ESL: Writing as a Process

From ESL Instructional Resources by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

ESL students may face many challenges as they begin their college education in the US. One of the new concepts for them when they begin their college education in the US is the idea of approaching “writing as a process.” The notion of approaching writing as a process is unfamiliar to many ESL students, especially those who are from countries in which students are tested mostly in a multiple choice format and given very few writing assignments.

Most ESL students have limited experiences with academic writing; the genres of English texts that most international students have written before they came to the US are limited to timed-essay tests such as the TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, etc. As they have been trained to write for the standardized English tests based on the grammar correction model of writing instruction that focuses on guiding students to identify grammatical errors, they often look at writing as an activity to formulate ideas into certain frames or patterns and tend to associate good writing primarily with grammatical and stylistic aspects of writing.

Most ESL students are not familiar with writing process pedagogy—such as writing multiple drafts and revising them, focusing more on ideas and less on form, reflecting on the process of their engagement with writing assignments, peer reviews, instructor conferences, going to the writing center, etc. The process pedagogy is predicated on the view that, by writing, students can develop more solid ideas on the topic and will ultimately improve their learning of the subject (Crowley, 1998; Ede, 2004; Fulkerson, 2005). The process approach characterizes a developmental model for writing instruction, which is very different from the traditional grammar correction model of writing instruction.

It is important for faculty to learn practical strategies to guide ESL students to approach writing as a process and help them perceive writing as a rhetorical activity that is always situated in the specific genre, audience, topic, and purpose of the assignment.

Guiding Students to Engage Other People in Their Writing Process

The two key ideas that are essential when it comes to the notion of writing as a process are “reflection” and “revision.” But students do not need to do the reflection and revision alone. Faculty should guide students to reflect on the process of their engagement with their assignments and incorporate their reflective thinking into their revisions by engaging other peoplein the development oftheir work.

Faculty often ask students to take their assignments to the Writing & Communication Center and discuss their papers with the tutors in each stage of their writing whether they are brainstorming, researching, drafting, revising, or editing. The Writing Center has a crucial place for students’ writing and learning processes; however, many ESL students are not familiar with the idea of the Writing Center. Many of them are from countries where it is not common for colleges or universities to have a Writing Center on campus. Their expectations of Writing Center services can be quite different from the students who have used a Writing Center before they began their college education.

It is important to note that many international students are not familiar with the idea of peer review at all. In some countries, peer review is regarded as a form of cheating because students are not allowed to show their papers to other students before they submit them to their instructor. Students new to peer review need more guidance on how to engage in a peer review process and what feedback they should offer to their classmates. Thus, it is important to guide students in how to engage other people(Writing Center tutors, classmates, librarians, etc.) in the development oftheir work, which will ultimately help them become not only better learners but also better communicators in both spoken and written English. 

Keeping Feedback Logs & Error Logs

One practical strategy that can help ESL students engage other people (instructors, Writing Center tutors, classmates, librarians, etc.) in their writing processes is to ask them to keep a feedback log and an error log. Many ESL students tend to be overly preoccupied with the grammatical aspects of writing. They may feel quite embarrassed about errors in their writing and want to clean up all the errors that their instructors or Writing Center tutors have pointed out. They put away their paper after inserting other people’s feedback. However, students may make the same errors 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 an error log about frequent mistakes or weaknesses can help draw students’ attention to the areas where they need to improve. It can guide them to focus on the rhetorical aspects of writing concerned with ways of developing their argument, organizing their ideas, synthesizing sources, constructing a thesis statement, and representing their identity.

As faculty guide students to reflect systematically on the feedback they receive from the other people, students become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a thinker, reader, and writer. Keeping logs on a regular basis can help students grow naturally as researchers as well as writers for the courses that require students to integrate their everyday experiences into their writing and academic analysis. It will also help students write up a portfolio project, which requires them to reflect on the process as well as on the product of their work. Here are error log and feedback log templates. 

Visualizing a Writing Process 

Another effective strategy to help students approach writing as a process is to have them draw their own writing process. For example, ask students to think about their most difficult assignment and then draw the processes of their engagement with it on a blank piece of paper. Ask them to capture each step of the process including the readings they did, the conversations they had with their instructor, classmates, librarians, the tutoring sessions they had at the Writing Center, etc. Ask them to see how much time they really spent for each stage of their writing process (i.e., planning, reading, researching,drafting, writing,revising, editing, etc). Students may realize that they spent a small percentage of their time researching the topic despite their lack of knowledge about the topic. They may realize that they just skimmed the required readings on the computer screen resulting in an insufficient understanding of the reading material. They may also recognize that they worked on the assignment as a solitary writer: they did not talk about their work with any other people at all. They may realize that they were not familiar with the genre of the assignment as well as the audience of the assignment.

This kind of visualization can help students to understand writing as a rhetorical activity that is always situated in the specific audience, genre, and purpose of the assignment. Drawing their writing process with a particular assignment can help them realize that writing involves multiple modes of the writer’s interaction and communication in a variety of settings about the ideas that they have been thinking about while cooking, eating, driving, exercising, showering and walking (Prior & Shipka, 2003). It can also help students see the specific aspects of writing where they are having the most difficulty and the areas that need improvement. When they have difficulty understanding certain concepts of readings, the process of visualization can also help them identify the gaps and fallacies in their thinking and writing.


Crowley, S. (1998). Composition in the university: Historical and polemical essays. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ede, L. (2004). Situating composition: Composition studies and the politics of location. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fulkerson, R. (2005). Composition at the turn of the twenty-first century. College Composition and Communication, 56(4), 654-687.

Min, Y.K. (work in progress). Writing as a process: Practical strategies for ESL students.

Prior, P. & Shipka, J. (2003).  Chronotopic lamination:  Tracing the contours of literate activity.  In Charles Bazerman and David Russell (Eds.), Writing selves, writing societies: Research from activity perspectives (pp. 180-238). Fort Collins, CO:  The WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture, and Activity.


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Young-Kyung Min, PhD
Education Program