For teachers who wish to teach essay writing to their students, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that there are many different things students need to be taught in order to become adept writers: structure, grammar, engagement strategies and more. The good news: Many difficulties that Korean learners struggle with (when it comes to essay-writing) can be condensed into several categories and, with a little practice, fixed. Doing so can go a long way in improving the quality and clarity of their writing. Below, then, are some common mistakes Korean students make with writing that teachers should be on the lookout for.
1. They’re clueless about paragraphs.
Possibly the most important thing students need to be taught is the concept of the paragraph. It’s very common for Korean students to either: A. write all their ideas in one giant block of text, or B. Write every sentence on its own line. Students should be taught that:
- Every idea should have its own paragraph.
- Each paragraph should be indented OR have a space between it and the paragraph above. I usually teach the first option (indenting), since it’s more commonly used in classroom writing, whereas the second option (spaces) are found more often in magazines and blog posts.
NOTE: In English writing, indents are usually about 5 spaces. Often students will only indent 1 or 2, which is not only unprofessional looking, but sometimes unnoticeable by teachers who might scold them for not indenting!
- They should strive to have at least 2 details in each paragraph that support that paragraph’s idea. If they have only a single-sentence “paragraph,” they should consider making it part of another paragraph, or eliminating it. (However, in some rare cases, a single-sentence paragraph might be acceptable.) “For example,” are the magic words when writing paragraphs, as it helps guide students in thinking of specific … well, examples … for supporting the topic sentences in their paragraphs.
- Paragraphs aren’t always an exact science. Sometimes students might be unsure of when they’re starting a new idea such that it would justify starting a new paragraph. This is okay; the same way a painter might debate how to blend and separate colors, a writer might debate whether to begin a new paragraph. The important thing is that they’re trying their best.
2. They assume the reader knows what they’re talking about.
If you’ve ever had to grade essays or help edit a student-written newspaper, you’ve likely read a piece of writing only to say to yourself, “What is this kid talking about?” This is because, in their zeal (or panic) to write, students often forget to put themselves in the shoes of their readers. For example, if explaining admiral Yi Sun-shin’s military tactics, a student might reference the geobukseon, without taking time to explain to a non-Korean audience that it was an armored turtle-like ship. This problem is especially pronounced with students interested in science and technology, as they often resort to using technical jargon.
3. On the other hand, sometimes they give information the reader doesn’t need.
Sometimes students will add random bits of information into a paragraph that really don’t belong there. Teachers who wish to focus on this problem can do so by providing practice sample paragraphs, complete with irrelevant ideas for students to assess and remove. Teachers who aren’t as concerned about this can simply address it on an individual basis with their feedback of student writing, e.g. “This part really doesn’t fit here. Let’s remove it or create a new paragraph where you can talk about it more.”
4. They don’t know how to write introductions or conclusions.
This is a concept that’s easy to learn, but difficult to master. Often, students will begin a piece of writing immediately with information that belongs in the body. Or they’ll simply finish without an appropriate conclusion.
Beginning students should get into the practice of putting a sentence or two at the beginning of their writing to say what it’s about (including a thesis statement), and a sentence or two at the end re-phrasing and summarizing what they said above. For more advanced writers, instructors can teach the strategy of introductory attention-getters, or “hooks”: prefacing the thesis statement with interesting information, quick anecdotes, simple jokes, rhetorical questions, quotes, and more. Similarly, a conclusion can be expanded by creating a few sentences to state the relevance and importance of the topic, e.g. (for an essay about Korean wildlife) “The various animals found in Korea are fascinating to study and are tied to our heritage. By learning about them, we learn about the world around us, and also about ourselves and our traditions.”
5. They try to be fancy.
Teach your students how to K.I.S.S.: “Keep it simple, Steve!” Students are often accustomed to reading the passages in their test-prep books: long, overly wordy writing pieces penned by pretentious academics. This causes them to think they have to do likewise. However, this results in the students placing undo pressure on themselves to duplicate this lofty vocabulary, which results in stress over a product that is much more difficult for you, themselves, and their peers to understand. Furthermore, as mentioned in point number 2, STEM (science, math, etc.) inclined students often intentionally use jargon and technical terms because it makes them sound and feel smart. Which is great … except that it makes their writing difficult-to-understand at best, and boring at worst.
I always tell students: “Big words don’t impress me. Long essays don’t impress me. What impresses me is if one of your classmates can understand what you’ve written.” In other words, sometimes being a good writer is about using words that are few and simple, rather than numerous and complicated.
NOTE: Translation software like Papago often naturally results in needlessly difficult words. This, in turn, makes it harder for writers and their peers to understand their work. If you allow students to use translation software, this is a good example for your students of how a human intellect is needed to guide the work of the A.I. in order to shape it to a target audience–in this case L2 readers who might not be able to comprehend the abstruse language of an A.I. translation.
Additionally, students don’t need a full page of text. An essay can be written in around 10 sentences! Two for the introduction, 6 for the body (2 paragraphs of 6 sentences, each) and 2 for the conclusion. Often this is enough to fully convey whatever it is they want to write about.
6. They don’t proofread/have poor attention to detail.
Writing takes a lot of mental effort from students (unless they just use Chat GPT), so when they write the final word, they want to be done. However, they often end up missing a lot of mistakes that they know are wrong. This is a problem for several reasons: 1. They miss an easy chance to improve their writing quality, 2. It makes more work for you as the person correcting/editing the writing, and 3. It develops bad life habits: students learn that “eh, good enough,” is acceptable, when in real life, it seldom is … especially if they end up being brain surgeons.
Students need to be taught that their writing doesn’t end when their writing ends. Rather, it’s the start of the revision process. They need to look at their writing one more time and consider the following:
- Did I make any simple mistakes? E.g. non-capitalized names, missed punctuation, non-indented paragraphs, etc.
- Is the formatting messy? Are there mixed fonts (if typed), unnecessary spaces, etc.?
- Are there any unneeded or misplaced ideas?
- Did I write anything that might be confusing to another reader? If so, how can I re-write it to make it more clear?
- If I used a translator or A.I. to help me, is there anything that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t accurately reflect what I want to say?
While not necessary, teachers may wish to make a printed-handout checklist similar to the one above for students to use when creating their own writing, as it can create mindfulness of the proofreading process.
When it comes to teaching writing, learners often think only of vocabulary, grammar, and length. These things are only part of the tapestry of a student’s written ideas. The reality is that, if students only focus on these things, they’re missing a large piece of the overall picture. Conversely, by focusing on the “forgotten” elements of writing–paragraph structure, communicability, and attention to quality–students lacking in the former 3 aspects can still produce valuable, high-quality writing.