ESL Academic Writing: Simple Techniques to Write Better Essays

As an ESL student, you can improve academic tone in your writing very easily if you stick to a few simple principles. Some ESL students may feel as if they struggle with the tone of their writing, perhaps their vocabulary is limited, or perhaps they overcomplicate sentences. Follow these simple steps and you cannot go far wrong.

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1. The plan

There are many guides that can provide you with a detailed structure for your essay, but the basic layout can be seen below:

Introduction — Literature Review — Methods — Discussion and Evaluation — Conclusion — References — Appendices

2. Vocabulary choice

If you have recently learnt a new language then you might be picking up a lot of your vocabulary in conversations. If this is the case then you may be short of a few formal and academic words.

By far the main indicator of an essay’s academic level is vocabulary choice. Below are a few examples of basic words that can be replaced to give your essay an entirely new and significantly more academic feel. Your word processor will also have a thesaurus that you can use to look for alternative words.

About/around — these words can be replaced with their more formal academic cousin approximately. ESL essays often contain the adjectives around or about instead of this word. This word is used very often during essays, so making this simple alteration can really give a more academic feel to your essay.

Good — this is a very broad term. There are many hyponyms (more specific words) that can be used instead. Alternative adjectives such as efficient, effective, and excellent can all be used. Anything you can do to narrow down what you mean in the eyes of the lecturer is a good thing. As academic essay writing is obviously a very precise and exact discipline, the more specific the words you use are, the better your essay will be.

Shows — again, this verb will get across your meaning, but there are a number of more specific and academic alternatives. Depending on what you are referring to, you can use a number of other options such as demonstrates, indicates, signifies, exemplifies, displays. For example, if you were simply describing what is on a graph you might use displays, whereas if you were talking about the meaning behind something displayed on the graph you might use signifies or indicates.

3. Be sure of the meaning of a word

ESL students, just like everyone else, often use the spell checker facility on Microsoft Word. Although this is an extremely useful tool, it can sometimes cause some problems.

An example of where ESL students can have trouble is with words such as adopt and adapt. If you are not sure which one should be used and you select the wrong verb for the context then the odds are that the spell checker will not highlight this as a mistake:

  • We adopted our method to this framework (wrong)
  • We adapted our method to this framework (right)

4. Referencing

Consistent referencing that adheres to the guidelines provided by your university will also help to give your essay a more academic feel. There are many guides and style sheets available and be sure to ask your lecturer which of these you should follow.

5. Simple sentences

If sentences are too long then this will confuse anyone reading your essay. Here is an example:

  • As their opinions are somewhat confusing and are based on unreliable research as well as failing to take into account many crucial points raised by knowledgeable scholars and authorities on the subject, we feel that their views are not credible. (Too long.)
  • Indeed, their opinions are somewhat confusing and are based on unreliable research. They also fail to take into account many crucial points which have been raised by knowledgeable scholars. With this in mind, we feel that their views are not credible. (Better.)

It is not a good idea to have such a distance between the initial sentence of As their opinions and the final point. When there are many reasons for something it is easier to list these reasons (broken up into more than once sentence if possible), and then state that due to these reasons their views seem unreliable.

The author of this article, Zac Wearden, is a professional Proofreader for and has edited essays for hundreds of ESL students.

*English Language Skills recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of the Ultimate Vocabulary software because we are happy to endorse this vocabulary software.


Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2015 01:04
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