Classroom Strategies

A Small Change to Promote English Learners’ Academic Writing

Combine academic writing with SEL to engage and build community

In my eighteen years of teaching, much has changed about the expectations of English learners (ELs) regarding how quickly they progress through high school. The movement to put even newcomers into credit-bearing classes to have them graduate in four years has required ELA instructors to creatively craft lessons to reach testing goals designed for native speakers. This challenge can be daunting for a teacher looking at the grade-level standards and her students’ baseline writing samples, and then wondering, how do I fit all this into one class?

I work with ELs in WIDA levels 3 and 4 to pass the end of course reading and writing exams, which both happen in grade 11 in my district. While I have some students who have learned in US schools for several years, every year there are a few who begin their time in America with my friendly face explaining to them on Day 1 that they need to pass these exams or they will not graduate. Despite the friendly face, they are still intimidated. Wanting them to move forward with confidence rather than anxiety, I remind them that I have been teaching this course for many years, and I’ve never had a single student fail to achieve a passing score. Stick with me, kid, I assure them, and we’ll get through this together.

Thus begins the process of building not only their reading analysis and academic composition but also their confidence. The end of course exams test many skills that my students have had fragmented exposure to, either because they were schooled outside the US or they are coming from newcomer ELA classes. They carry a lifetime of knowledge but struggle to form those experiences into academic English writing. My role is to relieve their self-doubt by giving them defined, explainable segments of language and watching them assemble their thoughts into clear, coherent compositions.

A key to their success is making small instructional changes that yield big effects. Student check-ins for SEL have gained attention this year, and one popular method is the “Would You Rather?” routine using a shared slide accessible to all. This warmup is a perfect opportunity to develop both writing skill and self-esteem. Offer students two choices and an argumentative sentence frame to give shape to their idea. Put it in a shared space where classmates can see and add to it. As students write, offer praise for their ideas and ask follow-up questions to build community. Student voice? Check. Academic rigor? Check. Building confidence? Check, check, check.

This shared slide warmup routine can be repeated for many writing skills. There are several sentence structures that can easily elevate academic language within an end of course essay, and integrating these as warmups allows ELs to express their voice while practicing a small element of English composition. Give students a visual, a sentence frame, and a model, and watch the responses roll in. Or introduce a formal conjunction that ELs are likely unfamiliar with because it is rarely used in conversational English. A quick definition, model, and explanation can be enough for students to understand that formal conjunction, and then they can integrate it into their next writing assignment to help internalize.

Take a moment during the warmup exercise to praise individual students for a well-formed idea or creative reply. This exercise also allows for a few quick, on-the-fly requests to edit that give the teacher far more power than wielding a red pen to correct written work. “What a great sentence, Ana! It looks like you included a FANBOYS, but I don’t see a comma there. Where could you add a comma to complete this sentence and avoid a run-on? Okay, I see you added the comma and….yes, it’s perfect! Great work, Ana; thank you for making that change.”

Students who feel part of a community will take greater risks, increase collaboration, and show more growth than those who remain siloed with individual assignments only seen by the teacher. Of course, such individual assignments are necessary, but moving writing instruction to a more public and engaging forum will pay dividends in student achievement and class camaraderie. Moreover, it will allow students to see that they really do know more than they think–certainly enough to ace the exams that initially gave them great pause.

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About the Author: Maria Cruz teaches ESOL students at Oakton High School in Fairfax, Virginia. She earned her PhD in literacy and studied in the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms program. Although teaching through a pandemic has been challenging, she is delighted to have finally achieved the paper-free classroom of her dreams.