ESL: When Editing Becomes Educating

From ESL Instructional Resources by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

English as a Second Language (ESL) writing is complex because it involves both a language acquisition process and a composing process (Matsuda, 2003). In order to guide ESL students to grow as writers and readers, it is essential that instructors and Writing Center tutors have a deeper knowledge about how to assist ESL writers in their second language acquisition process.

The very notion of “editing” should be revisited when it comes to working with ESL students because their request for “editing” can be turned into an “educating” opportunity.The educating moment begins when the instructor or the tutor promotes a deeper level of processing words by guiding ESL students to realize the fundamental interdependence between lexis (vocabulary) and grammar. That is, an “editing” process can be turned into an “educating” process when the instructor or the Writing Center tutor promotes a deeper level of understanding by guiding students to learn how semantically similar words have different syntactic and pragmatic usages.

Research highlights that it is not appropriate to divide a language into grammar and vocabulary (Folse, 2004; Nation, 2009). Some aspects of language that have been dealt with under grammar in the area of second language acquisition are actually lexical in nature (Sonaiya, 1991). Language is a grammaticalized lexis not lexicalized grammar (Lewis, 1993).  Most ESL student errors are actually lexical, and [a] great many tangles in syntax are a result of circumlocutions—vocabulary problems, not grammar problems” (Myers, 2003, p. 58). 

Let’s take a look at the following examples:

  • The management team consists with John, Mary, and Benjamin.
  • The United Nations is made up with more than 200 individual nations. 
  • The human body comprises of billions of tiny cells. 
  • The house is comprised two bedrooms, one kitchen, one bathroom, and one living room.

Perhaps many instructors and tutors have seen these errors in their ESL students’ papers. When they see the expression “consist with”, instead of simply correcting the preposition “with” to “of”, the instructor or the tutor should guide the student to learn the usage of the very word “consist” by comparing its syntactic and pragmatic differences with the words that that have the similar meaning such as “comprise”, “compose”, and “make up”. As we guide students to learn the collocational partnerships of the word, they can develop a deeper level of processing words. As the word parts “co” and “location” suggest, a collocation is a word or phrase that is frequently used near the target word. As they learn the collocational partnerships of the word, they are less likely to make the same errors in the future. 

Based on my experience of learning English as a foreign language and teaching ESL writing courses for over 15 years, a very useful resource that can help students understand the collocational partnerships of words is the encoding dictionary. It is a monolingual dictionary, but it is not a typical dictionary. As the name “encoding” suggests, in the encoding dictionary, words are systematically grouped together by meaning not by alphabetical order. It presents how semantically similar words have different syntactic and pragmatic usages. The most common encoding dictionary available on the market is theLongman Language Activator: the World’s First Production Dictionary. Here is an example of the entry “consist of/be made of” (Hyperlink) from the dictionary theLongman Language Activator: the World’s First Production Dictionary.

The encoding dictionary can promote a deeper level of processing words and can help learners increase their knowledge of collocational partnerships more effectively by comparing differences in word usages based on the specific examples. As the title of this dictionary suggests, it can help learners develop receptive (reading) vocabulary into productive (writing) vocabulary. It is crucial for the learner’s literacy development that vocabulary is learned not only receptively but also productively (Nation, 2008).

Another practical strategy that can help an “editing” process turn into an “educating” process is to ask students to identify the patterns of errors in their papers, correct them, and document them in their error logs. Many ESL students may feel quite embarrassed about grammatical mistakes in their writing and want to clean up all the errors that their instructors or Writing Center tutors pointed out. They correct simpleerrors, such as awkward sentence construction or word choices, and then they put away their paper. They do not want to show the mistakes to other people. However, students may make the same mistakes over and over again if they just put away their paper after inserting other people’s feedback. Often, students do not even realize that they make the same mistake over and over. If they are not aware of the problem, they won’t be able to fix it. Keeping a log of feedback from other people and frequent mistakes or weaknesses can help draw their attention to the areas where they need to improve. As they reflect on the errors they tend to make based on the feedback they receive from the other people (instructors, Writing Center tutors, classmates, librarians, etc.), they can become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a thinker, reader, and writer.


Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.

Matsuda, P. (2003). Process and post-process: A discursive history. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12, 65-83.

Min, Y. K. (2013). Vocabulary acquisition: Practical strategies for ESL students. Journal of International Students, 3(1), 64-69.

Min, Y.K. (work in progress). When editing becomes educating in an ESL tutoring session.

Myers, S. (2003). Reassessing the “Proofreading Trap”: ESL tutoring and writing instruction. Writing Center Journal, 24(1), 51-67.

Nation, P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. New York, Routledge.

Nation, P. (2008). Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Boston, Heinle.  

Sonaiya, R. (1991). Vocabulary acquisition as a process of continuous lexical disambiguation. US Department of Education, Education Resources Information Center.


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Young-Kyung Min, PhD

Education Program