Learning English as Second Language Essay

Learning a Second Language (L2) is a lifelong process and it is often a challenging experience for L2 learners. English has become the L2 after it was introduced to Malaysia during colonization. Presently, it is an international language and is used as the language in international relations, and in exchanging knowledge and technology. It was only since a few decades ago that it was taught to almost all schoolchildren. In general, local Malaysian students have been exposed to eleven years of learning English language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) in primary and secondary schools. Current era, good English writing competence is widely recognized as an important skill for educational, business and personal reasons. The ability to write effectively in English is becoming increasingly important in our global community as communication across language becomes ever more essential. On the other hand, writing is a complex process which demands cognitive analysis and linguistic synthesis.

It is even harder to learn to write in a second language, and it takes considerable time and effort to become a skillful writer. The present study seeks to explore ESL learners’ major writing difficulties by analyzing the nature and distribution of their writing errors. There are several ways of thinking about errors in writing. For example, in light of what we, as linguists, know about second language acquisition and what we know about how texts, context and the writing process interact with one another students‟ writing in L2 generally contains varying degrees of grammatical and rhetorical errors. These kinds of errors are especially common among L2 writers who do not have enough language skills to express what they want to say in a comprehensible way. The present study analyses the English L2 language errors in the writing of Malaysian learners.

Statement of Problem

English occupies the status of a L2 in the Malaysian education system in both primary and secondary schools. However, learning English as a L2 is not an easy task. According to Brown (2000), in order to master the English language, learners have to be adequately exposed to all of the four basic skills, namely listening, speaking, reading and writing. Language teaching in this country is currently focusing on the teaching and learning of the four language skills. However, the standard of English, among Malaysian children is on the decline despite learning English for several years. Malaysian students are still weak in English, especially in their writing skills. They still seem to commit errors in all aspects of language.

According to James (1988) errors in writing such as tenses, prepositions and weak vocabulary are the most common and frequent type of errors that are committed by learners. Since grammar is seen only as a means to an end, some learners tend to re-emphasize its importance and in the process, they make many more errors. The learners usually face difficulties in learning the grammatical aspects of the Target Language (TL), such as in subject-verb agreement, the use of preposition, articles and the use of correct tense. Such errors can be seen clearly in the learners’ written performance. The problems that the students are bound to encounter would be weak vocabulary, inappropriate use of grammar in sentences and etc. Thus, teachers who can analyze and treat errors effectively are better equipped to help their students become more aware of their errors.

The use of Error Analysis (EA) and appropriate corrective techniques can aid effective learning and teaching of English. It is understood that learning a second language is a gradual process, during which mistakes are to be expected in all stages of learning. Mistakes will not disappear simply because they have been pointed out to the learner, contrary to what some language learners and teachers believe. In fact making mistakes is a natural process of learning and must be considered as part of cognition. As a result, errors must be viewed positively. Therefore, EA is the best tool for describing and explaining errors made by speakers of other languages. By investigating students’ written work, it will provide a means to help Malaysian teachers to recognize the importance of errors as one of the challenging areas in teaching English.

Objective of Study

This lends to the objective of the study, which is to investigate the types of errors made by Form Four student in their written work. The study sought to answer the following research question: * What are the most common errors that students make in their essays?



The location of the study was a secondary school in a housing area in Shah Alam town which is located within the district of Petaling and a portion of the district of Klang in the state of Selangor which is about 25 kilometres west of the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. The name of the school is SMK TTDI Jaya, Shah Alam. The school runs in two teaching sessions, namely the morning and afternoon session. Table 1: Distribution of Form 4 Students and Ethnic Background


A Form four female students have participated in this study. She had her primary education in National schools, in which Malay was the medium of instruction. English was taught as an additional subject within the school curriculum. The respondent is from Form 4 Gigih comprising of 30 boys and 42 girls. The students’ language proficiency is lower intermediate. According to the participant’s English language the class that the participant currently studying focuses more on Malay language learning and the students tend to neglect the importance of English language

Background of the Student

The name of the student is Nurul Nadeah binti Zulkifli. She is 16 years old. She is staying at Seksyen 15, Shah Alam. Her father works as an engineer and her mother is a house maker. She is the eldest daughter with a younger brother. Her first language is Malay language. She has learnt English for 10 years. She has scored a “C” grand for her UPSR public examination and a “D” grade for her PMR public examination. On the other hand, she is more proficient in her first language (Malay language) compared to English language. She has scored an “A” for her both public exams (UPSR & PMR) which marks her enthusiasm in learning her first language. According to Nurul, she prefers to speak and write in her mother tongue since she is comfortable with it. Thus, she views English language subject as an entry requirement for her to enter university. Despite, she added that she has not been encouraged to use English language either her parents or among friends since childhood.


