6 Tips to Writing for ESL Readers

At Emmersion, our vision for our work is to close the global communication gap. We do this by enhancing, credentialing, and supporting the learning of languages. However, we do not believe the burden to close this gap falls solely on language-learners. Native and mastery-level users of a language also have a responsibility to create language communities that are open and accommodating to language-learners.

English is an incredibly challenging language to master. A friend of mine who teaches English posted the following sentence that summarizes this challenge:

“Before was was was, was was is.”


English teaching professionals find humor in posts like this in part because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Working closely with English language-learners changes how you see your own language. You come to recognize its beauty and madness in unique ways. It unlocks sympathy and, hopefully, a commitment to being understood.

Diverse Conversation

Understanding your Audience

When you write English language assessments, your first assumption is that your work will predominantly be used by people whose first language is NOT English. As a result, I have learned to be very intentional in the language I use to present instructions and other elements of a test’s infrastructure.

I tell myself and those that contribute to our projects that the instructions are not on the test. If the test is going to do its job, the instructions need to be proactive and reach the test-taker well within their ability level.

I recognize that most readers don’t do what I do with English. However, if you send out any form of communication, chances are the messages you are sending are being consumed by English language-learners of different ability levels. I want to share with you some tools, tips and tricks that have helped me be more successful in communicating with this important group.

1. Watch the line length

Once I have a completed draft, I will put a hard return after each sentence so that each is on its own line. Anything that is longer than a single line (with 12-point font) gets shortened. Maybe details are dropped. Maybe the sentence is broken into 2 or 3. If I cannot say what I am trying to say in 6.5 inches, I haven’t thought about it enough. Even short sentences are better evaluated on their own line. It makes it easier for me to catch mistakes, omissions, and oddities.

2. Word frequency is a good substitute for language proficiency

My grandma managed the small army of volunteers that usher and host at the Tony award-winning Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, Cedar City (first plug’s free). One summer she called me with what she framed as a problem. The festival had an intern who was from Korea. Naturally, English was the intern’s second language. Grandma was concerned that the intern simply would not be up to the language demands of the role. Grandma herself, a world traveler into her 80s, had certainly been exposed to people from all language backgrounds. So, frankly, I was surprised by her concern. I asked for more description about what evidence she had of the intern’s lack of ability. She said, “Judson, she didn’t know the word matinee.”


Now, matinee is a word that is clearly helpful when you are working in a theater that does, in fact, have a daily matinee. However, you can learn a lot of English words before matinee is likely one of them. In fact, according to the largest English corpus in the world, a person would probably encounter 17,845 words before matinee came up.

A corpus like WordandPhrase.Info is a great way to check a word’s frequency rank. The higher the number, the less confident you should be that your learner audience has encountered it before. Helpfully, the corpus also supplies a list of words that also share meaning and shows their rank so you can choose another word that will meet your purpose while being more accessible simple.

I encouraged my grandma to just tell her that matinee means afternoon show. Before the next matinee, the intern would likely be using it just fine.

3. Use Google Ngram Viewer for a simpler way to see word or phrase frequency

When you have as much interest in understanding texts as Google does so it can read the internet (and your inbox)—and you have a large pile of money—you do fun things with words like scan all the books that have ever been written (not sure they’ve got your self-published fanfic).

Data is only as good as it is visualized, and, regardless of where you fall on the legality of how Google [ab]uses its data, Google Ngram Viewer does help you see which of the ways you could say something is the way you should say something.
Imagine that I am wondering whether I should call a feature I am working on a helper, assistant, tool, or contraption. Google can tell me how often a term has been used (remember that frequency is a good estimate of difficulty).

I can also see how use of this term has increased or decreased in frequency (likely contact by language-users). Google Ngram Viewer is also very helpful if I want to check the relative readability of multiword phrases. I simply separate each phrase with a comma.

4. Use a text analyzer to check the whole document at once

You might have a few words that immediately stand out as needing to be substituted (such as matinee). However, if I want to check an entire document at once and catch words that may be in my blind spot as a native speaker, I speed up the process by using a tool like Compleat Web VP.

Now I love this tool but its user interface is a mess. Give it a chance because it is super helpful. Replace the test in the beige INSTRUCTION box with your draft.


Then, click the yellow button that says SUBMIT_window.

The page that comes up is also kind of tricky to follow, but here are the key details:

  • The first table you encounter will show you the number of words that fall within the first two thousand word families (blue and green).
  • It is reasonable to expect an intermediate learner of English to know or accurately guess words at these levels. Words above that starting with the 3K (yellow) and everything above are more challenging and less likely to be known.
  • If you keep scrolling past the chart, you’ll actually see your text (altered in terms of breaks) that has been color coded. This helps you pinpoint all of the words that need to change. 
  • Again, blue and green should be good for most. Yellow may be okay. Everything else, you should try to change or justify and then support.

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5. Gloss your text with learner definitions or supply in-text definitions

A glossed text uses annotations to clarify or specify key words either through translations or definitions. Two steps here:

  1. Use sub- or superscript footnote numbers
  2. Include a translation if you know the language of your readers, or, even better, use a learner dictionary

What is a learner dictionary you ask? A learner dictionary is a dictionary that is made specifically for learners of the language.

Have you ever looked up a word and the language used to describe the work contains even more words that you don’t know? Well a learner dictionary avoids that, using frequency data (as highlighted above) to create definitions that only use words that are more likely to be known or understood by a language-learner. A couple of my favorites include LearnerDictionary.com because it is easy to remember, and Oxford Learner’s Dictionary because Oxford just sounds smart. Fun fact, I began using them with their print-edition learner dictionaries, which are great classroom resources.

If footnotes do not suit your purpose (you don’t want to be the person that puts footnotes in emails, do you?), use an in-text definition. Some might think that this would be awkward. By awkward, I mean not comfortable or not natural. See, it is not—actually, it really is not!

When I teach writing, one of the tricks I give my ESL students to make their writing seem more fluent is to include defining sentences like the one I just used to define awkward.

6. Reduce the use of pronouns

Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m a pronoun. (Enjoyed using that one!) In all seriousness, watch your use of pronouns. From a person who has both written many English language tests and observed many more, pronouns are one of the most frequently tested elements in English grammar. In part, because pronouns are an easy English grammar phenomenon to turn into a multiple-choice question—mostly because tracking pronouns and their referents is a challenge.

Don’t believe me? It’s true! What does it refer to in the preceding sentence?

Don’t believe me? It’s true! What does "it" refer to in the preceding sentence?

A. a pronoun
B. a challenge
C. tracking pronouns
D. a stated opinion


Pronouns have a function. Most often, pronouns make the task of communicating easier for the person communicating. Don’t be so selfish. Actually, just be moderate. If you think you may have gone too far in using a pronoun instead of the word it represents, you probably have.


On behalf of the gifted and brilliant English language-learners that I have had the privilege of getting to know, thank you for your efforts of being English language-learner aware in your communication. Again this isn’t about making their lives easier—they are a gritty, tenacious bunch and clearly not afraid of taking on difficult tasks. Mostly, I think you find that you feel more confident that you have done your message justice.

The TrueNorth English Speaking Assessment was developed to modernize English language testing with patented artificial intelligence and machine learning. This technology allows for immediate results and scoring as opposed to all other language assessments that take 24 to 48 hours to grade. TrueNorth provides a convenient and immediate English testing solution that has been validated and calibrated to global testing standards and is also available in several other languages.

Some of the largest international companies rely on TrueNorth testing every day. With this technology, BPOs and international companies utilize real-time data and reporting to assist in attracting and hiring the best talent. Additionally, more than 650 universities, colleges, and training institutions around the globe use the TrueNorth platform for course placement and progress tracking. TrueNorth is delivered online with only the need for headphones and microphones.

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