Common writing mistakes of ESL students

Posted by Manjusha Filed in English Grammar

If you are an ESL student you should know how difficult it is to write a good essay. Good essay writing skills are essential for success in tests like TOEFL and IELTS. A good essay will raise a student’s overall TOEFL or IELTS score.

How to improve your writing?

It is very important for students to practice writing as many essays as possible before they take the test. Many students can write a good essay if they get enough time. Unfortunately, this is not possible on the TOEFL test. A student will get only about 30 minutes to write and edit their TOEFL essay and they should devote the majority of their time to writing. In other words, they will get only a few minutes to edit their text. However, those few minutes can greatly improve their score if they know how to catch some basic errors.

While editing your work, don’t try to find and edit every possible error in the text. This is not possible because you won’t have the time. Instead, look for specific errors that ESL students tend to make. You must also learn to analyze your writing for mistakes that are peculiar to you. For example, some students may find it difficult to use relative clauses. Others may be confused about the past simple and the present perfect tense. Look for these errors while editing your text and you should be able to eliminate many mistakes from your writing.

The following list identifies some of the most likely errors that ESL students tend to make.

Common Mistake 1

State verbs cannot be modified by adverbs. This is a very common mistake. Most students understand that they need an adverb to modify a verb. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. After state verbs (e.g. be, seem, appear, look, sound, smell, taste, feel, become, get) we use adjectives, not adverbs. Here the adjective does not modify the verb. It merely describes the subject. Examine the sentences given below.

Tired is an adjective in predicative position. It is a state verb and describes a particular state of the subject. It cannot be modified by an adverb.

Feel is a state verb and cannot be followed by an adverb.

Common mistake 2

You need an adjective to modify a noun and an adverb to modify a verb, an adverb, infinitive or another adjective.

Here the adjective specific modifies the noun examples.

Here the adverb specifically modifies the verb argues.

Common mistake 3

Only actions can be in the continuous tense. A verb can refer to an action or a state. Action verbs can be expressed in all tenses, including the continuous. State verbs, on the other hand, are not normally used in continuous forms. State verbs are very common and we use them all the time. Therefore, students must review state verbs carefully. Make a list of the most common state verbs and review them. You can start with the following list. It is not comprehensive but includes the most common state verbs in English.

Common state verbs in English

Like, love, hate, prefer, concern, impress, please, satisfy, justify, surprise, see, seem, smell, sound, taste, believe, doubt, know, realize, understand, imagine, mean, feel, agree, disagree, support, oppose, involve, include, contain, need, possess, own etc.

Examples of correct and incorrect usage are given below.

Note that this rule can be confusing for an ESL student because native speakers break them often.

Common mistake 4

Make sure all facts are in the present simple. Review tenses frequently. Many errors found in ESL writing are tense-related. For example, ESL students tend to overuse the present continuous tense. They need to be taught that the present continuous tense is only used to talk about actions and situations that are in progress. They also need to be taught to use the present simple for proven facts in nature or in academic fields.

Examples of correct and incorrect usages are given below.

Here we are talking about proven facts or scientific truths and hence they need to be in the present simple.

Common mistake 5

Ensure that the simple past has a known or specified time. Students often misuse the past simple. The past simple tense can only be used when you specify or imply a particular time in the past with a time, date or prepositional phrase. On the other hand, when you want to refer to the unspecified or unknown past, you need to use the present perfect tense.

To refer to the unspecified past, we use the present perfect tense.

Common mistake 6

Sentence fragments are a common mistake. A sentence must consist of at least one independent clause. Most students understand this rule. They also understand that a clause must contain a subject and a verb. However, many of them do not understand that a clause that follows a conjunction cannot be an independent sentence.

Here the second clause follows the conjunction because and hence it cannot make an independent sentence. It needs to be joined to the clause that goes before it.

Sections in this article

Adjective clauses
Relative clauses
Relative pronouns
Identifying relative clauses

See Also

Adverb clauses
Noun clauses
Synthesis of sentences
Transformation of sentences
The adverb too