The participant was administered a writing assignment that involved essay writing. She was required to write a cause and effect essay entitled” The Causes and Effects of River Pollution” within a period of 60 minutes and a minimum of 200-350 words. This essay follows the English format of SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) Examination in which every student will have to take when they are in Form Five. It is a guided writing whereby the student was given a brief outline on the essay that includes the main causes and effects which the student need to explain in detail. The essay was typed using Microsoft Word 2003 so that it was computer readable. After that, the three steps of EA specified by Corder (1974) were followed:

* Collection of sample errors

* Identification of errors

* Description of errors


The instruments that we used to analyze the errors in the essays are as follows:

* The students’ essay

* Grammar book references

* Consulting to an experienced school teacher :

* Well experienced in English language teaching for 23 years and also SPM English paper marker for two years consecutively. * Interviewing a lecturer from MSU Centre For Foundation Studies (CFS) department

* Group discussion.

* Internet sources

A total of 62 common errors were examined and categorized into 12 error types. Errors related with lexical knowledge (spelling, parts of speech, capitalization) accounted for 32.3%. Errors related with sentence structure (complex/compound, missing word, word order and redundancy) accounted for 30.6%. Other grammatical errors (verb tense, passive voice, modals and phrasal modals,article, subject-verb agreement) accounted for 37.1%.Based on the table, it reflects that the students have committed most number of errors in the parts of speech which includes noun, verb, participle, interjection, pronoun, preposition, adverb, and conjunction. The second most number of errors is registered under redundancy which means the occurrence of unwanted repetition in the written essay.

Table 3: Most Common Errors and Examples of Errors

Definition andError classification| Identification of errors| Correct sentences and explanation of rule| 1. Basic Phrase Structure * A sentence is formed through the combination of Noun Phrase(NP) and Verb Phrase(VP)| Sentence10:1 The industry is releasing chemical waste products from industrial waste. Example of chemical waste products are cyanide , zinc, copper and mercury.Sentence 11:2. Example of chemical waste products are cyanide, zinc, copper and mercury. The chemical products that released is dangerous| 1. The industry releases chemical wastes such as cyanide , zinc , copper, and mercuryExplanationSubject: The industry Verb : releasesPredicate: chemical waste products such as cyanide, zinc , lead , copper, and mercury. * The industry is releasing chemical waste products “from industrial waste. ” This sentence is incomplete.2. These chemical waste is dangerousExplanationLiquid or substances basically known as uncountable noun which refers to general abstraction but countable noun refer to specific things.

These : refer something specific (SUBJECT ) is : verbDangerous : abstract verb| 2. Passive Sentences * The object of the active verb is the subject of the passive verb| Sentence 1:1. Water is the important elements that needed by the human to live. Sentence 28:2. The flow of the clear water from the river will be disturbed. This is because, the water quality is more spoiled and flow to the river will be polluted and affecting the living things.| Water is the important element that human need for livingExplanation The word “need” in this sentence should be the subject.2. This is because, the quality of water is spoiledExplanation The phrase “water quality” is unclear and incomplete.| 3. Complex/Compound * A complex sentence combines a dependent clause with an independent clause. * A compound sentence is made up of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction such as; for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so and a comma or by a semicolon alone.| Sentence 4:1. If, there is no water, living things cannot survive.Sentence 5:2. In, today’s world, river pollution is occurring so seriously.| 1. If there is no water, living things cannot surviveExplanation Difficulty in identifying dependent clause- complex sentence2.

Today’s world, river pollution occurs very seriously.ExplanationWrong compound phrase.| 4. Subject/Verb Agreement * If a subject is singular, it’s verb must also be singular * If a subject is plural, its verb must also be plural.5. Modals and Phrasal Modals * Modals are special words in English and are used for specific purposes. They are NOT verbs. * The form is: Subject + Modal + Verb| Sentence 13:1. The second cause for river pollution are from agriculture activities. The agriculture activities is harming the quality of the water. Sentence 16:1. The agriculture activities ^ is one of the economic activitiesSentence 21:2. The flow of water will be disturbed and the quality of water will be decreased. | 1. The second cause for river pollution is from the agricultural activities. * The agricultural activities harms the quality of the water. * The agricultural activities harm the quality of the water.Explanation * The sentence structure is wrong in terms of singular and plural. * The word ‘activities’ shows plural form, so the verb harm should also be plural as well. * But from the aspect of present tense, its wrong because here, plural subjects, no need to add‘s’ for the verbs.1. The agricultural activities ought to be one of the economic activities.

