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Improving Writing Skills: ELLs and the Joy of Writing

By: Colorín Colorado (2007)
"The meaning of even a single word is rather more complex than one might imagine."

- Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, 1980, p. viii

"Teacher, do we need our pencils today?" my Puerto Rican elementary students would urgently ask when I came to their classroom to escort them to my English as a Second Language classroom. I was a student teacher in a Massachusetts elementary school, and it took me awhile to figure out the correlation between the pencil and hallway behavior. If I replied, "Yes, you should bring a pencil," the walk to my classroom took 15 minutes and involved a lot of disruptions, student squabbles, drifting students and other various misbehaviors. As a student teacher, I was very focused on keeping order and creating a challenging learning environment. If I replied, "No, you don’t need a pencil today," the walk to my classroom took about five minutes, even with a stop at the drinking fountain.

So, what was the correlation? Writing. The students knew that if they had to bring a pencil they would have to do writing in the class, and they dreaded it. If they didn’t need a pencil, we would be working on projects or doing more verbal work, and they liked that. What they weren’t expecting was that half-way through my student teaching, I bought 10 boxes of pencils and kept them in my classroom, so they never had to bring a pencil to class — I had plenty to go around. This improved the hallway behavior, but still left me with the question of how to improve ESL student writing when they were frustrated by the practice and went to great lengths to avoid it.

I have been teaching ESL for many years and there is no perfect solution to this problem; however, I do believe I have added quite a few writing activities to my bag of tricks and improved my ability to differentiate writing tasks based on student ability. As I improved my ability to ensure that each student would be successful in the writing activity, their confidence increased, and they were less likely to engage in disruptive behavior. You know what I’m talking about — the long, dramatic search for a pencil… and then paper… or the meandering walk about the room to get yesterday’s writing draft, or the ever popular, "15 minute pencil sharpening" session. I hope some of the writing activities I share with you will help you to reduce anxiety in your ESL students and increase their language and writing skills.

There is a very important correlation between writing and language development. As students develop language skills, they often develop listening skills first (lots of input they can understand), then speaking (they begin to formulate their ideas in the second language), then reading (they can understand the sound/symbol correspondence of the new language and make sense of the words) and finally writing (they have enough language to express their own ideas in writing). This is not true for 100% of language learners, but it is true for the majority of them. Why is writing often the last skill to emerge? It almost seems that reading would be more difficult because the student needs to sound out words and understand the author’s message. It would seem writing might be easier because students are sharing their own ideas already in their heads and simply putting them on paper. However, writing requires a lot more processing of language in order to produce a message.

First the student must have an idea, then think of the appropriate way to say it, then start to write it and spell it correctly, and then create another sentence to continue to communicate the idea. If we add the students’ worry that they are making huge, embarrassing errors or that their ideas aren’t very good in the first place, then we begin to understand the complexity involved in writing in a second language. In fact, the way we communicate, or the way students put their ideas on paper, is largely influenced by their culture. In some of my classes, my Asian students were very confused when I told them to revise their writing because this was a "first draft." In their experience they had always written an item once and submitted it as "the final," and then the teacher would correct it. The idea that they had to write it over again didn’t make sense to them. Students from other cultures may have developed a storytelling style that involves laying out a lot of background information and detail and takes quite a while to get to the point. In most western writing, we expect a topic sentence or a lead paragraph that will tell us what the point is, and then everything written after that leads to a direct conclusion. Many of my students had great difficulty connecting their ideas this way.

With that said, teachers have a big task in improving ESL student writing skills, but the payoff for instructional dedication can be great. A researcher on adolescent literacy at the University of Minnesota, David O’Brien, did a study on improving the reading skills of adolescent students. All of the students were involved in a six week study and during that time they were responsible for creating brochures and other types of communication on computers. They had criteria to input a certain amount of text and graphics to create a final project. This required lots of thought and revisions to achieve the final result. At the end of the six weeks the students took a reading test and the majority of them had improved their reading skills significantly. This was a very interesting result, considering that the teachers had not focused on teaching reading skills. The conclusion was that students used meta-cognition to process language and work with it in a more meaningful way, so that consequently their reading skills improved even though they were mostly working on writing.

Additional positive academic results have been seen in the "90 90 90 Schools." These are schools that researchers have identified as 90% poverty, 90% students of color and 90% achieving standards. This is a most remarkable combination in the educational world. The researchers examined these schools and found one common denominator among them — they all focused on developing writing skills. Each school had an agreed upon writing curriculum and methodology that was used at all grade levels, and student writing was prominently displayed throughout the building and in classrooms. Students used writing in all content areas to demonstrate academic concepts learned. In the end, 90% of the students in these schools were able to pass state grade-level tests based on the academic standards.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that all your hard work will pay off, I would like to introduce some effective writing activities. I would like to acknowledge that there are many types of effective writing instruction used in classrooms today, including process writing, graphic organizers as writing planning tools, vocabulary stretchers, etc… and all of those are beneficial to ELL students. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on a few writing activities that I think are particularly useful when working with students with a wide-range of English language skills.

