Teaching ESL Students

To Write Effectively, Not Just Correctly

by Louie Crew

First appeared in English Teaching Forum 23.3 (1985): 9-11.

© 1985 by English Teaching Forum; © 2004 by Louie Crew

In teaching English composition to students in Beijing, I have found that they have one real, if uncelebrated advantage over most of my American students: namely, my Chinese students have a much larger grammatical vocabulary with which to describe and evaluate their options when they write.

For the past 26 years, most of my American students in college composition come to the first classes unable to distinguish a noun from a verb. The few of us American teachers who still want to describe options precisely and grammatically, often feel we have to apologize for doing so. Interestingly teachers of medicine, music, art, or almost any other discipline would never think to apologize for introducing a technical vocabulary to explain technical procedures.

By contrast, my students in Beijing already have an extensive grammatical vocabulary, but rarely have used it for the real advantage it could give them. Many use their grammatical vocabulary exclusively to detect error, never to describe the options by which they could transform merely "correct" prose into effective prose.

Correct prose and effective prose are not the same.

Consider this student response when I asked the class to describe a spot near their homes:
Five miles away from my hometown, there is a temple called Mrs. Tang's temple in the mountains. It lies on the sharp cliff which is rather strategically located and difficult to access.
If I mark only for correctness, this passage deserves praise, except for the initial lower case in the second temple. The vocabulary and syntax are reasonably advanced: witness the phrase "strategically located and difficult to access." Sharp cliff is vivid....

But compare the student's version with this revision:

On a sharp cliff five miles away from my hometown lies Mrs. Tang's Temple, strategically located and difficult to access.
I have compressed (32 words down to 20, or down 37.5%), and I have kept the clear detail and the better syntax and vocabulary of the original. I have scuttled the weak expletive, the redundant temple....temple, the redundant and ill-placed "in the mountains," and the second weak copulative ("which is").

Not one of the student's own grammatical features errs from practice of published writers. Not one deserves our time if we merely want our ESL students to sound like native speakers. But the second version more readily pleases critical readers. And the changes all follow grammatical strategies which ESL students can more readily understand than can native users, most of whom probably would not have read to this point.

Another student described a mountain setting: "In front, it was the sharp slope of a cliff." Compare my revision: "The front cliff sloped sharply." Again I have compressed (down 50%) and have replaced the weak copulative was with the strong verb sloped, derived from the slope.

When I rewrite the prose of my American students, they pretend to be dutifully impressed, but are not surprised. "Of course," they reason privately, "experienced people should have more control than we do over such mysteries." Only when I use a grammatical vocabulary can I demystify my strategies enough to try to teach the students the same skills.

Alternatively I might persuade a few dedicated students to write several versions before they actually submit a paper, but if they dicker aimlessly, their results will be capricious at best, and sometimes they will revere their complicated version more than their direct and forceful one. In the passage below, the student would have written more effectively if the student had tried to impress the readers with compression more than with vocabulary, especially with architectures:

The Summer Palace is one of the biggest and oldest parks in China. It is the most beautiful park in Beijing as well. In the park, there are many famous architectures which make it quiet different from other parks.
At this point, any reader paying close attention when I stated my principles can mark the spots where I shall practice surgery:
The Summer Palace is one of the biggest and oldest parks in China. It is the most beautiful park in Beijing as well. In the park, there are many famous architectures which make it quiet different from other parks.
Of course I will explain that only "Chinglish" permits architecture to be plural, and I will help the student with the quiet for quite; but are such "errors" major? My revision:
Many famous architectural features distinguish The Summer Palace, one of the biggest and oldest parks in China, from just any other park. (Reduced by 43.6%)
The teacher who returns this paper marking only "architectures" and "quiet" has minimally helped the student to write better. In fact, the teacher may have wasted the effort: likely the student would discover these errors independently if the student wrote for critical situations outside class--a job application, a committee report, etc.--where the student knew that the stakes were higher than just the teacher's disapproval.

I do not urge grammatical pedantry. Outside of the classroom, few people, natives or non-natives, will ever notice whether we use the proper case for noun complements of infinitives with no expressed subjects; yet grammar texts often emphasize just such recondite matter, and teachers sometimes like to test for trivia because it neatly separates one group of students from another. Real skill often resists such easy quantification.

I need only a limited, basic grammatical vocabulary to describe the more substantial strategies I have used to improve the prose:

Grammatical strategies for a more vigorous style

  1. Where possible, choose verbs which express strong action.
  2. As often as possible, avoid passives, and other forms of the verb to be.
  3. Find the actor and name the actor in your subject, the action in your verb.
  4. Note that the expletive often weakens what you can state more forcefully.
  5. Do not repeat unnecessarily.
  6. Compress.
    1. More evidence

      (Hot links connect to the strategies above.)

