Monthly Archives: October 2015

Writing in English as a Second Language: Tips for Students

writing in English as a second language

As Columbia University Professor William Zissner observed, what’s valued as “good writing” in one language can be vastly different in another language. An ESL student of his from Egypt observed that Arabic writing uses a lot of proverbs, something an English writer can’t do if they want to be taken seriously. Students from Ethiopia were used to writing long, flowing, complex sentences that demonstrated their education and knowledge. The Spanish language with it’s wealth of Latin-based words is a gold mine for poets and writers as it’s naturally expressive. But what’s considered good writing in English is something quite different.

Here are some tips for ESL students who want to write well in English:

Read a lot to improve your writing

Read newspapers, magazines and books. You’ll find answers to subject-verb agreement questions, plurals, adjectives and past tense and past participle conjugation. You’ll learn spelling, vocabulary and idiomatic phrases as well as basic sentence structure. Reading will help reinforce grammar rules you know and teach you ones you didn’t. Also take advantage of blogs for ESL students.

English speakers value clarity

The English language has over a million words. It’s a language that’s full of nuance. For example, look at the subtle difference between the words yell, shout, scream. You wouldn’t necessarily use them in the same context. You could scream from fright, but not yell or shout from it. When there’s a disagreement, depending on the nature of it, you might call it a dispute, argument, debate, quarrel or fight. Exposure to these words via conversations, music, films and books will help you understand which word you can use and when.


Modern English is not what linguists would call a “flowery” language. Its most celebrated writers tend to be the ones who write short, punchy sentences. There’s a very popular app for writers called the Hemingway app that evaluates your text for sentences that are too long, too complex or confusing. It has a special function to detect adverbs. Why is there an app called Hemingway instead of Poe or Faulkner? Because Hemingway was the quintessential “lean” writer and that quality of expressing a lot in few words is highly valued in English.

Action verbs

Some languages form sentences that are like mazes. They talk around a subject because being direct is considered rude. In English, being direct is appreciated. Those who can “get to the point” are praised instead of sidelined. The language itself reflects this with its use of action verbs. Don’t put things in the passive tense. Say it straight. For example: “I threw the ball to Jack” is much easier to understand than “The ball was thrown to Jack by me.” Action verbs are an ESL writer’s faithful ally. Fuzzy on what’s an active verb and what’s a passive verb? Check out this site to learn more.

Don’t overuse Latin-based words

If your first language happens to be a Latin-based one, your tendency will be to make good friends with the Latin-based words in English. And there are many. Depending on which reference you use, anywhere from 40-60% of English words are derived from Latin. Relying on your Latin roots will certainly make it easier for you to express yourself, but will also make your English unbearably formal. Students in American high schools who study Latin generally do so in order to score better on the SATs.

However, if you look at the way English is spoken on the streets, on television, in films or the way it’s sung in music or written in magazines or books, you’ll see that English’s Anglo-Saxon roots are put to use far more often than its Latin ones. So don’t rely on your easy Latin affiliates, and make the effort to delve into the world of Anglo-Saxon based English.

Don’t translate from your native language into English

This is hard for anyone trying to speak a second language. But try thinking in English rather than translating your thoughts from your native language into English. The difference is vast. Thinking in English means you’re also becoming familiar with the logic of the English language, its grammar, nuances and idiomatic phrases.

Trying to translate from your native language into English is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The grammar will be awkward and hard to understand and you won’t be able to capture the meaning of what you’re saying. That’s because English is another another with different forms of expression. Learning them will help you communicate what you mean.

English spelling can be frustrating

A seemingly unending stream of vowel combinations (beauty) and consonant combinations (thought) and some words that are spelled the same but mean different things (the noun tear vs. the verb tear). Check out this spelling guide to help you gain more confidence in your writing.

Write a lot

Taking the above into consideration, it’s time for you to practice writing in English. To improve your English writing, you should write every day. But it’s not enough for you to write every day. Someone needs to be able to tell you when you’re making a mistake…

Get help of an English native speaker

Today, the Internet is a huge resource for ESL learners. Whatever your native language is, you can bet there’s a native English speaker who wants to learn it. While a lot of these language exchanges focus more on speaking, you can certainly request to use the chat function as a way to practice your writing. Ask them to correct your spelling and grammar and offer you tips and explanations.

