL courses are structured to meet the urgent needs of students in achieving communicative competence of writing, reading, speaking, and listening, they do not usually have the time to focus extensively on the writing process. While many teachers attempt to build in time for drafts, revision, peer review, and reflection, they necessarily cannot devote as much time to the writing process as composition courses do (Craig 3). In addition, peer review guidelines tend to reinforce the rigid deductive style that ESL courses tend to train students in.


Because ESL courses are geared towards language acquisition, writing assessment tends to focus on the mechanics of a student essay rather than the content (Craig 3). In fact, according to Linda Blanton, ESL programs often holds students to a higher standard of "grammatical perfection" than mainstream composition courses (124). As a result of this emphasis, many ESL students will expect instructors in other courses to also focus primarily on mechanics. They might also seek more feedback on grammar and syntax rather than on concerns of organization and argument, etc. (Moussu 56). 

Feedback in composition courses often focuses first on "higher order" concerns of argument and organization. In general, composition instructors are more tolerant of sentence-level errors in writing by non-native English speakers than in writing by native English speakers (Atkinson and Ramanthan 543). 


Being aware of the differences between writing in ESL and composition courses can help instructors anticipate the challenges ELLs will face and address these challenges.

  • Expect sentence-level errors. Grammatical and mechanical errors increase with cognitive difficulty, so you can expect to see a number of sentence-level issues in the writing of English language learners as they first grapple with more challenging writing assignments. The first writing you see from an English language learner might not be the most accurate representation of his/ her language development. In fact, many ESL instructors feel frustrated to see students appear to regress after they leave their ESL courses. These problems, however, can be temporary.
  • Be as explicit as possible about expectations. Be aware that the characteristics that we define "good writing" with are culturally defined. Look for points in your course where rely on tacit knowledge. Model essays, particularly student essays, are very useful in making visible your expectations for academic writing.
  • Reinforce good writing habits. Research shows that good ELL writers and native-English-speaking writers share the same habits: they dedicate effort to planning and revising. On the other hand, both inexperienced ELLs and NES writers do not dedicate much effort to planning and revising (Braine 3).
  • Know that students can successfully make the transition between overly deductive writing and sophisticated academic writing. Instead of focusing on the problems of the rigidly deductive style of some ESL-trained students, Atkinson and Ramanthan advise that composition instructors think of this style as a "take-off point" from which students can learn to write in more rhetorically sophisticated ways (563). 


Atkinson, Dwight and Vai Ramanthan. "Cultures of Writing: An Ethnographic Comparison of L1 and L2 University Writing/ Language Programs." TESOL Quarterly 29.3 (1995): 539-  568.

Blanton, Linda Lonon. "Classroom Instruction and Language Minority Students: On Teaching to 'Smarter' Readers and Writers." Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition : Issues in the Teaching of Writing to U.S.-Educated Learners of ESL. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999. 119-142.

Craig, Jennifer Lynn. Integrating Writing Strategies in EFLESL University Contexts : A Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Approach. New York; London: Routledge, 2013.

Matsuda, Paul Kei. "Composition studies and ESL writing: A disciplinary division of labor." College Composition and Communication (1999): 699-721.

Matsuda, Paul Kei; Tanita Saenkhum; and Steven Accardi. "Writing teachers' perceptions of the   presence and needs of second language writers: An Institutional Case Study." Journal of Second Language Writing 22 (2013): 68-86.

Moussu, Lucie. “Let’s Talk! ESL Students’ Needs and Writing Centre Philosophy.” TESL Canada Journal 30.2 (2013): 55-68.