Writing Ideas from the Classroom

Here are some ideas from ELL educators around the country about getting ELL students (children, adolescents, and adults) to write more enthusiastically and creatively. Try them out!

Ms. Susan Aktary, North Carolina

Rivers Correctional Institution

I have found that providing students in the prison setting with the apparantly distinct "privilege" of writing in journals has men (from ages 20 to 78) who were reticent to write anything in English on paper reticent to stop writing! First, I established a tradition which requires them to copy the following paragraph from the book of one who has "made it" into the "journal level" of the class: "This is ....(date) and I am a well-respected honor student of a course in English as a Second Language, in a prison somewhere in North Carolina, but it has not always been so..."

Then, they are told they can write anything they are able to write, using their notes from class lessons, dictionaries, and me as a resource. Every night except Thursdays (they don't have to write on Thursdays unless they want to), I correct their mechanics by doing error analyses and using footnotes tied to the type of error they are making, while still saying "Good effort," "Keep up the good work!" and other positive comments.

Once they have a substantial handle on their mechanics, I show them how many fewer of my "footnotes" are required, and I challenge them to try different genres and give them comments on their thinking or organizational processes, audience, cohesion, and other such considerations and suggestions relevant to becoming a mature and interesting writer. Eight students graduated from ESL this year, and some came back to tell me they had already passed their GED reading and writing tests as a result of what they learned in my class through this method!

Ms. Cynthia Armstrong, Colorado

Colorado Springs School District 11

Right now I work with adults but I have worked with elementary age ESL students. Often I have found it hard to determine from the students' writing where they are in terms of assessment. One of my favorite teaching tools is "Creating Young Writers" by Vicky Spandel. It supports the Six-Trait writing method and is packed with not only ideas for writing, but how to effectvely look at a writing sample using clear and understandable rubrics. I can't say enough about this book! It really put writing and ELLs into perspective and gave me a great place to start working with students on taking responsibility for their writing work. This is easily adapted for any age writer and I have used some of the same principles with my adult ESL students.

Ms. Heather Cowley

Orlando, Florida

The most enjoyable thing we've done, in terms of writing, is to brainstorm topics they enjoy, then have them write outlandish things about a chosen topic daily. It gets the creative juices flowing, and makes the writing more fun.

Ms. Tammy Jones, West Virginia

Jefferson County Schools, WV

I consider writing to be an important part of my instruction with my ELL learners. I work closely with a first-grade teacher who uses Writers Workshop in her classroom. I have learned many new techniques and I love to hear the students tell me that they are working on their rewrite or are ready to publish. I learned to use writing terms with my students and have also used the 4-Square writing process. I like the 4-Square because of my time constraints in my schedule and I have found that many of the teachers I work with also like the ease of the process and are able to fit it into their busy schedules.

One of my favorite instructional ideas is to have my students write a book and read it to different classrooms. I have a large K-2 population so my kindergarteners write a 4 page book about a character from another book. I make little pictures of the character and have them glue it on a page and then write about it. We brainstorm for the topic of the page and then we write and draw. Depending on their English levels I may write while they dictate or they may write with invented spelling. Our current book involves an animal and the first page describes it, then page 2 tells us what it likes to eat, page 3 is what it likes to play with and page 4 is their own idea. I encourage them to be as outrageous as they want and when we are finished we will read it to their own classes. The first graders are doing the same, but they are able to be more creative and therefore I can reinforce more of the writing components.

My second graders are writing their own version of High School Musical using their elementary school. They are creating cheers and describing the awards, teachers, mascots, school colors etc. They are also creating their own "lockers" with an autobiography and pictures and/or drawings about themselves. This project will be on display in our library. Every year I try to come up with some writing ideas that I can fit in with all the other subjects and English levels. Last year was a pirate year with ship logs and feathers taped on pencils. It doesn't take much with the K-2nd grade population to encourage writing. A few simple props will do the trick. I enjoy my writing activities and have had students mention their kindergarten book and want to know what the topic will be when they are in second grade!

Ms. Jeanne Piro, New York

PS 119, Bronx, NY

With my Beginner Group of ELLs, I teach sentence structure by using pictures. First, I introduce the concept of nouns and verbs, explaining that all sentences must contain these. However, since nouns and verbs are too complicated at this point, I have the students cut out magazine pictures of items representing these ideas. By putting the pictures together with a few extra words, like articles, the students begin to understand sentence structure and how to write a complete sentence.

Ms. Shira Reiss, Colorado

Aurora Public Schools-West Middle School

There are numerous strategies I use to help kids with writing. First, I work with kids who are in special education. Many students in Special Education are ELL students. Hopefully, with the implementation, these ELL students will get explicit instruction at a Tier 2 level and not need to be put into a Tier 2 (Special Ed) level in order to get intensive instruction. When middle school ELL students are at a 1-3rd grade level of reading, usually their writing is very low. My way of teaching them writing is connected to teaching them reading. This is the process I use:

  1. Do they have phonological processes in place especially in the area of phonemic awareness? For example: Can they discriminate short and long vowels?
  2. Do they know the 6 syllable types (closed, open, silent e, -el, vowel teams and r-controlled syllables)?
  3. Which high frequency words do they know?

These are pre-requisites to writing program that I focus on with these ELL middle schoolers.

There are students here who only know 1 syllable type (closed) and some high frequency words and can write a very, very simple paragraph with support from the teacher. In order to improve their writing, I usually teach them 1 or 2 more syllable types and then give them a story text that has these syllable types. I have them color code the syllabel types, i.e. highlight the silent e words in blue. Then I have them read. Often these students struggle with decoding each word.

I then tell the student that we need to read for meaning. I demonstrate a "think-out-loud" when reading this text, and I have the student read the story a few more times in order to increase fluency. Using a graphic organizer, I demonstrate how to summarize this story while "thinking out loud." The student is instructed to first ORALLY tell the teacher a NEW story using the words in the text. Then the student is given the graphic organizer to write the story. The student is told that they must use the text as their "mentor text" in order to spell all the words correctly in their own writing.

I have found that after teaching this process with numerous texts while teaching other syllable types, the student's reading and writing skills improve greatly. When they have accomplished writing this type of text, we move on to another genre of text and do the same thing.

Ms. Anita Scussel, Illinois

Forest Glen Elementary School

In a cleaning flurry at home, I discovered a box of stuffed animals. I brought them to school with the idea of finding them new homes. At our after school ENL Homework Club, we were short of ideas for some students who finished their work early. We brought out two of the stuffed animals — a moose and an elephant. We furnished 'special' writing paper (colored lined notebook paper) and the kids took off writing stories incorporating the adventures of the two friends. They pulled over a globe to use different locales in their stories, and they requested additional paper so they could continue writing at home! We discussed making a "book" of their stories for the school library. Enthusiasm was high! The stuffed animals continue to inspire young authors.

Ms. Sonia Solomon, North Carolina

Forestville Road Elementary

To help students learn to write in a logical order, I use sequencing cards. They are sold in sets of 3, 5, and 6 events, and after having students sequence the cards, they have to write one sentence about each. A colleague of mine has her students sequence comic strips with the words removed. They write a sentence about each picture.

Ms. Theresa Straub, Illinois

Community Consolidated District 62

Writing has been a focus of our school improvement plan this year. With 70% of our students being ELLs, writing has been a challenge. As an ELL teacher, I have found the following two methods to work very well with all grade levels. For beginning speakers the Writing A-Z graphic organizers and examples are simple enough to get the students writing narratives, persuasive essays, and more.

For the more advanced ELL students, we use a graphic organizer (hand drawn by the students) that has a large circle in the middle (for the topic) with three smaller circles coming out of the center one (for the main idea of each paragraph), followed by three straight lines (coming out of each small circle) for writing the details. After the graphic organizers are filled out I model what an opening and closing paragraph should look like, and then the students begin writing their rough draft. After conferencing with each student one-on-one to edit their paper, the student will then either rewrite or type their final copy. Once everyone is finished the students practice their fluency skills by reading their writing aloud. My students have made some wonderful progress throughout the year by using these methods. We even entered a contest!

Ms. Clair Wolters, Minnesota

Long Prairie Grey Eagle Schools

I use dialogue journals with my students. Each student is given a journal and he or she writes a letter in that journal to me. I then respond back to the student in the journal and we continue the dialogue throughout the year until the journal is filled, or the school year is over. It encourages students to write for a real purpose (I read and respond to the questions that are asked). I do not grade this work, but with it students do improve over time.


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Giving a student a writing assignment on any topic familiar and important to them at the beginning of the year forms a baseline sample of the student's writing skill. The teacher looks at the piece and makes notes in her running record file. About 2 months later give the student the piece back, say "this is what you wrote 2 motnths ago...take a look at it, make changes you think would make it better" The student makes changes on the paper,and re-writes the piece. The teacher now sees how the student has progressed in writing skills (better syntax, adjectives? more descriptives? ) Continue this process until the last month of school when the final copy will drafted. Self assessment is a powerful tool; the teacher keeps records to progress and where extra support in writing skills is needed. It works

I am a veteran educator in the Houston Independent School District and really have enjoyed reading your comments and recommendations. Today was my first time on the website. Thanks for such wonderful ideas and strategies.

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