      A Student Passage

      There is4 a beautiful park near my house. The name of the Park5is2 Tian-Tan Park5, which was built2 several hundred years ago. It is2 the biggest park in Beijing. The Tian-Tan Park5is2 famous not only for its beauty but its quietness as well.

      My Revision

      Near my house stands1 Tian-Tan, the biggest park in Beijing, built several hundred years ago and famous now for not only its beauty but also its quietness. (Compressed by 38.63%)


      A Student Passage

      This is2 a place where dreams of paradise remote are transformed2 into reality. It is2 very much the real China, embracing all of the traditional Chinese goods, culture and history.

      My Revision

      This place transforms1 dreams of a remote paradise into reality. It embraces1 all the traditional Chinese goods, culture and history. (Compressed by 33%)


      A Student Passage

      Nanking is situated2 amidst one of China's most splendid natural settings. It6 sits in a basin formed by the Yangtse River on the north and the Tsechen Mountains on the other side.

      My Revision

      Nanking sits1 amidst one of China's most splendid natural settings, in a basin formed by the Yangtse River on the north and the Tsechen Mountains on the other side. (Compressed by 12%)


      A Student Passage

      After its natural scenery, the dominant feature of Nanking is2 the Yangtse River Bridge.

      My Revision

      Second only to the natural scenery, the Yangtse River Bridge dominates1 Nanking. (Compressed by 14%)


      A Student Passage

      Nanking's climate is marked2 by intense dry heat during summer months, the origin of its reputation as one of the "five furnaces of the Yangtse."

      My Revision

      Intense dry heat in the summer earns1 for Nanking its reputation as .... (Compressed by 20%)


      A Student Passage

      Beijing zoo lies in western suburb near my home. It is2 the biggest zoo5 in China. The Beijing zoo5 attracts a lot of people especially childern everyday.

      My Revision

      The biggest in China, Beijing Zoo, in the western suburb near my home, attracts many people everyday, especially children. (Compressed by 29%)


      A Student Passage

      There runs a river before my house. It is5 an east to west river5 and connected with the Yangtze River, not very long but deep.

      My Revision

      A river, not long but deep, runs before my house and connects1 with the Yangtze. (Compressed by 48%)

      A Student Passage

      On the river-bank there are4 many willow trees with their branches bending into water.

      My Revision

      Many willow trees bend1 their branches into the river. (Compressed by 40%)


      A Student Passage

      It is2 a small mountain village surrounded by a clear river winding through a deep vally, with willows and reeds along it's banks.

      My Revision

      A clear river surrounds1 a small mountain village and winds through a deep valley, with willows and reeds along its banks. (Compressed by 8.69%)

    I do not bid for originality here. Most teachers know but usually slight these principles. If textbooks include them, they tuck them away in the corners of other discussions.

    Students can often understand these principles intellectually more readily than they can practice them. Sometimes I use a class period to go over anonymous examples from a recent set of student papers, such as those in this article. I begin with a few examples which I have already revised. Then I give the students other samples to revise at the board. It does not take long for the students to improve. They are particularly happy when they see a way to improve still further on a revision which I have made.

    By no means do I rewrite every passage: students as readily accept such dependency as many gladly will forfeit a letter grade or two to let us correct their spelling for them.

    Once I scanned the paper of a bright student who, as usual, had misspelled over five words on the first page. Instead of marking them as before and lowering his "A" to a "C," I returned the paper saying: "If you will correct all your spelling within four hours I will assign the 'A' your content earns; otherwise you will fail." He paused for a long time, then smiled: "You're not going to let me get away with it, are you?"

    Before we give a score, we need to send back many more papers, not just those with spelling and grammatical errors, but those which require the more substantive revision I have detailed. Indeed, this student has many accomplices who have "gotten away with" diverting teachers from our more challenging chores for years, converting us into mere drudges. We need to insist that our students write well, not just correctly.

    Statistics on this article:

    102 sentences; 1825 words. Av. sent. length = 18.2 words. 38 sentences contain fewer than 14 words; 13 contain more than 30. Of the 41 forms of "to be," almost all are in the student citations.

    It was written while Louie Crew was in the Department of English, Beijing Second Institute of Foreign Languages, in 1983-84 while on leave as an Associate Professor from the University of Wisconsin/Stevens Point


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