Teaching writing to ELLs across the curriculum: Strategies for success
Tuesday, July 01, 2014
Reading, writing, listening and speaking. Educators know the importance of these essential skills for student success, and a brief review of instructional standards will show an emphasis on these four skills.
Traditionally, the instruction on reading and writing skills has been relegated to language arts classes and teachers. In more recent times, however, the importance of writing in the content areas has been emphasized, as a means to help students think deeply about a topic and demonstrate their knowledge.
Writing is also an essential life skill. People use writing on a daily basis in their personal and professional lives to share ideas, communicate with family and friends, accomplish tasks, and more.
If educators understand the importance of writing, why then is writing not emphasized throughout the day in every classroom? The amount of writing in classrooms varies dramatically.
There are several potential reasons for this. Teachers often report a lack of time to incorporate writing throughout the day. Some students report that writing is difficult, and they do not want to or cannot produce the level of writing that is expected — or simply do not know what to write. Writing can, and should, however, be incorporated throughout the various content areas taught over the course of the day.
Teachers at the elementary level may have a designated writing block, and language arts classes at the secondary level may focus specifically on writing, but there are ways to increase the amount of writing. All teachers can incorporate writing into their daily practice without sacrificing content instruction time or greatly increasing the amount of time spent on grading and assessing student writing.
Writing and English learners
When teaching English learners, it is important to note that the quantity and linguistic complexity of writing will be dependent on the proficiency level of the student. For example, students at early proficiency levels will not necessarily be able to write complex sentences, but can certainly begin the writing process by sketching and potentially adding key vocabulary that has been explicitly taught.
As students move into the early-intermediate and intermediate levels, they can continue to develop their writing skills by writing phrases, sentences and paragraphs. As students progress toward advanced proficiency, varying language structures with increased grammatical accuracy can be expected.
Specific expectations for writing at varying proficiency levels can be found in various English language proficiency standards, such as those developed by the WIDA Consortium and ELPA21. Sentence frames, starters and signal words can be an appropriate scaffold for students at a variety of proficiency levels, for oral language production as well as writing.
It is important to note that writing instruction should be taught simultaneously with reading, speaking and listening skills for students at all proficiency levels. These four skills compliment each other and help students to develop language proficiency as well as content knowledge.
Frequency, focus and feedback
In "Writing to Read: A Meta-analysis of the Impact of Writing and Writing Instruction on Reading," Steven Graham and Michael Herbert assert that writing helps increase student reading comprehension and fluency, and that increasing writing opportunities will benefit student reading comprehension.
When we increase the frequency of student writing, they build fluency in writing and are able to use writing as a tool for thinking and demonstrating content knowledge. As mentioned earlier, however, teachers are often hesitant to increase the frequency of writing as it often means an increase in the amount of reading and correcting papers that teachers must engage in.
One model for increasing student writing without overburdening the teacher with papers to correct is the Collins Writing Program. The Collins Writing Program emphasizes five types of writing: Type One and Type Two writing are informal quick-writes that can be easily incorporated into classroom instruction, taking just 8-10 minutes of class time—including a quick assessment. Types Three, Four and Five involve composition writing, giving teachers a range of options from one self-edited draft, to peer editing, and finally publishable work, respectively.
In each type of writing within the Collins Writing Program, students are offered a focus for their writing. For each type of writing, students are given a clear, challenging prompt that may range from predicting or writing an opinion, to answering a question based on the content or text they are reading, to writing an argument with appropriate claim and counterclaim plus evidence to support.
In addition to a focus on content through an appropriate prompt, teachers also offer students focus correction areas (FCAs). An FCA clarifies for students what the teacher will hold the students highly accountable for in their writing, and may focus on a variety of characteristics such as content, grammatical features or vocabulary.
FCAs make it clear to students what is expected on a given piece of writing and exactly what the teacher will be focusing the grading of the paper on. It is recommended that up to three FCAs be provided to students.
Once the students are clear on the FCAs, feedback is provided on those areas in particular. This does not mean that a teacher completely ignores every other aspect of the writing; rather, the teacher especially focuses on the FCAs and provides explicit feedback on those areas in order to help students improve their writing.
When providing feedback to English learners, specific areas of their writing that are appropriate for their proficiency level can be focused on, helping to move the student toward higher levels of proficiency.
When students are consistently offered many opportunities to write, a focus for their writing in terms of content and features of writing, and feedback based on the FCAs, student writing fluency and the quality of writing improves. When teaching writing to English learners, appropriate areas of focus and feedback based on their proficiency level will help students to both improve writing and increase their English proficiency level.
Improving student writing
Frequency, focus, and feedback will greatly help increase student performance in writing. In addition, explicit instruction on how to increase the complexity of student writing is extremely helpful, especially for English learners. One such way to help students increase the complexity of a sentence is through teaching students to add adverbials.
Let's begin by looking at the requirements of a sentence, then consider students at a variety of proficiency levels and how we might help them to improve their writing. There are five requirements of a sentence:
- It begins with a capital letter.
- It ends with a punctuation mark (. ? ! ).
- It has a subject.
- It contains a verb/predicate.
- It makes sense.
For English learners at the beginning proficiency levels, even writing a basic sentence may be challenging. Students at the earliest proficiency levels can begin by creating sketches and labeling those sketches.
From there students may begin to write two-word sentences that follow the five requirements. For example, a student may write the sentence "Crabs walk." This sentence, while basic, contains the five requirements of a sentence. To add complexity, we can teach students to include adverbials.
Adverbials tell us when, where, why or how something happened, adding complexity to the sentence. In our previous example, we can teach the writer to add adverbials to make the sentence more complex.
For example, by adding adverbials that show where, when, why or how, the student can write the following sentences:
- Crabs walk on the sand (where)
- Crabs walk on the sand during the night (when)
- Crabs walk on the sand during the night to find food (why)
- Crabs walk slowly on the sand during the night to find food (how)
By simply teaching students to include adverbials in their writing, we can show students how to improve the quality of the sentences they write, and ultimately, the quality of their writing overall. It is important to take into consideration students' proficiency level and teach adverbials as appropriate. Through demonstration and practice, students will be able to incorporate adverbials into their writing and increase sentence complexity.
A similar concept holds true to paragraph writing as well. Students can be taught, through the use of graphic organizers, for example, how to add detail to their writing in the form of evidence from the text or increased detail. Careful attention and scaffolding should be provided to students based on their current proficiency level in order to help students increase their level of writing.
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