Saturday, February 28, 2009

Writing Like a Native: More Quick Tips for ESL Writers

This second round of tips has less to do with specific strategies and more to do with developing habits. Like playing the piano or riding a bicycle, writing in a particular language requires practice. The more you do it, the better you will become. The question is, how do you know if you are practicing it the right way? You don't want to spend years reinforcing bad habits, so here are few ideas for developing positive, language-building habits.


1) Involve as Many Senses as Possible

Just reading words on a page will only get you so far. If you really want to learn how to speak and write like a native speaker, you need to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. In addition to reading English, you also need to speak it and, above all, hear it. If you do not live in a place where English is regularly spoken, the internet provides many alternatives. With news podcasts, live radio streaming, and even YouTube, you have a wide variety of opportunities to access real, spoken English. Listen to a news program or radio broadcast and then try to mimic the words they say.

Unlike reading, which requires a large amount of brain power and attention, listening to a radio simulcast requires much less of your direct attention. You can play it in the background while doing other things, such as cooking, eating, or even sleeping. That's right. When I was trying to learn German, I used put on a simulcast of German radio when I would lay down for an afternoon nap. Sometimes, this type of passive listening can help you with pronunciation, pitch, and vocabulary.


2) Read a Newspaper, Especially the Living or Lifestyle Section

Newspapers are the single greatest source for interesting and up-to-date information in a target language. Newspapers also contain more idiomatic (colloquial) language than anything else. There was a woman who came to the Writing Lab Conversation Group every day with questions about the words used in the Purdue student newspaper. Just by reading the student interviews and profiles, she was able to gain quick and easy access to the linguistic world of native speakers. If there are no English-language newspapers in your area, newspapers also have great online content. Just Google your favorite newspaper, and you will generally find the same information as you would find in the print edition.

If you have limited extra time during your day, I suggest looking through the Lifestyle or Living section of a newspaper (the one filled with local profiles, cartoons, and advice columns). These sections generally contain the highest amout of easy-to-read language, and they are also the most interesting. Sometimes it is tough to concentrate on a news story discussing complex political or economic issues. It is much more easy to relate to a woman seeking advice about her nosy mother-in-law.


3) Write Emails to a Native Speaker

Most composition work is now done on a computer, and so if you are looking to improve your English writing skills on the computer, you should do it in as many venues as possible. The easiest and most rewarding venue is email. Make it a habit to write at least one email per day to a native speaker of your target language. Don't limit yourself to conversational topics such as the weather. Try to discuss what you are learning in one of your classes, or try to tell them about recent political developments in your country. Once you find success composing emails to native friends, you may find that composing an essay in English has also become easier. Emails are high reward, low risk writing tasks. You won't receive a bad grade or failing test score for making a mistake.

If don't have any native speaker friends, there are plenty of places that will help you. Try posting something on someone's blog. You could even post something on this blog! Or try an international pen pal Web site like,


As always, good luck, and I would love to hear from some of you out there about your own L2 (second language) composition strategies.

Brady Spangenberg


Emanuele Cauda said...

Thanks a lot for your great tips!!!
I tried to use the website you suggested for penpal but I didn't have much success. I need to give another try.
Emanuele from Pittsburgh

Ding Ze Hao said...

It was an awakening for me, for the idea of reading newspapers of native speakers never occurred to me before I read this article -newspapers like Financial Times are resting in the rack and I almost always pass by with only a side glance at them. Perhaps it is time for me to consider reading it for the sake of improving my English as an ESL student. May I inquire whether it is equally effective in reading magazines?

Nikhil Joseph said...

Great tips. Thanks for sharing these with us.

Brady Spangenberg said...

Dear Emanuele, Ding, and Nikhil, I am glad that you find these tips helpful. Do any of you have some tips or tricks for practicing your English?

Ding, yes magazines are equally as useful as newspapers, especially if you are looking for language related to a particular discipline. If you want to know how musicians describe their work, Rolling Stone is a great place to start.