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Explanation^ shows that a phrasal modal can be added to make the sentence structure stable.2. The flow of the water will be disturbed and the quality of water would decreaseExplanation Redundancy of the modal is exchanged with another suitable modal. | 6. Parts of Speech * Noun * Verb * Participle * Interjection * Pronoun * Preposition * Adverb * Conjunction | PrepositionSentence 31:1. The last effect that is stated is from mineral extraction. From the activity, the effect is the dangerous substances will mixed to the river and it will create a dangerous, havoc to the living thingsConjunctionSentence 36:1. So, it is important to take care the river. However, we cannot completely stop the river pollution be we can control the pollution. | 1. The last effect is from mineral extraction. From the activity, the effect is the dangerous substances will mix into the river and it will create havoc to the living things.Explanation”Into” is a preposition that answers the question “Where?”1. So, it is important to take care of the river. However, we can’t completely stop the river pollution but we can control it.Explanation The conjunction but should be used in this sentence since it is used to signify a negation, to create contrast.


Sentence types

Altogether there are 36 complete sentences. Out of 36 complete sentences, 10 sentences were simple sentences, 14 were complex sentences and12 were compound sentences. More than half complex sentences were unnecessary repetition of points. It was also found that most of the sentences were constructed using the definite article ‘the’ and the repetition of the word ‘another’ on starting of the paragraph 4 and 6. The unnecessary repetition of the points in the students’ written essay reflects that the student have a very limited knowledge in the given topic and has not exposed her to different sequence connectors.

Major Error Analysis

1. Basic Phrase Structure

Phrase-structure rules are a way to describe a given language’s syntax. They are used to break a natural language sentence down into its constituent parts (also known as syntactic categories) namely phrasal categories and lexical categories (aka parts of speech). Phrasal categories include the noun phrase, verb phrase, and prepositional phrase; lexical categories include noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and many others. A grammar which uses phrase structure rules is called a phrase structure grammar. Phrase structure rules are usually of the form , meaning that the constituent A is separated into the two sub constituents B and C. * The first rule reads: An S consists of an NP followed by a VP. This means A sentence consists of a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. * The next one: A noun phrase consists of a determiner followed by a noun * Further explanations of the constituents: S, Det, NP, VP, AP, PP’ In this study, the student has encounter difficulties in writing a sentence with a correct phrase structure. This happens because she was not corrected by anyone whenever she makes the error.

For example, the excerpt below was taken from the student’s written essay. “Another cause of river pollution is the mineral extraction. From the river pollution is because of releasing of nutrients, sediment, metals contaminants, pesticides especially herbicides. The pollution of water that mined that the water flow that run-off water is polluted by the organic materials. The flow of the water and the quality of water will be decreased.”| The above excerpt registers that the student has difficulty in constructing a basic phrase structure. According to me, the above excerpt is totally vague since it does not follow the basic rules of phrase structure.

Mdm Patmabathy, the school teacher that we consulted in our error analysis says that this excerpt is meaningless and she added that this student is very poor in terms of sentence construction. Despite, she also said that it is also a very serious error when she gets to know that it is a written work of a Form 4 student. If I was given a chance to correct the above excerpt, it may sound like: On the other hand, mineral extraction also contributes to river pollution. This is because, the release of nutrients, sediment, metals contaminants, pesticides and herbicides may obstruct the water flow which results in the decrease of the water flow and the water quality may spoil due to the organic materials released through the mineral extraction.|

2. Passive Sentences

In passive sentences, the thing receiving the action is the subject of the sentence and the thing doing the action is optionally included near the end of the sentence. You can use the passive form if you think that the thing receiving the action is more important or should be emphasized. You can also use the passive form if you do not know who is doing the action or if you do not want to mention who is doing the action. [Thing receiving action] + [be] + [past participle of verb] + [by] + [thing doing action]


In the student’s written essay, there are some prominent wrongly phrased passive sentences. For example, referring to the same excerpt, “Another cause of river pollution is the mineral extraction. From the river pollution is because of releasing of nutrients, sediment, metals contaminants, pesticides especially herbicides. The pollution of water that mined that the water flow that run-off water is polluted by the organic materials. The flow of the water and the quality of water will be decreased.”| The use of the word ‘mined’ which is not a passive verb which causes the sentence to be meaningless. From this we should know, in order to use passive sentences one should have a basic knowledge on transitive verbs which the meaning can be used in passive sentences.

