Using Writing Prompts with ELLs: My Summer Vacation (Part 3)

In preparation for the start of a new school year, teachers may begin planning their first few lessons or units. When thinking about implementing Common Core State Standards, some might ask, “Where do I start?” As language teachers, we are excited to see that the CCSS address all domains of language: speaking, writing, reading and listening.

Writing is an area in the CCSS that can use additional attention, can be challenging to teach, and is often the language skill that can take the longest time for ELLs to develop compared to the other domains. Writing within the CCSS for ELLs will need to be effectively differentiated. This post is framed around a traditional writing prompt. It shows how to differentiate the writing task for students at three levels of English language proficiency and closes with some additional resources.

Welcome Back Writing

Let's take a closer look at that tried and true welcome back to school writing assignment through a CCSS for ELL lens. The prompt is: What did you do over summer vacation?

Having students answer this writing prompt can align to a Common Core State Standard for English Language Arts/Literacy. For example, in the sixth grade, students are expected to write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective techniques, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. The standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3 reads as follows:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3a Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.

This standard includes the following strands:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3c Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence and signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3d Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3e Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.

This writing assignment can address all of these strands for students performing on grade level. However, for students learning English, this writing prompt can be extremely challenging without proper scaffolds that allow students to not only have access to the task but to also demonstrate their ability to produce an answer that addresses the standard.

Let Data Drive the Differentiation in Writing

Using data from a students language assessments, either formative or summative, can be extremely useful. This writing exercise may reveal a lot to you about a student’s ability to communicate orally and thought writing. Just differentiating instruction won’t support ELLs in the way they may need support. In order to become effective practitioners  of ELLs, we need to practice “intentional teaching”. While some definitions of intentional teaching exist, to me, intentional teaching means being able to justify the “what” and “how” of what is taught and expected from students at various levels of English language proficiency. By providing scaffolds that are most appropriate and intentional for students based upon their level of English language proficiency, we have maximized instructional time and minimized confusion. The ways to scaffold this writing prompt for ELLs at three different level of English language proficiency described below are a way to practice intentional teaching.

Beginning Level Student

For a beginner, this writing assignment will have to be heavily scaffolded.  A blank bubble (brainstorm) map in isolation will not be an appropriate scaffold. WIDA provides CAN Do descriptors, clustered by grade levels, as a resource for differentiation.  According to the Grades 6-8 WIDA CAN Do descriptors a student at this level can draw content-related pictures, produce high frequency words, label pictures and graphs, create vocabulary / content cards, and generate a list from pre-taught words and phrases. Allowing this student to write in his or her native language may be an appropriate start. Through translating this assignment, the student will be able to participate. Later, his or her narrative can be translated by a bilingual teacher, student, or paraprofessional, into English with key words, phrases and cognates highlighted. The student can also begin to address the writing prompt by listing events from his or her summer using short phrases in English, a word bank, and photos if available. Those original phrases can then be extended into simple sentences by using sentence frames. The student could also create a digital story with subtitles in English.

Intermediate Level Student

An intermediate level student most likely has the ability to engage with this writing prompt with fewer scaffolds than a beginner, but that student still requires the right scaffolds. A blank bubble map (brainstorm), a flow chart and/or and a word bank would assist students at this level of English language proficiency to complete this task. The blank bubble map will help them to remember events from their summer they’d like to write about. The flow chart will help them to put events in order. A word bank of transition words (e.g., first, next, then, before, after, etc.) will assist students in not only sequencing events but in paragraph development. Using those scaffolds to build upon a students ideas are appropriate ways to support ELLs without lowering the teacher’s expectations of them in completing the task. Ideas for extending writing include having students create digital stories, PowerPoint Presentations with written text, and audio recordings with partners or in small groups.

Advanced Level Student

A student at the advanced level may no longer need specific language support but could use assistance with editing, grammar, word choice, and/or style. This CCSS writing standard calls for students to provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events. In addition to addressing other aspects of the standards, students at this level could focus on writing a strong conclusion, using quotes, specific details, revisions, and descriptive text. It is also useful for advanced level students to self-assess their work. Using a rubric or checklist to assess their essays allows for independence and the opportunity to self-correct. Artifacts that would support the students' essays such as photos, video clips and evidence (e.g., ticket stubs from a ball game or theme park they attended) could aid in their narrative writing. Students at this level may also further develop their essay into a digital story or published piece with limited support from the teacher.

Final Thoughts

Even though this post focused on writing, teachers remember to address all domains of language in instruction, including speaking, writing, reading, and listening.

Some of the best resources the students have to utilize all language domains are each other. Allowing students to engage in rich conversations, ask probing questions, read parts of their essays aloud, and listen closely to their classmates is an integral part of the writing process. Lucy Calkins, leading literacy educator, encourages students to read with expression, suggesting they “read their writing as if it were golden."

More Resources

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Thank you for sharing this article. I will be passing it on to all of our teachers
as I feel language instruction is beneficial to all of our students.

Thank you Barbara!

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