ribbit ribbit

green frog

Writing Lessons from the ESL Classroom.

What is a frog?

Consult en.oxfordictionaries.com and you’ll see that it’s “a tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping.” Great! But what if you have to explain it to an ESL student with a vocabulary of fewer than 100 English words – what would you say? Picture a frog in your mind. What is the first thing you notice? Start there. Start simple.

As an ESL teacher, my goal was to simplify language – to make it clear to students who found it baffling. Learning how to cut the frills and get to the essence of the meaning has made me a better writer. Every day in the Professional Writing program reminds me how much my own students taught me.

What the beginners taught me

In my teacher training, a classmate was scolded for telling the students to “go right ahead and jot it down.”  The students didn’t understand. What does “go right ahead” mean? What does “jot it down” mean? Everyday speech is peppered with idiomatic expressions like this. There’s another one; “peppered with”. ESL students learning basic vocabulary need simpler instructions. “Write it in your book now, please” is more direct and says the same thing. It uses non-idiomatic words that beginners can understand.

In his classic style guide On Writing Well, Zinsser says “…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” I wonder if he was an ESL teacher, too. Stripping sentences down becomes second nature to ESL teachers since complex sentences and academic vocabulary only get you blank stares in the classroom. Why say “moist smooth skin” if you can say “wet”? Why say “very long hind legs for leaping” if you can say “it jumps”? Technical writing and policy writing require clean writing, too. We don’t have to speak like children, but when clarity is the goal, simple sentences are best.

The dreaded “G” word

Most of us never analyze grammar in our daily lives, but teaching grammar makes you aware of how much of it you don’t know. When students ask “Why…?” they deserve a better answer than “I know how to use it, but I can’t explain it.” Teaching forces you to relearn sentence structure, conditionals, verb tenses, and all the awful things you forgot after elementary school. Knowing the difference between subject and object pronouns isn’t a priority for most people, but as a writer, that knowledge might help you choose between “whoever” and “whomever” with greater confidence.

I always liked it when students asked grammar questions that I couldn’t answer, and with practice I learned where to find help. One of my most beloved and dog-eared reference books is Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage. I’m curious about how language works. I’m fascinated by the hard and fast rules, the exceptions to the rules, and the rules that make absolutely no sense at all. For this, I thank all of the students who ever asked me “Why…?”

What the advanced students taught me

Teaching beginners is one thing, but teaching advanced learners is altogether different. Once you move beyond basic sentence structure, things become more complicated. Advanced students need to know about structures like comma splices and the imaginary future conditional, but that isn’t enough. Now they want to know how to use language. I mean, not just put language together correctly, but use it to achieve their desired purpose. They want to know what tone to take when emailing a professor. They want to know why “All Lives Matter” generates such heated debate. They want to know if it’s OK for a newspaper to call Justin Trudeau “sexy”. What about Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau? Advanced students ask tough questions about language that sometimes have no answers.

Before teaching advanced students, I had to learn about tone, bias, logical fallacies, and persuasion. They might come in handy when writing communications strategies and plans, or writing grants and proposals.


ESL teachers are good at spotting errors like misplaced modifiers, but editing isn’t only about grammar mistakes. You have to see the big picture, too. You have to know who the intended audience is, and what the goal is for a piece of writing. Audience analyses and scope documents are a part of the editing process just as much as punctuation exercises. You can’t edit effectively if you don’t know your purpose.

Editing always felt like a strange and lopsided dance between the students who wanted to keep things as they were, and the teachers who wanted to correct everything they saw. I gave my students editing checklists to submit with their work. I wanted them to notice grammar, spelling, organization, structure, tone, bias, and content. They assured me that they had checked everything as they handed me the completed lists. Two days later, I handed them back with instructions to try again. Did I not show them in class how to use the Grammar and Spellcheck?

Why are students so reluctant to make necessary changes? They’re only words. There are plenty more where those came from. Editors don’t edit to make you feel bad; they edit to make your work stronger.

Lessons for ESL teachers

Maybe one day you will teach ESL in Japan, Cambodia, or Peru, and you will need to explain what “frog” means. Maybe you will become a technical writer and will need to strip language down to its simplest forms. Perhaps you will need to prepare a campaign speech, and understand the difference between “alternate” and “alternative” when referring to transit plans. You will definitely be doing some brutal editing. These are some of the lessons that I’ve learned in my ESL career.

Oh, and that frog – It’s a small animal. It’s green. It lives in water. It jumps. It eats flies. It says “ribbit”. Simple, really.


Header image by Ladd Greene.

2 thoughts on “ribbit ribbit

  • I think one of the reasons people love writing is that there are, like you say, tough questions about language that sometimes have no answers. They’re uncovering a secret. They’re playing a game with unlimited outcomes.
    I love how you frame the necessity of writing clearly – it puts plain language in a new light for me.

  • Oh, yeah… I like that – “a game with unlimited outcomes”. The more I think about it, that’s one of the main reasons I like writing. It’s a game with myself to say things in the best way possible, and when I say “best”, I mean the best way to suit my purpose and audience. There are so many ways to say a thing – and they can all be the “best” way in different circumstances. Such a delicious game!

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