How to differentiate writing activities:

With some pre-planning, a teacher can create a writing assignment that will allow every student to be successful. For example, the teacher may give a writing assignment that has A, B and C levels (or they can be number or color-coded).

  • ELL students at Level A copy a sentence or short passage exactly as it is written. This helps beginning-level students who are not very familiar with the language, but may be able to interpret some of the information as they copy it.
  • Level B students receive a paragraph or two that has blank spaces in the text. The students write the word or phrase that completes the sentence. This allows the student to write an amount that is not overwhelming and helps them comprehend the information.
  • Level C students write on their own, but perhaps they receive paragraph prompts or are allowed to look in a book, but must put the idea in their own words. After some practice with this system and getting to know your students’ English language skills, you will be able to create a system that works best for your class.

Language Experience Approach

The Language Experience Approach draws on instructional techniques used with younger children who have not yet developed literacy skills. In this approach, the teacher presents information to the students, or they have an "experience" of some sort — for example, a field trip, or acting out a scene in a book. Then the students tell the teacher what to write on the board to explain the experience. This may be useful as an activity for a volunteer or teacher’s aide to use with a small group of ESL students during literacy time. Here are the steps.

  1. Experience something — for example, the students have listened to the story, "The Little Red Hen" and then acted it out.
  2. The teacher stands by the board or a large sheet of paper and says to the students, "Tell me the story of the Little Red Hen."
  3. As each student tells a part of the story, the teacher writes it down on the board, just as it was stated. For example, a student might say, "The Little Red Hen work so hard and nobody want help her." This continues until each student has spoken or the story is finished.
  4. Then the teacher tells the students, "Let’s read the story together and listen to see if the story makes sense and if there is anything we want to change."
  5. After reading the story, the teacher asks students if they want to change anything. For example, one student may raise her hand and say, "I think it should say, "worked" not "work." The teacher may ask other students if they agree or disagree.
  6. If the suggested change is correct, the teacher offers praise and moves on to the next suggestion. If the suggested change is not correct, the teacher should help the student analyze the suggested change. For example, if the student says, "I think it should say, ‘The Little Red Hen <u>she</u> worked so hard…." The teacher would ask if others agree and see if there is discussion, then the teacher could point out that the Little Red Hen is the pronoun or "name," so in English we don’t need to put it in twice. We can say "She worked so hard." Or "The Little Red Hen worked so hard."
  7. When students have analyzed and corrected the whole text, the teacher may either circle a few more spots where students missed corrections and they can be challenged to figure out what the change should be, or the students can be instructed to copy the text with the corrections included.
  8. As a final activity, students are instructed to take the story home and read it to three people and bring it back with signatures.

After this activity, usually even beginning-level ELL students are able to read the story to others because it was their experience, it is in their own words, and they have worked with the text in a meaningful way.

Sentence Auction

This activity helps students analyze common writing errors through a personalized activity since they are trying to buy their own sentences. Once a week or once a month, a teacher can hold a "Sentence Auction." The teacher takes sentence examples from student writing – some of which have errors and some that don’t, and writes them on a handout or overhead projector. The identity of the student who wrote each sentence is not revealed. To begin the sentence auction, each student is given an "account" of perhaps $300. The students are told to "bid" on the good sentences. The winner is the student with the highest number of "good" sentences.

  1. The teacher takes on the persona of an "Auctioneer" and opens the bidding at $10.
  2. The teacher reads out the sentence confidently exactly as it is written. "Him want to go to school very bad." Who will give me $10?"
  3. The students take turns bidding until the teacher decides who has "won" the bid.
  4. Some sentences will not sell because students will know they are "bad." Just leave those sentences and move to the next one.
  5. After all the sentences have been sold, the teacher goes through the list and the students say whether the sentence was good or bad. If they agree that it was a bad sentence, then the teacher asks them to explain how they can make it a "good" sentence.
  6. Finally the students can count how many "good" sentences they have (since they may have bought some bad ones) and a winner is declared.
  7. The teacher may want to give a little prize or certificate to the student. In a variation of this activity students can work in pairs or groups to buy the sentences.

