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Methods to Teach ESL Students Patterns of Error

Writing Center tutors are trained to work from the top-down, from higher-order, “big picture” concerns to grammatical, sentence-level issues. However, English as a Second Language (ESL) students that frequent the Writing Center often have different expectations of what constitutes a productive consultation. Based on time constraints and the amount of exposure necessary for non-native speakers to internalize a foreign language, most ESL students that come for ‘drop in’ or single consultations at the Writing Center are focused on the task at hand – receiving feedback on an essay with an upcoming due date. They are less inclined to answer tutors’ broad questions about the abstract skills associated with the writing process or the greater focus of the paper because they recognize more specific errors in their writing that the tutor can fix quickly. ESL students often cite their misuse of verbs, colloquialisms and idioms, prepositions, and other mechanical errors as the greatest detriment to their writing. Larger discourse concerns are cited less frequently (Harris 215). Working with ESL students can prove especially difficult because tutors must balance their own expectations of what constitutes a successful consultation with the concerns of their ESL tutees.


  1. Teach ESL students how to self-edit, how to learn what their most frequent patterns of error are
  2. Take on the role of ‘cultural informant,’ recognize that students need to internalize the English language before they can express themselves using it
  3. Establish links between students’ native tongue and English

Frequent Errors:
1. subject-verb agreement, verb tense, verb forms, singular/plural errors, word choice
2. countable v. non-countable verbs – this is a lexical distinction that must be memorized
3. “s” inflection:

  • three different morphemes /s/, /z/, /ez/ in plural form
  • some nouns have no formal singular v. plural distinction

4. use of articles:

  • use “the” when noun has been previously mentioned in the text
  Common Nouns   Proper Nouns
  Count Nouns Noncount Nouns definite by nature
  singular / plural   no articles needed
indefinite a(n) / none none none
definite the / the the none-‘

Consultation Strategies:
1. Talk with student before reading his/her essay, get a sense of English speaking ability
2. Read through entire essay first, don’t get caught up on sentence-level issues from the start
* In determining whether to tackle global or local levels, assess which are most confusing to the meaning of the text?

  • Do recognize the importance of sentence-level errors to clear expression of meaning

3. Ask writers to participate in reformulation discussions, repress your desire to give too much help

  • Take a directive approach, but use phrases such as, “Another way of putting it is…” or “Other phrases to use would be…,” to include the student in the

4. Repeatedly recognize students’ errors
5. Identify nature of types of errors, point them out within context

  • suggest that students keep track of collocations, either verbally or written
  • encourage students to identify their three most frequent errors
  • pay particular attention to subject-verb agreement, tense, and voice

6. Practice creative-writing in English as representative of a segment of the writing process, which is not meant to be revised/refined and should sound rough
7. Provide tutees with lists of ‘reporting verbs’ used frequently in academic writing (such as ‘suggest,’ ‘imply,’ ‘assert,’ ‘intends,’ etc.)
8. Provide tutees with examples of successful college-level writing in English
9. Give praise!

Additional resources:
Learner dictionaries:
Dictionary of Selected Collocations

Grammar references:
Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English

Works Cited
Shanti Bruce and Ben Raforth. ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors
Muriel Harris, “Cultural Conflicts in the Writing Center: Expectations and Assumptions of ESL Students” (Sourcebook 206-219)
Myers, Sharon A. “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction” (Sourcebook 219-233) \\