It’s not the same as having a teacher who has more grammatical knowledge, but your average layperson should be able to spot basic spelling and grammar mistakes for you. Visit these language exchange sites to partner up with a language learning buddy and improve your English writing.

The best way to learn to write well in English is to read a lot and write a lot. Make sure a native speaker corrects your work and practice as often as you can to get better.

Main Pitfalls of Learning a Second Language Writing System

learn second language writing system

Second language systems like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Greek and Russian all have different alphabets. Learning the alphabet is the first step in learning to read and write in these languages.

As if learning a new language weren’t difficult enough, the process is made more complicated by having to learn a new writing system on top of it. Here are some of the main challenges of mastering a new alphabet system:

Understanding phonetics

Of course, there will always be a tendency to try to make things sound like the language you’re most familiar with. But in many alphabets, the sounds you’ll be encountering will be totally different from English sounds. Did you know that the “th” sound is unique to the English language and challenging for people learning English to pronounce? Likewise, many sounds in other languages will be difficult for you to grasp at first. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t get a sound right on the first try. Intonation and accent take time to build. Keep at it and you’ll get better.

Understanding the logic

The English alphabet, also known as the Roman alphabet, is about sounds, not about symbols. The letters are building blocks to create a word and usually have no meaning unto themselves. But not all writing systems have the same logic. In fact, for many other language systems, the letters of the alphabet are symbols that stand for something on their own. By looking at the alphabet as a phonetic building block, you miss the logic of the other language which is to use symbols to build meaning.

In Chinese, which is a language based on symbols, you can’t pronounce a word if you don’t understand its meaning. In English, however, you can sound a word out based on the letters without having any clue what the word means. Don’t try to apply the logic of the Roman alphabet to a different writing system. Learn its logic in order to understand the language.

Identifying different fonts

Just like in English, you’ll have to learn to identify writing in different fonts and styles. Handwriting will be different from printed text and there will be variations of printed text as well. Think about cursive writing, capitalization and the thousands of different printed fonts that any English reader can easily identify. However, a young child who has only just learned to write the alphabet wouldn’t be able to identify a letter written in cursive.

Other languages will offer this same challenge. In addition, some languages have different writing systems. Japanese, for example, has three writing systems which are all distinct from each other. The best way to learn these various writing styles and fonts is to expose yourself to all of the different styles of writing that exist in a language so that you’re not confused when faced with a different style.

Learning to write

Reading is one thing. Writing is another. Everyone remembers that phase when they were learning to write the alphabet. How it was a painstaking process that was much more akin to drawing the letters than to writing them. Over time, it became more natural. Now, you’re in a phase where you’re learning not only what the letters of the new alphabet look like, but how to write them. Some languages, like Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left. If you try to write these languages from left to right, it will hardly be legible.

Imagine if someone tried to write a sentence in English by writing all the words backwards. It would look strange and awkward. All languages have a specific way to write their characters and letters. Learn the order of the pen-strokes and the direction correctly so that your handwriting will be readable.

Attitude is everything

The biggest reason people fail to learn is that they give up too easily. It’s not that the language is too hard or too impossible or too different. Anyone is capable of learning anything as long as they dedicate themselves to it. Get through the slow awkward phase, realize that it’s different than when you were learning to read English as a child and focus on small triumphs. Maybe you could recognize a word written in different fonts or you were able to read a whole sentence out loud without pausing. Celebrate these milestones and keep working at it.

How To Ask For Feedback on Your Writing

ask for feedback on your writing

No one was born a writer. All writers had to go through the process of “becoming a writer” and, if you’ve read as many writer’s biographies as I have, you’ll know that it wasn’t an easy path for anyone.

Maybe you want to ask for advice from a professional writer but you’re afraid they won’t respond. It’s a logical assumption that they won’t. Except for the fact that when they were starting out, many of today’s successful writers had mentors who were experienced and established.

