Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

That’s not an indictment of anyone’s inherent intelligence, but it is a pretty sad illustration of our literacy. Even if they speak a language fluently, no student can be fluent in the written form of a language unless they see scores of quality examples in print. There is no other way.

I remember once having an elderly professor who commented about the widening gap between spoken and written English. I see part of my job as bridging that gap, or at least providing the tools and encouragement so that students can do so on their own, as needed. That doesn’t sound too ambitious, but I’m frequently stymied by the results.

Young people need to read more, and that begins with being read to, first. My own children at home are good writers, and it starts–of course–with how much I expose them to language in their earliest youth: I read to them and with them daily. There’s no substitute for it, and while it’s possible to make up for it later, at school, it’s very hard and never quite the same.

As I always say: “Nobody ever became a good writer before they were a great reader.”

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