Guide to helping ESL Learners Academic Writing


Many ESL students face numerous challenges when embarking on a new course of study in HE, they may initially seek advice from their teacher from their previous school or college and have taken language proficiency tests.  However, bigger problems can occur with the transition from school to undergraduate study in their chosen discipline.  All students experience demands placed upon them when making that move to college or university, but ESL students face more pressure because of their limited vocabulary, they are less fluent in the language, there is also the problem of listening to lectures whilst taking notes as well as coping with the different class experience with a variety of ESL students coming from different cultural and educational backgrounds. (Andrade, (2006).  Students have to adjust to new surrounding and getting use to a new country.


Academic writing can be a complex process, it requires learners to access and evaluate the relevant information and resources they are studying as well as form, develop and organise ideas, then put them into different ideas, options as well as their own perspectives.

Academic writing is an essential skill needed in HE, whatever course of discipline they study, how they master the English language is a challenge for those studying a second language.  Research conducted by Bacha (2012) has revealed that ‘teachers find students academic writing weak’, some examples to include not making connections and joining sentences together, generating ideas about the topic studied, to read and write in their own words and being able to summarise text.  Some teachers may assume the student is more proficient in the language and give them demanding tasks to complete, but these learners may struggle because of their lower level language ability.


Studies undertaken by Chou (2011) identifies a number of factors of why ESL students find writing assignments difficult, some of these are; different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, lack self-belief, not had the experience to become a critical thinker so they could misunderstand assignment tasks, have difficulty in inference and lack ideas, Chou (2011) goes on to state ‘some learners may lack confidence and not ask for help’. Other problems could be HE or teachers delivering English programmes which may not be suitable for the learner, for example the programme does not have any relevance to the discipline in which the learner is studying.

Other issues of concern are ESL students leaving their familiar surroundings, family and friends from their home country and having to adjust to forming new group networks, cope with feeling homesick, learning to cook, clean, dealing with financial issues and expenses connected to their accommodation and course of study.  Some may have to get a part time job so have the extra pressure of work and study.

When students engage in class discussions and lectures, they may feel embarrassed speaking and making mistakes or take longer to think up the answers to the question and then have missed out on the opportunity of class participation.   Below are a few ideas of strategies and recommendations to incorporate into the student’s study plan.


  1. To seek out ESL teachers/professionals who can combine resources linked to language learning and the professionals discipline, such as English and Science, this would address the students present and future needs by helping them to define the linguistic features of the course of study.
  2. The teacher to undertake a ‘Needs Analysis’ questionnaire to determine strengths, weaknesses, goals and targets of the student and to review this regularly and incorporate additional support such as individual tuition.
  3. To help them improve their academic literacy skills and academic vocabulary linked to the course of study, this has been correlated to academic success, economic opportunities and social well-being.
  4. When working on assignments for teachers to establish an action plan to demonstrate how to generate ideas, write and edit, Crosby (2012) suggests that by introducing learners to writing strategies like these can help them progress throughout their course.
  5. Help students to find and use a range of resources, journals, books, videos to enrich their language as well as look at examples of good assignments so students can discuss and get a sense of good writing.
  6. To encourage a small support groups and encourage peer feedback on writing, style of writing, standards and expectations.

This essay set out to investigate some of the reasons why ESL learners find academic writing and speaking challenging and I have given just a few examples from academic sources and suggestions. However, further research  should be undertaken into this area of study to gain a much wider perspective of the difficulties students encounter.


Andrade, M. S (2006) ESL Readers and Writers in Higher Education, Understanding Challenges, Providing Support. Pg 165

Bacha N. N. (2012) Academic Writing Difficulties of ESL Learners. Pg 66

Chou L. (2011) Academic Writing Difficulties of ESL Learners. Pg 66

Crosby C. (2012) The 2015 WEI International Academic Conference Proceedings, Academic Writing Difficulties of ESL learners.

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