Non-native speakers have problems with features of the language that never trouble native-speakers. For example, until recently, most standard handbooks did not even address problems with articles or prepositions, because native-speakers rarely get them wrong. These are major problem areas for ESL students, however.
Even if you have decided to work mainly on language acquisition issues, you still need to skim the paper and figure out the audience and purpose. When approaching a paper written by a non-native speaker, especially one that seems hopelessly mired in grammatical inconsistencies (errors):
When a writer has insufficient language acquisition, difficulties with the verb system are usually the first indication. Sometimes the problem is merely annoying, such as a consistently missing "s" on third person singular forms. In the most extreme cases, however, tense and person markers give such contradictory and impossible information that they must be disregarded in order to make any sense of the text at all.
The usual impulse with verb problems or other grammatical errors is simply to begin correcting them sentence by sentence. This is usually difficult and unprofitable for two reasons.
It is easy to make a lot of corrections and then realize that a small change at the beginning of the paragraph would invalidate everything you have done. This is why you must always discuss purpose and intended meanings as you go along.
Dealing with grammatical problems in a de-contextualized manner using such things as exercises and drills is also not very effective. For this reason all direct grammatical instruction should be done in the context of the student's own writing.
Some students write very simple sentences in order to avoid making grammatical mistakes. In most cases, this is not a very effective strategy, because the writer is not really expressing his or her ideas, and because it does not lead to mastery of more fully developed forms. Other students will produce very complex sentences, in part because they are "writing around" gaps in their vocabularies. Students are usually aware that they have these problems and are very anxious to have help with them. However, don't let them focus on these matters before they consider the more global aspects of their writing, and don't try to deal with all of the grammatical problems at once.
Articles, which are part of a class of words called "determiners," are the little words "a," "an," and "the." The rules for article use are surprisingly complex and subtle, and there are so many exceptions that approaching articles through rules is entirely impractical. One problem is that most grammatical analysis does not go beyond the sentence level, but article usage often depends on the context of the whole discourse. For example, the first mention of an object will generally have an indefinite article, but subsequent occurences will have a definite one. (Yesterday I bought a car. The car is red with black upholstery.)
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, most Slavic languages and most African languages, do not have articles, and those languages that do have them use them in ways that are very different from English. Speakers of Asian languages who are acquiring English tend to leave articles out entirely at first. In English a lack of articles creates a very odd effect. For example, the difference between "the man" and "Man" is the difference between an individual and a philosophical abstraction.
A related problem is the distinction between count and non-count (or mass) nouns. What is a count noun in one language may be non-count in another. "Information" is non-count in English but countable in French and Spanish. ESL students will often talk about doing "a homework," or how many "vocabularies" they have to learn.
Prepositions are another source of difficulty. These little words define relationships rather than referring to objects or meanings. In many languages this kind of information is coded in an inflection on a noun. English has more prepositions than most languages, and if you look a preposition up in a dictionary you are likely to find twenty or thirty meanings, all rather vaguely defined.
The English tense system is another source of confusion. In English we pay a lot of attention to the order of events what happened first, what happened before that, what is happening now, and what will happen. On the other hand, Chinese dialects don't have tense at all, although time is represented in other ways.
ESL writers often believe that things expressed in the past tense are no longer true. A student may write "Mr. Williams was my math teacher in high school. He is a very strict no-nonsense teacher." If we point out that "is" in the second sentence should be "was," the student might respond, very logically, "But he still is a strict teacher!" However, in this context, "was" does not indicate that the teacher has changed, or no longer exists. "Was" simply indicates that the condition existed at that time in the past.
The present perfect and past perfect tenses also cause problems. Most Americans avoid the perfect tenses in their spoken language. If someone asks us "Are you hungry?" we respond, "No, I already ate." However, technically the present perfect should be used in this situation, because what happened in the past has current relevance if you hadn't eaten in the past the questioner is likely to feed you. Thus the correct response is "No, I have already eaten."
For most of us this sounds too formal for ordinary conversation, but perfect tenses are still essential for academic discourse, especially written discourse. Native-speaking students tend to write like they talk and stick to simple present and simple past. Non-native speakers have generally been taught all about perfect tenses, but have not become fluent enough to use them correctly.
Finally, after the problems noted above, lack of vocabulary probably causes more syntactic difficulties than any other single problem. When you don't know the word for something, you are forced into one of two strategies: to use a bi-lingual dictionary and choose a word you have not acquired and therefore have no feeling for, or to "write around" the gap, describing the concept you are groping toward. The first strategy usually ends up with a word with inappropriate connotations, and the second often produces a complex and tangled sentence structure.
It is not possible for students who are struggling with English to work on all of their problems at once. They need help establishing priorities, and they need feedback on what parts of their writing are most difficult for native-speakers to understand. Improvement takes time, but with help, they can improve.
The following scenario illustrates how not to go about dealing with grammatical error:
T: Hi, what do you want to work on?
S: My grammar is bad.
T: Let me see the paper. Oh, I'm having trouble understanding this. What do you mean here?
S: I am trying to say about my sister. That she is very kindness to my mother.
T: Look this is a singular subject, so it needs a singular verb. The third person singular takes an "s" on it. You are in college. You should know this.
S: Yes, my English is very bad.
T: And here, this is plural. You can't say "She carry all my book to school when I forget them."
T: Didn't you have any English classes in high school? Didn't they teach you any grammar?
S: I came when I was twelve. There was war in my country so I couldn't go to school.
T: And your verb tenses. You are shifting all over the place.
S: All over the place?
T: You shift from present to past and back again.
T: I am going to correct all this. I want you to study the changes so you won't make these mistakes again. There is no excuse for mistakes like this in a college level paper.
What is wrong with this tutor's approach? How would you help this student?
Some students are overly concerned with the grammatical correctness of the paper to the exclusion of the more important concerns of content and development. This may inhibit their composing process by forcing them to be composer, editor, proofreader all at once.
If this is the case, encourage them to believe that grammar, while important, is something that is acquired over time mostly through reading. The best help you can give them is to respond as a reader, one who is interested in the writer's ideas and the structuring of these ideas so that they communicate effectively.
Occasionally students will want rules, rules and nothing but. Try to avoid getting into these discussions, for it is not rote memorization or even familiarity with rules that will help to improve the student's written language, and it is not in this area that you can best help the student. Point out that hundreds of "rules" govern any piece of discourse, more than they could possibly use. Most skills do not involve conscious knowledge at all. For example, knowing the "rules" of tennis does not make you a good tennis player.
Discuss the writing process-pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading. Point out that grammatical correctness is a proofreading concern, and should come last.
Exception: the Extraordinary Circumstance—There are situations in which a student is more eager for and may be best served by a grammatical editing of his paper. Examples are advanced students working on theses, essays of application for grants, graduate schools, financial aid, etc. You should still point out to the student that it would have been better to come in at an earlier stage in the process.