Writing in school poses a unique challenge for ELL students. Beyond the obvious hurdle of using a new language, many ELL students come from oral cultures, so their writing experiences in general may be limited. Now inside English-speaking classrooms, they are expected to write up to grade-level standards while using unfamiliar words and grammar.
It should come as no surprise, then, when ELL students are reluctant to write. But you can change that. Through support and scaffolding, you can grow ELL students into capable, confident writers.
What practices grow confidence?
Although ELLs may lack writing experience, they don’t lack experiences. Whenever possible, invite them to write about their own background, culture, interests, and memories. ELLs shouldn't be expected to write well about new subject areas without first having a chance to write about knowledge and vocabulary they already possess.
Next, adjust your expectations. Because of limited vocabulary and unfamiliarity with English grammar, ELLs' writing can be difficult to understand. Your first instinct might be to correct as much as you can, but that will make the situation worse. Overcorrecting overwhelms students and saps their confidence. Instead, read for, mark, and celebrate the “small” victories—incremental improvements that can be repeated in future writing.
You can help ELL students achieve more and more “small” victories through scaffolding.
What scaffolding builds competence?
ELL students benefit from scaffolding throughout the writing process. Start with these prewriting scaffolds, which help students build vocabulary, generate writing ideas, and understand common writing moves:
To introduce ELL students to a new writing activity, present simple models that students can emulate. Read through at least one model out loud, highlighting features or techniques you would like your students to practice.
After sharing mentor texts and reading models, talk through your own process for completing the same writing activity as students. Follow these steps:
- Introduce the lesson by explaining what you are modeling and why.
- Model brainstorming. Use a quick list or other graphic organizer.
- Model your writing process. Explain what you are thinking as you write each part of a paragraph: a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence.
- Allow students to follow the pattern of your model when they write.
Prefilled Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers help students gather and organize writing ideas prior to writing. ELL students may need extra time to fill out organizers effectively. By prefilling parts of the organizer, you save students time and introduce useful sentence models and high-frequency words they can apply to their writing.
See an example of a prefilled cause-effect organizer.
When students are ready to begin writing, introduce these scaffolds.
Sentence frames (or sentence starters) are partially completed sentences with blank spaces for students to fill in. Frames work well for students who struggle to write complete sentences or need practice with new sentence structures.
One of my favorite family traditions is ______________.
We always ______________, ______________, and ______________.
While other people may think ______________, the truth is ______________.
See a sentence-frame activity.
You can integrate sentence frames into a larger paragraph framework for students to complete.
Traditions bring families together. One of my favorite family traditions is ______________. The tradition started when ______________. As a part of this tradition, we always ______________, ______________, and ______________. What I enjoy most about ______________ is ______________. For example, ______________. While other people may think ____________, the truth is ______________. I wish everyone could experience ______________ because ______________. I hope this tradition ______________.
See a paragraph-frame activity.
As the year goes on, make your frames less prescriptive, giving students more freedom to test out different sentence patterns on their own. The goal, of course, is for students to eventually write with no frames at all.
Experienced ELL writers may be ready for a less rigid form of framing. Instead of giving them a set of sentence structures to fill in, present a bank of related signal words as building blocks for a full paragraph.
To show time
To show location
in the same way
A writing prompt might look like this:
Describe what your ideal classroom would look like. Include at least four location signal words somewhere in your description: above, below, near, between, on top of, under, beside.
How else can I use scaffolding?
Scaffolding, as shown above, is an essential component of any writing instruction—and not just with ELL students. You can and should use the same scaffolds with other reluctant writers. Through extra modeling and guidance, you help all students see that writing is something they are capable of doing and even enjoying.
Consider this support as you help ELL students with writing.
- Use graphic organizers to gather details for writing.
- Create different types of sentences.
- Build paragraphs using different types of sentences.
- Acquire and use grade-appropriate academic and domain-specific words and phrases.
- When giving ELLs writing feedback, first highlight "small" victories. Show students what they are doing well.
- When offering suggestions for improvement, focus on one skill at a time, particularly when it comes to grammar.
- Give ELLs regular chances to reflect on their writing, asking what they're doing well in writing, what challenges they face, and what strategies help them work through problems.
- Create opportunities for collaborative writing. When ELLs work with peers, they see how other students write, which often feels more authentic and achievable than writing produced by a teacher.
- Check out additional writing support for ELL students: