Writing for an ESL Audience

As remote work becomes more commonplace, it’s easier than ever to meet and talk to folks from all over the globe. That means you might be working with teams in other countries, creating content for clients in other countries, or creating education for users of your company’s products from all over the world. That also means you might be tasked with creating content that will be consumed by an ESL – or English as a Second Language – audience. This audience may lack some of the advanced reading comprehension, vocabulary, or speaking skills of native English speakers. Fortunately, there are some simple tips – that are also just good design tips – you can follow to make your writing more inclusive for an ESL audience. 

1. Provide multiple ways to access the information. 

One way is to use visuals to explain what you mean. No, I don’t mean pretty pictures – visual representations of the actual concepts you’re trying to convey. For example, if you’re explaining a process, show it in graphic form. If you have an audio recording, provide transcripts with timestamps so your audience can read along while they listen. This also gives everyone something to refer back to without having to listen to an audio recording or watch a video again. Providing multiple ways to access the information will increase the chances that an ESL learner will comprehend the message.

2. Adopt some reading comprehension best practices.

One best practice in reading comprehension is to provide a preview so that the reader knows what to expect. Another reading comprehension best practice is to provide a summary. You can do both of these by creating descriptions for your course and by introducing the main concepts or learning outcomes in the beginning and at the end of the course. 

It’s also good to provide context and scaffold information for reading comprehension. However, this is true of good instructional design and sound writing as well. Give enough information that the audience has context for the information they’re about to receive. Walk the learner through something, providing feedback, before they have to try it on their own.

The Flesch Reading Ease score is a way to measure how readable text is for different audiences. There are free tools online where you can copy and paste text from your projects to assess the readability score, and some software – like MS Word – has readability scores built in as part of the review tools. The optimal reading score for an ESL audience (and for any audience really) is above 60.

3. Consider your assessments.

Add in knowledge checks that can help your learners (and you) determine if the material is being comprehended. These are a good metric for you as the writer, but they can also be good for the learner to see – especially if they are self-conscious about their comprehension. Avoid using assessments with free text fields, where the learner has to type in a word or phrase and spell it correctly. It is unfair to penalize ESL learners if they misspell a word or put a phrase in the wrong order if they still learned the material and are meeting the learning outcomes. You don’t want them to fail or get stuck in the course for something that is not even connected to the learning objectives.

4. Get real feedback.

A great way to figure out how readable your learning projects are is to let people read them! That’s right – if you have an overseas department or team, you can pilot your projects with them to make sure they understand the concepts and ideas presented. It just so happens that piloting your work is good, solid practice for L&D teams in general. 

You also want to make sure that you have a very easy-to-use mechanism for collecting feedback from your audience. If anyone has questions, comments, or concerns while going through courses, training, or videos, is it easy to see where to submit those? The easier it is to reach the L&D team for feedback, the more likely people will reach out if they have an issue. 

5. Choose your words wisely.

If you’re going to use industry- or company-specific jargon, provide an acronym list. This way, the ESL learner won’t be hindered by any acronyms they don’t recognize. This is also a good practice to help the new hires at your organization. Additionally, you should avoid sayings – such as idioms and cliches – that are usually very cultural in nature. For example, “don’t cry over spilt milk,” which many native English speakers know to mean don’t make a big deal over a small accident, may not have an equivalent in other countries and languages, and the meaning and nuance could be difficult to translate. Write plainly – which leads to my next point…

6. Keep it simple, silly. (KISS)

Be concise. When editing, go back through your draft and cut out as many unnecessary words or phrases as you can. Use bulleted lists and embrace the white space. Again, this is just good writing and good instructional design practice, but the more concise you are, the easier and more efficient it will be for your ESL audience to mentally translate. They will be able to get through the content more quickly – but so will everyone. 

As it turns out, the same mechanisms we use to test our learning projects and get feedback on them are the same things we can do to make sure our writing is appropriate for our audience. And as a final tip – anything that makes the words, scenarios, questions, scenes, and information simple and easy to read for everyone will also make it easier to read for your ESL audience. 

Blog thumbnail by Laura Ohlman.

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Find more articles in related categories:
ESL (English as a Second Language)
ESL is an initialization of the term English as a Second Language, which is used to describe the use of English by people with another native language.
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An outcome is the change in the organization, employees, or customers that drives business results.
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