INTRODUCTION: English classes often focus only on the basics of vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. ESL courses cover language basics, but many then spend their time on teaching students how to hold a conversation, order a pizza, or answer the telephone. While these are all necessary skills for anyone who wants to speak English as a native, many classes don’t always take the next step: teaching students to write fluently, as well as to speak fluently. Experienced ESL teacher Adam recognized this lack and decided to set up a new video training series at WriteToTop to help ESL and native speakers alike learn to write clear, persuasive, and compelling English text.
UV: As a longtime professional editor, you’ve probably seen every mistake possible. What types of errors do most people need to learn to avoid making?
While most people might expect me to point out certain grammatical errors as common issues, these can easily be learned or reviewed, and thus avoided. The most common problem that writers need to focus on is their awareness of their readers. One of the first things I remind writers of is the fact that they are not writing for themselves—they are writing something for someone else to read, on their own. Unlike a conversation, where misunderstandings and language issues can be cleared up instantly, a person looking at a text does not have the writer standing next to him or her to clarify a word choice, or an incomplete sentence, or a disjointed argument. So writers need to approach their text with an eye to clarity, concision, flow, and of course a grasp of language rules. Moreover, these problems are manifested in two ways: first, many writers take shortcuts, assuming a reader can make the connections and jumps that are obvious to themselves. Do not make these assumptions about your reader. A good rule of thumb is to consider that your reader is an intelligent person who is literate, but who knows nothing about your subject, so spoon-feed them everything. Second, written language does not tolerate the informalities and the grammatical rule bending and breaking of spoken language. In other words, do not write in the same way as you speak. Again, you are not present with the reader and therefore cannot compensate for shortcuts with facial and body gestures, tone of voice, or other cues.
UV: How does your experience as an ESL tutor influence the way you work with writers?
I had taught ESL for almost fifteen years, in four countries. The first thing I learned as a teacher was that every student is different and cannot be lumped into a “type” of learner. The same applies to writers. There is a whole history behind each person, a culture, a native language, and of course a personality. Teachers and editors need to take these things into consideration. I have found that both English students and writers tend to be very sensitive about their communicative abilities. In fact, one of the hazards of being an editor is showing someone all the corrections made on their text. Students and writers alike hate seeing red on their text. They sometimes seem to take it as a personal affront. This is where my teaching experience has benefited me; I learned how to point out errors in a way that doesn’t offend, such as by highlighting strengths at the same time, or by asking for an explanation in such a way that the student or writer notices the error on his own and makes the necessary adjustments. In terms of editing, I also ask for confirmation on major changes so as to involve the writer in the process. I add a comment in the margins, asking, “is this OK?”, or explaining why I made the change and asking the writer for feedback on the change. When a writer or student feels that the final draft is still his or hers, they are more confident about their writing and want to continue improving.
UV: Your website provides lessons in grammatical structures like independent clauses, and on topics like the use of the subjunctive. Aren’t these taught as part of basic English and ESL classes already?
Yes, they are, but generally these topics are dealt with in a “light” way. Most ESL classes focus on speaking and listening skills. Even when it comes to writing, formal academic writing is often a class on its own. The reason for this is that when it comes to spoken language, much of the communication is delivered in terms of tone, gestures, question-answer cues, and so on. In other words, a person doesn’t have to have perfect grammar in order to communicate an idea. In written communication, on the other hand, even one wrong preposition can alter the meaning of an entire sentence, and unlike spoken English, the person trying to convey a message isn’t usually there to make instant corrections or find alternative ways to express a thought. That’s why on my site I focus on the essential elements of grammar that will make a piece of writing strong, clear, and whenever possible, interesting. I also don’t have much in the way of too-basic grammar on the site. If a writer isn’t aware of verb tense rules, or article usage, then he or she might need to work on their basic language skills a little more before they tackle academic writing. The grammar I include is essential for good writing, and though many students have already learned it, I present it in a way that, hopefully, will make them understand why it’s so important to fully grasp these elements that they could approach “lightly” in their ESL classes.
UV: Another area you cover is how to structure and organize essays and reports. Why is this an important skill?
The basic function of any written work is to convey ideas such that the reader can follow the train of thought of the writer and reach the conclusions, or retain the information as the writer intended. If a written work is not properly organized, then the reader needs to search for the connections, the relations, the reasons, or whatever else the writing tries to express. Most readers do not have the patience or desire to “mine” a passage for the information they need. If it’s not handed to them on a silver platter, they’ll go find another platter.
UV: You also offer video coaching on English-language evaluation tests like the TOEFL and the IELTS. Is this just overall advice and instruction, or do you provide students one-on-one help with these exams?
I offer students private, personalized coaching sessions via Skype, or at my office in Toronto. I say coaching because I do not want to have “students”, nor should test-takers want a “teacher”. Ultimately, the person who takes one of these tests will do so on his/her own. That’s why I coach them on things like approaches to the test they take will take, good/better study habits, time management skills, and whatever other areas they need to focus on. I set them up to self-study, but to do it in an efficient and effective manner.