English Language Learners as Writers

Author: Dana Ellis, Write for Texas Instructional Coach

According to school accountability data tables, students who are limited English proficient typically struggle in mastering writing skills behind their native English speaking peers. In some ways, this reality is not wholly unpredictable. After all, it takes both knowledge of a language and time experimenting with it to be able to skillfully arrange words into precise lines of reason capable of moving a reader. Though certainly not lacking in reason or passion, English Language Learners do not have the arsenal of English words at their disposal nor knowledge of American style to use on state writing assessments. To top it off, they are still students learning about life while being asked to massage meaning out of it.  Therefore, to ensure academic success in writing, special attention must be given to ELLs.

From the onset, before students memorialize their words on paper, a culture of safe writing must be established. Writing is a personal and intimate act, potentially full of the risk of social acceptance or rejection. Teachers should not skimp on time spent discussing behavioral expectations for writing workshop. Students should be thoroughly convinced that writing efforts will be met with respect and acceptance. Teachers should model their own writing for the class as well. Watching the teacher write messy drafts underscores the idea that all writers make mistakes. If all writers make mistakes, then ELLs are released from the self-imposed mandate to deliver print-ready manuscripts from the outset. All these actions work toward producing a safe, productive place in which to write.

Research from a wide variety of sources consistently supports the effectiveness of explicit writing instruction. However, classroom visits often reveal that teachers favor writing practice over writing instruction. For ELLs especially, writing must be broken down into individual goals, procedures, and features.

For example, ELLs may not realize that standard American academic writing is linear in nature. This type of writing identifies a topic directly and then consistently follows that topic through, without deviation, to a conclusion. However, the ELL may be more familiar with another culture’s academic approach. For instance, Semitic languages like Arabic favor colorful language and repetition or backtracking. Eastern languages such as Japanese explore a topic without stating a writer’s thesis. The reader is meant to mentally engage with the ideas written and draw his own conclusions. Students who transfer from a culture with a different academic writing style will be unfamiliar with the structure of an American essay. Therefore, teachers should point out text features such as a thesis, transitions, conclusions, persuasive arguments and so forth in model essays to help students conceptualize American writing styles.

A major goal for teachers of ELLs is to uncloak the thinking tools used by experienced writers as they compose texts. This means that writing processes are systematically taught through extensive modeling and metacognition while stimulating purposeful writing experiences. This cognitive approach to writing encourages students to construct meaning within a clear, easily duplicated framework. Specifically, students should build a writer’s tool kit so that they are able to approach a writing task declaratively, procedurally, and conditionally. They can determine what the writing task is, how to approach the writing, and when they have achieved the writing goal.

Following this thinking, a teacher might approach an expository essay assignment by leading the class through activities designed to build background knowledge on the topic about which students will write. Academic words used to describe the topic would be identified, explained, and verbally used by the students. The activities would be translated into concrete, language-rich classroom references (anchor charts, word banks, or desk tools). Next, the teacher would introduce a model essay on the topic, analyzing and color coding the model while using spoken thoughts to guide students through the discovery process. Emphasis would be placed on identifying audience and author’s purpose in the piece. Parts of the essay which demonstrate the focus skill would then be labeled clearly. Next, the teacher would provide some type of writing recipe, a graphic organizer, set of index cards, flipbook, or similar device that divides up the writing task into components that imitate the mentor text. Alternately, drawn boxes on notebook paper could indicate an introduction, body, and conclusion. Finally, students would be asked to focus their thoughts into a specific writing task while the teacher circulates and provides feedback. Immersion into the topic in this manner would pave the way for writing success.

To summarize, helping ELLs to be effective writers in the classroom involves being aware of cultural differences; building a safe writing climate for risk taking; giving students the tools, words, and models needed for achievement; and then allowing them time to practice writing. With these practices in place, students and teachers can change history!

 

Sources

Barkaoui, Khaled. “Teaching Writing to Second Language Learners: Insights from Theory and Research.” TESL Reporter 40.1 (2007): 35-48. Web.

Booth, Carol O., and Robert Landa. “A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School.” Research in the Teaching of English 41 (2007): 269-303. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

“NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners (ELLs).” NCTE Comprehensive News. ELL Taskforce, Apr. 2006. Web.

Radford, Colin. “The Power of Words.” Philosophy 68.265 (1993): 325-42. Scholastic. Web.

Samway, Katharine Davies. When English Language Learners Write: Connecting Research to Practice, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.


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