3. Complex/Compound

A compound sentence consists of two or more simple sentences joined by * a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so): The dog barked, and the cat yowled. * a semicolon: The dog barked; the cat yowled.

* a comma, but ONLY when the simple sentences are being treated as items in a series: The dog barked, the cat yowled, and the rabbit chewed. A complex sentence consists of a combination of an independent clause and a dependent clause. An example with a relative clause as the dependent clause: * The dog that was in the street howled loudly.

* A student who is hungry would never pass up a hamburger. An example with a subordinating conjunction creating the dependent clause (note the various positions of the dependent clause): * End: The dog howled although he was well fed.

* Front: Because the dog howled so loudly, the student couldn’t eat his hamburger. * Middle: The dog, although he was well fed, howled loudly. In the student’s written essay, there are more complex sentences constructed compared to compound sentences. Thus, it was merely repetition of words that occurs in the most complex sentences. For example, try to look at the below excerpt from the student’s written essay.

There are some effects that caused by those previous activities. The effect of the industrial waste is one of them are the living things like fish, crab, and squid and also aquatic plants will die. From the industrial waste also affecting the drinking water for human. This is because of the quality of water is spoiled and more non-nature.

There italicized phrase is an example of complex sentence whereby the dependent clause “living things like fish, crab, and squid and also aquatic plants will die is an expansion of the independent clause ‘the effect of the industrial waste’. Here, the use of complex sentence was not fully utilized since the student has problems in constructing basic phrase structure itself. The student ended up the whole sentence with full of repetition. She should have use a wider vocabulary to explain the point.

4. Subject/Verb Agreement

A basic principle of English is that a verb must agree in number with its subject. Although this basic principle is very simple, it is often violated because writers have trouble either identifying the subject or the determining its number.

Singular rule

* A singular subject requires a singular verb.

Consider the following examples.

* He is happy.

* The boy is happy.

* David is happy.

Plural Rule

* A plural subject requires a plural verb.

Consider the following examples.

* They are happy.

* The boys are happy.

* David and Tom are happy

The student has committed much error in this section. She tends to use plural verb for singular subject and singular verb for plural subject. For example, the below excerpt from the student’s essay reflects the wrong subject/verb agreement. The second cause for river pollution are from agriculture activities. The agriculture activities is harming the quality of the water. This activities can lead to the pollution of river. Moreover, the activities is not only polluting the quality of water, but also changes the colour of the water because it polluting the clear water.

The first sentence reflects the use plural verb for singular subject (river pollution is only one). Then, the fourth sentence registers the use of singular verb for plural subject (activities refers to many). So, the correct sentence should be: The second cause for river pollution is from agriculture activities. The agriculture activities harms the quality of the water. These activities can lead to the pollution of river. Moreover, the activities are not only polluting the quality of water and also changes the colour of the water since it pollutes the clear water.|

5. Parts of Speech (Conjunction)

* Conjunctions are words which link two clauses in one sentence * Here are some example conjunctions:

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Coordinating Conjunctions| Subordinating Conjunctions| and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so| although, because, since, unless| * Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two parts of a sentence that are grammatically equal. The two parts may be single words or clauses, for example: * Jack and Jill went up the hill.

* The water was warm, but I didn’t go swimming.

* Subordinating conjunctions are used to join a subordinate dependent clause to a main clause, for example: * I went swimming although it was cold. Referring to the student’s written work, the students has used very limited conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘so’, and ‘for’. There was also wrong usage of conjunction which is as follows: 1. Moreover, the activities is not only polluting the quality of water, but also changes the colour of the water because it polluting the clear water.2. So, it is important to take care the river. However, we cannot completely stop the river pollution be we can control the pollution| For the first sentence, the use of the conjunction ‘but’ is wrong since the sentence is not showing any comparison. The second sentence also applies a wrong conjunction since the word ‘be’ refers to a verb that indicates future actions. So, the correct sentence should be:

1. Moreover, the activities is not only polluting the quality of water and also changes the colour of the water because it polluting the clear water.2. So, it is important to take care the river. However, we cannot completely stop the river pollution but we can control the pollution|

Treatment for the Errors

1. Awareness of L1 interference

Switching interactively between first and second language has been recognized as one of the salient characteristics of L2 writing. Woodball (2002) suggested that language switching may be driven by the mental operations of private speech for solving L2 problems with L1 resources and the results of his study suggested that less proficient L2 learners switched to their L1s more frequently than more advanced learners. According to Wang‘s finding (2003), the low proficient participants often concentrated on direct translation from their L1 into the L2 to perform their L2 writing to compensate for their L2 linguistic deficiencies.