It’s not impossible to get a writer to respond to a cold email requesting their advice. But it is a delicate endeavor and one that requires some finesse. Here are some tips on how to persuade a writer to write you back:

Read their work

First of all, if you’re going to write to a Stephen King or a Joyce Carol Oates and you’ve never read any of their work, you might want to either pick another author whose work you do know or crack open one or two of their books to get to know their writing better. It’s only fair if you’re asking them to read your works that you’ve at least done your homework and read some of theirs first.

Do background research

Read some interviews and biographical information about them. Follow their blog, Facebook Page or Twitter account if they have one. Find out what kind of philosophies they have about writing, how they got their start, what they’re currently working on. Having a feel for this information will help you craft a more personal letter. It will also help you not tread on their toes by accident. For example, if your chosen writer is an adamantly against e-books, you might not include the fact that you’re considering publishing your work as an e-book.

Work on your subject line

As with all writing, when it comes to titles, headlines and email subject lines, it’s all about grabbing their attention. It’s worth the time you put into perfecting your subject line pitch. Otherwise, even if you wrote the outstanding letter, you run the risk of them never even opening it.

Consider sending snail mail

It’s easy to ignore an email. Hardly anybody receives real mail today. There’s something about the effort you had to go through to handwrite a letter, put a stamp on it and send it off in the mailbox. That differentiates you from someone who shot off 100 emails to a bunch of famous authors. It’s the ultimate way to personalize a message. If you do send a letter by snail mail, make sure to include your email in the letter. Don’t expect them to sit down and write you a letter in reply. Make it easy for writers you want to reach out.

Why are you writing to them?

Can you articulate why it is that you’re writing to that authors in particular? Is it because you admire their work or you’re writing a book on a similar subject as one of their books? Is it because of something they said in an interview that captured your attention? Why do you think their advice would be helpful to you? Explaining this to the writers will help them take your request more seriously.

Keep it simple

You’re probably aware that professional writers are busy people. Asking them to take time away from their own projects to help you with yours is a delicate matter, so do them a favor by getting to the point fairly quickly. Professionals will appreciate you keeping your message brief. You might even want to acknowledge that you know they’re busy and you appreciate them taking them time to read and respond to your message.

What are your credentials?

People like to help people who they think are going to succeed. If you’ve published any other works, you should reference them. If you’ve won any awards or have an MFA or worked as an assistant to a famous screenwriter or author, or have worked in editing or publishing, then it would be good to mention those things. Whatever credentials you can (briefly) provide will help them get an idea of who you are and why spending time reading your work wouldn’t be a waste.

Ask them something specific

Try to ask writing experts something specific rather than something general. For example, don’t ask: How do I get published? That’s way too general and an annoying question to most authors. Where to begin? Instead ask a specific question. Make it something that’s relevant to their work or their experience that you think they will be able to give you the best answer about. It’s much easier for someone to reply to a specific question than to reply to a request for “advice” in general.

Do you have anything to offer them?

If you have something special to offer that you think they might appreciate, go ahead and offer it. If the author lives in the same area as you, go ahead and offer to take them to lunch or buy them a coffee. Maybe their next book is set in Brazil and you lived there for three years. Offer to share some of your experiences that might be helpful to them.

Make it easy for them to reach you

Give authors a lot of options for reaching you. Everyone has their preferred form of communication, so give them your phone number, email, and Skype account. Let them know when you’re available to talk and make sure you’re available if they try to contact you.

Thank them if they write back

If you do manage to catch their attention and they decide to respond to your message, make sure to thank them. It really is a big deal that well-known writers took the time to reply to you, so the least you can do is acknowledge their effort by letting them know how much you appreciate it. It will also make it easier for them to respond to you should you reach out to them again.

5 Best Ways To Improve Your Critical Reading Skills

how to improve critical reading skills

Critical reading is a crucial skill for anyone seeking in-depth knowledge of a subject or who are aiming to become an expert or thought leader in a certain area. Critical reading means not taking things at face value, but really engaging in a text by asking questions, thinking about possible future research and taking the devil’s advocate role. Being able to read critically is basically the difference between being able to recognize the words written in an article and being able to understand their meaning, context and significance.

