Greatest Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL Students

by Jerry Anderson

It is easy to say that ‘poor English skills’ are the main challenge of academic writing for ESL students. However, the truth of the matter is far more complicated than this. Whilst a lack of precision in language is definitely an important factor, there are many other issues that students also face, from the inability to apply knowledge in the necessary context to poor understanding of the basics of academic writing. What is concerning though is that these challenges affect the students’ academic performance and thus their subsequent employment opportunities.

Unfortunately it is not always possible for students themselves to overcome challenges of this kind on their own. This problem requires a complicated solution for which governments, schools, and students must of necessity work together.

4 Main Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL Students

1. Lack of English language competency

A lack of competency in the English language is, without doubt, one of the greatest problems which ESL students face. At the moment there are about 375 million English as a Second Language learners in the world today, and most if not all of them have common issues with writing skills.

This happens because when learning a language there are three equally important skills which need at first to be acquired - speaking, reading and writing. Modern English teaching programs focus upon developing all three at the same time.

However, the human brain is such that three completely different and separate learning skills are rarely developed apace. Or to put it another way, it would be unusual for a student to learn to write English with the same accuracy and precision, and at the same time, as reading or speaking it.

The only way for an ESL student to overcome this challenge is by studying the language in greater depth. You will need not only to keep improving your English but also to double the time you spend on learning how to write it.

2. Not understanding academic writing conventions

The particular demands of academic writing are exceedingly high and complex and the rules are rarely taught anywhere, even though schools usually have helpful guides on the topic for their students and more detailed information on the requirements given out with the assignment.

You can also find a variety of useful materials from independent sources. Information on such topics as how to craft a hook in the introduction or tips on writing a thesis statement are extremely valuable because they provide examples and clear simple instructions which ESL students can understand.

However, they do not resolve the underlying problem because academic writing conventions are extremely complex. They have layer upon layer of requirements that are often incomprehensible - even for native English speakers. This type of writing isn’t as much about correct grammar as it is about knowing formal sentence structures, terms, and phrases which should be used in an academic context.

Most importantly, this type of writing requires a skill in applying that knowledge which ESL students lack by default. It can only be acquired through years of practice and specialized instruction. As there are very few programs that actually teach academic writing skills, students have no choice but to self-learn. Unfortunately this is extremely difficult considering that resources and guidance in this subject are limited and unavailable to many.

3. Inability to research and apply new knowledge in the context of the paper

About half of the academic writing process is research, processing new information, and interpreting it in the context of the topic. Sadly ESL students face the same problems at these stages as they do when trying to craft proper academic sentences and paragraphs. Or to put it another way, they are not able to comprehend academic texts as they are written in the same complicated language which students themselves never learn thoroughly.

Thus they are unable to glean and use the information they receive to its best potential. This in turn results in poor-quality papers and low grades, and again the best solution is to teach those specific skills, which native language speakers often develop because they start training in academic writing early in school. Foreign students study in a different educational framework and therefore even if they develop academic writing skills in their own language, they cannot apply them when working in English.

4. Student’s background

It should also be remembered that a student’s background has a major influence on their writing skills. Their level of literacy, education, and environment, as well as many other factors, impact upon how well a student is able to self-learn, process, and retain information.

Evaluating students beyond standard tests and providing them with an educational program which will help them develop the writing skills they need to succeed in academic work is the way to overcome all these challenges. ESL students come to study with a handicap which is not of their own making and which they are unable to fix without specialized assistance. It’s the responsibility of schools and relevant governmental structures to provide that assistance.

About the writer

Jerry Anderson is an experienced writer at who knows exactly how hard academic writing is. He aspires to draw attention to this issue to help more students get the quality of education they deserve.


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