Error correction

I have never "corrected" my students’ writing mistakes, at least not in the traditional way. I have always told my students, "If I correct your English, I improve my English; if you correct your English, you improve yours." I handled corrections in one of two ways: either I identified what errors I would be looking for in the writing submission or I told them I would only circle five errors in the whole paper. If I pre-set the errors I would look for, for example correct use of past tense, I would only correct past tense errors, even if I saw other glaring errors in the paper. Sometimes this was hard to do, but I wanted to maintain the students’ focus on the writing improvement we were working on. If I set a number of errors I would circle, for example, five, then I carefully chose those five and ignored the rest. When I returned the papers, the students were responsible for correcting their own mistakes. If they weren’t sure how to do it, they could check with a classmate, and if no one knew, then I would assist. Invariably the students would ask, "Are these the only errors in the paper?" and I would tell them no. They might be disappointed, but they came to understand the value of correcting their own errors when they submitted a piece of writing.

Quick Write

One of the challenges for ELL students when they approach writing is their anxiety about writing their ideas correctly and writing a lot of information in English. This may feel overwhelming when a student is assigned an essay. In order to get students comfortable with the idea of just putting ideas on paper and not worrying about mistakes, we do regular "quick writes." For "quick writes" I give the students a topic and then tell them to write as much as they can for five minutes. They need to keep their pencils on the paper and even if they can’t think of anything to write or they are worried about how to spell things, they are supposed to keep writing. At the end of five minutes, the students count how many words they were able to write and they keep track in a log. The objective is that they will see progress in the amount of writing they are able to do in five minutes’ time and hopefully apply this fluency to their essay writing.

Cinquain poems

Cinquain poems offer great flexibility in working with ELL students of a variety of language levels. The basic Cinquain formula is as follows, but teachers can modify it as needed according to the student language level.

One noun
Two adjectives
Three gerunds (words + ing)
A short sentence.
A one-word summary

An example of a Cinquain a student might write:

Home
Warm, happy
Loving, welcoming, helping
People you love.
Family

There really is no wrong way to do a Cinquain, students can put key vocabulary words together any way they like to create the message they desire. Teachers may want to use Cinquains to reinforce new content vocabulary and concepts as well.

With these writing activities to try in your classroom, the only thing left is to buy a few boxes of pencils, hand them out to your ELL students and help them discover the possibility of joy in writing. Teachers who use a variety of activities and strategies to help ELL students become comfortable with expressing their ideas in a new language and finding success with small writing tasks, will give their students’ confidence for a lifetime of self-expression. I offer this Cinquain poem to sum it up.

Writing
Fun, creative
Thinking, sharing, revising
Lots of ideas.
Proud

Hot links

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  • Internet TESL Journal: Writing Resources

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  • Bilingual Graphic Organizers

    Many graphic organizers in both Spanish and English from the Pomperaug Regional School District 15 in Connecticut.

  • Accountability in Action: The 90/90/90 Schools

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  • PIZZAZ: Cinquain poems

    A poetry site designed to assist instruction of ESL students in poetry and other creative writing forms. The site has links and detailed information on poetry such as Cinquain, Diamante, Haiku and Limericks. It also has further information on other types of creative writing and tips for instruction.

  • TeacherVision: Language Arts Graphic Organizers

    These graphic organizers can be used to prepare for a five-paragraph essay, organize sentences in a paragraph, map concepts and events, compare topics with a Venn Diagram, organize notes for a presentation, create a double-entry journal, and much more.

Comments and Recommendations

Thanks for sharing useful ideas out of your personal experience. I really enjoyed reading the sentence auction activity and would share it with a friend who is teaching English at some local school; I am sure her students will benefit a great deal with this writing technique.
Posted by: How To Write  |  December 09, 2010 11:19 AM
I enjoyed your personal experience and it is very helpful. Way to be creative and go the extra mile for ESL students. I knew about the LEA but never even considered using it to help with paper formatting for ESL. I also love the poem. Great idea and allows for the students to comfortably use their creative side.
Posted by: Patricia  |  October 21, 2011 09:56 AM
Sharing your experience in helping learners improve writing skills seems informative and useful. Thank you.
Posted by: Sarath  |  March 16, 2013 03:59 AM
七み么れ长 丫口び for this blog,, it's very help me, it's make me easy to my thesis, I didn't confius again..
Posted by: herlina purnama sari  |  July 05, 2013 04:04 AM
I do enjoy your personal experience in teaching or training experience. These ideas have raised my teaching up after trying out for a long time with boring traditional ways and sometimes I lost my patience when facing students' works. Many thanks. Many thanks!
Posted by: Frankie Han  |  September 14, 2014 12:16 PM
(Note: Comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for their content.)

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