Listening: A Powerful ESL Editing Tool

by Mary Jo Moore
  I have been teaching a high-intermediate to advanced ESL writing class for about five years. During the first year or so, I tried to persuade my students that peer editing in the form of reading each other’s writing was a very good thing . . . but they were skeptical. So I developed a form of “guided group editing” in which I presented small groups with copies of one group member’s writing along with a suggested list of editing points specific to that piece of writing. These small peer editing groups looked wonderful from a distance, and for a brief but golden moment, I thought I had stumbled upon the Holy Grail of ESL writing activities. Eventually, however, my students let me know, gently but firmly, that they had been suffering through “guided group editing” to please me, but had not felt it was particularly helpful to them. For one thing, most of my students felt vulnerable about letting their classmates see their writing. And guided group editing was more or less walking all over their vulnerability with muddy boots. So I let group editing go and began to focus on self-editing.But ESL students need help to self-edit. During a year or two of trying various ways of helping my students self-edit, I began to realize that they didn’t seem to mind if other people heard their writing as long as they didn’t actually see it. It’s so simple. “Read aloud to someone or to yourself,” I might hear myself say. “See if you like the way your writing sounds. Your ears have been listening to English for quite a while now. Maybe it’s time to trust them.” “Read aloud with a pencil in your hand,” I might also hear myself say. It is quite common for the ESL writer reading aloud to use her pencil before she gets to the end of her first sentence. “I’ve got to fix that,” I hear my students say. “I’ve got to come back to that later.” Since she is the one brandishing the pencil, the writer is in charge whether she is reading to someone else or to herself. Reading aloud to another person does seem to heighten the power of listening, maybe because two people are involved in the editing process instead of one. But it is also productive to read one’s writing aloud to oneself. Either way, listening has become the editing tool of choice in my class and the first line of defense.In-Class Office
I have begun to set up an “office” in the corner of the room when we have writing and editing sessions. My office consists of two chairs (or desk-chair combinations) facing each other. A student can come over and read his writing to me, or he can come over to ask a specific question or two about his writing. When you’re listening to the writing but can’t see it, you are limited to checking pronunciation and responding to content and perhaps occasionally an aberrant verb tense or word choice. This is wonderfully different from a student’s writing a rough draft and then handing it to me to fix. It’s very important, I think, to keep the student in charge at this stage, and the fact that the teacher is simply listening (without seeing) or responding only to specific questions the student has asked about grammar, punctuation, or vocabulary helps keep the power in the hands of the writer. I would recommend that ESL teachers not worry about whether the editing that results from listening to student writing or responding only to specific questions about the writing is totally accurate or wholly comprehensive. It’s a viable goal, particularly at the rough draft stage, simply to observe and rejoice that the process of editing is actually going on.

Since every language has its own set of pronunciation issues for the learner of English, and our students tend to come from all over the world, a difficult sound for one might not be difficult for another. So whether they are reading their writing aloud to the teacher or to another student, getting help with mispronounced words is likely to be part of the process. When they read to me, I record any words they mispronounce on a Post-it and then go over these words with them. I also give them the Post-it so they can practice the words later. In this way, reading one’s writing aloud to someone else becomes a way to get a pronunciation check, which helps motivate the use of listening as an editing tool. Everyone seems to feel positive about pronunciation checks. Writing offers ESL students an opportunity to look at and listen to their own grammar. And editing becomes a second chance to get it right. Whether our students edit a little or a lot, when they listen to their own writing they are involved in a process that conjoins written and spoken English. Listening as an editing tool blurs the distinction between pronunciation and grammar, rendering it a welcome alternative to the unnatural but inevitable separation of pronunciation and grammar that accompanies textbook learning. Someone wise once said, “Writing is rewriting.” Well, editing encourages rewriting to happen. And listening encourages editing to happen. Listening not only bypasses the vulnerability that seems to be rampant when ESL students peer edit each other with their eyes. It also activates the passive knowledge their ears have accumulated over the many years they’ve been listening to English. All this listening can’t help but deepen the language learner’s awareness of his or her own pronunciation. And becoming a better “pronouncer” of English is what our students seem to want more than anything else. Thus listening is quite possibly an ESL student’s most powerful editing tool. Mary Jo Moore is on the faculty of the Framingham Adult ESL Program where she teaches a high-intermediate to advanced ESL class with an ephasis on writing. She can be reached at

  Originally published in: Field Notes, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Winter/Spring 2005)
Publisher: SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2005.
Posted on SABES Web site: June 2005

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