Critical reading is an essential part of academic life, and many professional careers require this skill. It will help you get into college and graduate school and help you as you move on in your career after school. Most major standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, LSAT, MCAT and others, have critical reading sections.

Becoming an effective critical reader is a valuable skill, but one that often requires effort to hone. Besides a high score on your SAT, critical reading will allow you to assess opinions presented about important events in the world. It will help you take important decisions about causes you may want to get involved with or political stances to take or not take. In the professional world, critical reading will make it possible for you to understand the big picture of research or activities in your field and allow you to weigh cost/benefits with greater accuracy.

Here are some tips for you to enhance your critical reading skills:

Read it more than once

A single read-through of an article is usually not enough to read it critically. Depending on the complexity and length, it may be necessary for you to read it a few times in order to really understand the arc of the author’s logic. So, take your time, don’t skim, but read slowly and methodically, taking in the text a second or third time to make sure you understand it thoroughly. Each time you read it, you’ll uncover new layers, make new connections and pay attention to new facts that didn’t catch your eye the first time around. The preliminary step to critical reading is giving the text multiple readings.

Take notes

If it’s not on paper, print a paper copy so you can use a highlighter to highlight major points, underline, jot down notes and questions in the margins. Engaging in the text this way allows you to recognize main arguments and important facts such as names and dates. It forces you to pay attention as you read and to read more slowly rather than skimming. It also provides you a springboard from which you can then form your own analysis. Good notes are an important step in critical reading.

Discuss it with others

Engaging others in a discussion about the article is a great way to increase your understanding of it. Maybe the other person will take the devil’s advocate role or maybe you will. In any case, the more thoughts you can gather on the subject, the stronger your comprehension of it will be. Other people will be able to look at angles of the subject you hadn’t considered. In order to be a critical reader, you must also be open-minded. Maintaining a strong bias based on your personal feelings about a subject will inhibit your ability to read critically. Failing to be objective also means you’ll fail to read critically.

If you’re reading an article about the Republican party’s presidential candidates, for example, and you’re a die-hard Democrat, it would be great for you to talk to a Republican to understand the other side of the political coin. Whether it’s a heated or an even-keeled discussion, you’ll get more out of it than if you had just gone along with your pre-formulated opinions.

Write a critical summary

A great way to make sure you really understood the text is to write a summary of the article. Using your notes and highlighted areas, think about the following themes:

  • Who was the article written for?
  • What is the goal of the article?
  • Did it achieve this goal? If not, what kind of information is missing in order for it to be more successful?
  • What are the main points of the article?
  • How could it be improved?
  • What are the possible next issues to be addressed on this particular subject? What does the future hold in this area?
  • Who else is writing about this subject? What do they have to say that’s different from the author’s take?

A useful way to establish your thoughts on the article is to write a classic five paragraph essay that elaborates a thesis, anti-thesis and supporting ideas.

Practice SQ3R

This stands for:

  • Survey. Skim the text in order to get the gist of it, looking out for main points, dates, names and important descriptions.
  • Question. Before you do an in-depth reading, make a list of questions relevant to the subject or assignment you’ve been given based on the skimming you did. Examples of some questions you could ask:
    How does this author’s position on gay marriage differ from author X’s position?
    In what way is this issue relevant to me or to my family/community/school, etc?
    What impact is this article going to have on the way we think about X?
  • Read. Read the article thoroughly, taking notes as you go along.
  • Recall. Write down the main points and arguments that you remember from the text. This is a crucial point in deepening your understanding of it. Without having to look at the text again, recall the essence of the argument and the main points that you can remember. What stood out to you?
  • Review. Go over your recall notes carefully and give the text another reading. Fill in any gaps that are missing in your notes based on your new reading.

Whether you’re a student, a professional or a citizen looking to engage more deeply in public debates, critical reading is a crucial skill that’s worth developing.