Teaching Writing to Non-Native English Speakers

As a tutor at my university’s writing center, I have found that most of my students are non-native English speakers and writers. While their levels of understanding vary, depending on where they are from and their grasp of the English language, one thing that stands out to me is their lack of article usage.

For some reason, I find that students of all backgrounds tend to omit articles in their writing. “A”,”an” and “the” seem to be hard for them to remember to put before a noun or adjective. For my students, I like to help them break down their sentence to better understand why “a” is necessary in certain situations, but not in others. Make a list of countable nouns and
adjective modified verbs to show them why they are necessary.

For example, use something familiar, like cat or dog. Many of my students bring me writing with sentences like this:
“Mary saw cat at the park.” Then I will ask them if there is only one dog or many cats. This helps them to see that “cat”
alone, is confusing. By saying “a cat” we know there was only one, while “cats” indicates that there are many. Likewise, if it was a specific cat, I show the student how “the” helps to signal that.

I also like to have a list of instances when “the” is needed , like before the names of professions (i.e., the teacher or the investigator). Also, showing students how “the” is used to signal a specific noun or situation is important. Another area where I see non-native English speaking students struggle is in fragmented or run-on sentences. Many times, a student will bring to me a sentence without a verb or a sentence that runs on for five or six lines.

These situations are easier to remedy than grammar problems. For the student, it is just a matter of finding out where the “natural pause” is in their run-on sentence. This and a little bit of restructuring usually solves that problem. If they cannot find a natural pause in their sentence (for example, they haven’t used many commas, which could signal a natural pause) have
them count their verbs. If they can see that there is too much action going on in a sentence, it may help them to realize why their sentence is a run on.

For example: John went to the grocery store and then he called his friend who met him at the park where they played basketball and then later they went to dinner. Went, called, played and went. These verbs signify three different sentences! Sometimes non-native English speaking students have a hard time accepting that sentences can be short. Here is a better breakdown of that sentence, omitting some “ands” John went to the grocery store. Then he called his friend who met him at the park. They played basketball and then later they went to dinner.

Fragmented sentences can also be remedied using the counting method. Students often miss using one major part of a sentence, which leads to a fragmented sentence. For example: “Which is why I was late.” This dependent clause doesn’t explain why they were late! If the student can’t see that a sentence leaves unanswered questions, then have them break down their sentence. In this case, a verb is missing. One way to fix this would be: “I slept in, which is why I was late.” Now you have a verb and the mystery is answered!

In my experience, I have found that non-native English speakers are no different from English speaking students with grammar problems. Everyone has their own hurdles to jump (as I did learning French, conjugation was so hard!). With a little patience, anyone can effectively teach these problems I have just outlined, which are ones that I find to be most common in my experience.

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