4 Main Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL Students

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In college, many students who have English as their second language realize that academic writing is a particularly challenging thing. Quite often, ESL students don’t get enough instructions in middle and high school so creating well-written academic papers can be much more difficult for them. Even if students get access to writing courses, these courses are often quite generic so they don’t provide specific information that can be useful for students from a particular discipline.

Quite often, teachers think that a high level of language proficiency is directly related to developed academic writing skills. Obviously, good academic writing is impossible without high English proficiency, but it doesn’t mean that one of these skills automatically improves another.

It makes sense to differentiate textual competence and generic competence. Textual competence includes vocabulary and grammar skills. Textual competence is all about interpreting and creating texts. Generic competence is related to academic skills. For instance, these skills include paraphrasing and quoting, the use of academic conventions, planning, structuring, editing, and note-taking.


Academic Writing for ESL Students - Female
Source: Pexels

It’s important to mention that not only ESL students can have problems with the skills listed above. Not all native English speakers are capable of creating coherent academic papers. For this reason, some students turn to companies that write papers for students instead of improving their writing skills in the first place. Some students may also experience difficulties with a certain discipline, which will also have a negative impact on their writing.

ESL students, however, have to deal not only with the same problems as native speakers but also with some additional issues. For instance, they may lack a full understanding of the English rhetorical structure. ESL students may also need help when it comes to understanding cultural dynamics. Quite often, students use the same writing approach when writing in both languages so they don’t take into account language-specific features of academic writing.

There’s no surprise that students find it challenging to tackle such problems. Overcoming such difficulties can be almost impossible for an individual. An effective solution can only be found if students are able to work on such problems with help from schools and governments. The good news is that you can prepare for these difficulties if you know exactly what these common challenges are.

Top 4 Challenges of ESL Academic Writing

1. Students’ background

Writing skills depend on numerous factors, and one of them is a particular student’s background. A student’s writing skills to a large extent depend on their education, literacy, and environment.

To help students understand and apply standards of academic writing, educators should be able to provide the necessary training. In turn, providing the right training is impossible without a proper evaluation of students that goes beyond standard tests.

2. Poor English skills

There are 375 million ESL students in the world, and all of them have different levels of English skills. Quite often, ESL students have problems with academic papers simply because they don’t know English well enough. The reason is that many English teaching programs don’t separate the three key components of English skills, which are reading, speaking, and writing.

To improve academic writing, students should focus on their writing skills and develop abilities that will help them when writing specific types of papers on a specific subject. It’s important to communicate these goals when working with tutors and to consider examples of proper academic writing to use the same approaches in the future.

3. Difficulties with research

Academic writing is not only about the writing process itself but also about preparation and research. Researching the subject may take as much time as writing the paper, and difficulties with academic writing are often associated with the research part of this work.

ESL students may lack knowledge of the language necessary to comprehend complex academic texts. As a result, they might need more time for research than native speakers. Unfortunately, teachers usually don’t take into account such factors and don’t provide flexible deadlines. To address this problem, ESL students should start to practice research as early as possible, not only reading academic materials but also taking notes.

4. Not understanding academic requirements

When it comes to academic papers, colleges and universities have very strict requirements that are difficult to meet even if you’re a native speaker. Obviously, the problem becomes even more tangible for ESL students.

Academic writing implies using a certain writing style, creating the right structure, and formatting the paper according to the necessary citation style. Therefore, ESL students must be perfectly familiar with the academic requirements, including common citation styles and the use of niche-specific vocabulary. To feel more confident when writing academic papers, students should also practice as often as possible.


Academic Writing for ESL Students - Male
Source: Pexels

Wrapping Up

Academic writing requires students to not only have the basic English knowledge but also to use academic language and to understand what vocabulary, style, and structure they should use when dealing with different types of academic papers and different academic subjects. Academic writing can be extremely challenging for ESL students, but practice and proper preparation can make a big difference.

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