Standards-Based Writing for ELLs

Writing is communication, creativity and collaboration. Writing is a social process for English language learners (ELLs), just as it is for any other writer. Teaching English language learners to be successful writers depends on the quality of the instructional process, practices, and classroom climate for learning.

Research suggests two principles of writing instruction for ELLs. First, literacy instruction should center on understanding and on the communication of meaning. The teachers' role is to support students as they carry out meaningful literacy activities involving the full processes of reading and writing.

Second, writing instruction should take place in the context of a rich and challenging curriculum. The teachers' role is to provide instructional materials and activities that meet and challenge a student's language production level and provide access to standards-based academic content.

Recent research reveals emerging promising practices on how meaningful, standards-based writing instruction can be attained through five key principles:

  1. Writing can be taught earlier than once believed – you don't have to wait until the student has developed high levels of English proficiency.
  2. Explicit instruction in writing mechanics and composition skills is necessary for writing success.
  3. Vocabulary and oral language development are an integral part of writing.
  4. Writing flourishes in a safe community of learners, where teacher and students are writing and sharing their writings, editing each other's work (students edit teacher's writing also), and where they publish together. ELLs need a sense of community and structure that allows them to take risks on their way to learning in a new language and culture.
  5. Using culturally responsive instruction, teachers explore with their classes the ways in which students and their families use literacy at home and in the community. Teachers then bring these topics, styles, and cultural knowledge into the writing themes.

    For instance, well-educated Mexican students often start a narrative with long sentences filled with flowery language. To them, it is an insult to start with a succinct topic sentence. The topic is not typically approached until the elaborate introduction is complete.

    Korean students tend to use more inductive logical structures, putting details first and working up to a conclusion. Their style may appear indirect and unconvincing in their arguments to teachers unfamiliar with such a rhetorical approach. Students who speak Arabic may also love long descriptions, and may be seen as digressing. Vietnamese students may focus more on setting the scene than on developing the plot.

    These cultural mismatches might raise false impressions about the students' writing abilities. Thus, teachers who are unfamiliar with cultural variations such as these might want to begin with class activities to discover the variations in class by asking students to write about their culture or country of origin.

The goal of a recursive writing process is to get ELLs to write often and to use their peers in the classroom as their audience. You can use cooperative learning during the planning, revising, and editing of their writing, so that students give feedback to one another as well as use feedback that has been given. ELLs learn a great deal just from examining each other's writing. Through this process, ELLs have many opportunities to write, learn new text structures and words, and become familiar with the mechanics of writing in English.

It is also important, however, to teach students specific strategies and skills to help them improve their writing techniques and their English simultaneously. Below you will find ideas for mini-lessons on conventions for writing that you can provide on a systematic basis.

Conventions for writing in English or Spanish

Conventions of writing

  • Write the title, author's name, date, and page numbers
  • Use appropriate punctuation, including sentence markers such as question marks and periods


  • Use and choose genre, such as fiction or nonfiction
  • Describe characters
  • Use dialogue
  • Develop plot and setting
  • Use a variety of author devices (irony, flashback, foreshadowing, etc.)
  • Use active versus passive voice

Conventions of English

  • Spelling
  • Capitalization, punctuation, margins, and hyphens
  • Paragraphing
  • Beginning and ending sentences
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Root words, prefixes, and suffixes

Other ideas

One way to help students reflect on their own writing is to model how to ask clarifying questions. The following questions can also be given to students to keep in their folders for their own reading reflections or to help their peers. This is an attempt to show how writers actively interact with ideas in the course of drafting.

Use your own writing examples and think alouds to illuminate the author's craft. Teach students to re-read long or awkward descriptions and contradictions when they don't make sense. Then explain, model, or discuss what students might do to fix sentences like these.

Types of questions for reflection, feedback, and discussion

  • What is the author trying to tell us here?
  • What is another way the author can say this?
  • What else could the author tell us about this character?
  • Can the author tell us more about the setting?
  • Does this make sense with what the author told us before?
  • Does the author tell us why?
  • Why do you think the author tells us this now?
  • How do things look for this character now?
  • Does the author provide us with an exciting ending?



Adapted from: Calderón, M. (2004) Standards-based writing for English language learners. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Office of Education.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
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I found that pairing or small grouping of ELL's with others who have mastered their own writing skills can be of great help. Immediate feedback from me, seems to encourage not only process, but also product.

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