Composing their writing tasks in this way might have helped them overcome writing difficulties without exerting much mental effort. Cases of direct translation were also observed in this study, for example, ‘My nickname is schoolmate takes. English name is I elects. Give to fortune teacher to calculate.’ In addition, students have the tendency to exclude the subject or object and fail to use certain constructions due to L1 interference. Therefore, teachers can help students become aware of interlingual errors by highlighting the structural and lexical differences between Chinese and English in areas when their use is first introduced or reinforced. If interlanguage is likely to occur, then consciousness-raising can help students self-edit their errors when interference occurs

2. Writing Motivation

Generally speaking, writing motivation is encouraged through stimulating reading, relation with daily life experience, and support of relevant vocabulary. Pre-writing activities are crucial for unskilled writers. After selecting an appropriate writing task, some relevant reading passages should be introduced. However, the reading materials should only serve as sources for stimulating ideas and learning of relevant vocabulary rather than models to copy. Students have to write on a new but closely related topic. They still have to generate and refine their own ideas as well as construct their own sentences. Even students of low proficiency level should be given the opportunity to experience writing as a creative act of discovery. The process approach is also applicable to low proficient students provided that thoughtful stimulus and guidance are available.

3. Instruction of Basic Grammar

Good writing is certainly beyond grammar manipulation. Yet it will be very difficult to compose a clear, logical and fluent paragraph if a writer is unable to write reasonably acceptable simple sentences and does not possess the mastery of some complex sentence structures. Results of the present study indicate an urgent need in upgrading students’ basic linguistic competence. Explicit teaching on salient grammar points like types of sentences, syntax, verb forms of some commonly used tenses is highly recommended in the first semester. In the meantime, it is also important to convey the idea that error-free sentence production is not the prime target for writing practice but as the means with which to better express one’s meaning.

Reflection based on the Study

Most ESL students want to learn English to be able to speak the language, not write it. However, learning writing skills is an important aspect of learning English as students could be called upon to write in English for professional or formal reasons. Those who wish to live in an English speaking country will most definitely need to be able to write in English in order to fill out forms and other administrative papers concerning their everyday lives. Why we should emphasize more on writing skill in the ESL class? When speaking, there are a number of factors that help make the task easier for a foreign language speaker: speaking usually takes place in a certain context and other pre-existing knowledge is often assumed so that not all information has to be clear and precise; immediate feedback is possible and speakers can adjust as the conversation unfolds.

Conversation is often informal in everyday life and easier for an ESL student to become involved in and practice. Writing, however, is a much more formal process. ESL students will most likely have to use their writing skills for formal and professional reasons, like business English. This can be very stressful and downright handicapping if they have never learnt to write in English. Thus, errors serve as an important means for us as a future teacher to observe leaner’s learning process and learning strategies. Based on the study that we have conducted, we have found that teaching writing is one of the hardest skill compare to the rest. It needs more on teachers’ effort whereby the teacher should expose the students from the basic grammar to the perfect sentence constructions.


The results of the study show that errors that the participant committed were basically grammatical. The participant also had a relatively weak vocabulary and their sentences were sometimes incomprehensible. She committed errors in applying sentence structure rules in the English language. Hence, we can conclude that this participant has problems in acquiring normal grammatical rules in English. This study has shed light on the manner in which students internalize the rules of the TL.

It further shows that error analysis also can help the teachers to identify in a systematic manner the specific and common language problems students have, so that they can focus more attention on these types of errors. Such an insight into language learning problems is useful to teachers because it provides information on common trouble-spots in language learning which can be used in the preparation of effective teaching materials. Also, by being able to predict errors to a certain extent, teachers can be well-equipped to help students minimize or overcome their learning problems.


1) Ancker, W. (2000). Errors and corrective feedback: Updated theory and classroom practice. English Teaching Forum. 38(4), 20-24.

2) European Journal of Social Sciences – Volume 8, Number 3 (2009) 3) http://www.marquette.edu/wac/WhatMakesWritingSoImportant.shtml

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