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How to Modify Your Writing Lessons for English Language Learners / ESOL Strategies

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Here is an example of one of the questions I get asked frequently by other teachers. “What can we do to help our English Language Learners who need more support in their writing while still having to teach grade-level standards that they’re not ready for?” So, I’m going to share the writing lessons for English Language Learners that I use in the classroom. The best part of these ELL lessons is that many of them can be incorporated into the lessons you are already doing. You’ll just use these strategies to modify your writing instruction for your English Language Learners. You can even use these strategies with the whole group because they work well for most students.

Nine writing lessons for English Language Learners

1. Sentence Frames/Stems

My first strategy is to use sentence frames or sentence stems in the lessons. This can be as simple as printing this sentence frame freebie onto sticky notes and helping students stick them on their paper.

We can also use this with more advanced ELLs by creating a paragraph template. It allows them to have a beginning and end so they can focus on filling in what they can. It allows them to really focus on the content and not struggle too much with how to start or end the sentence.

You can modify this strategy based on whether students need help writing a single sentence or an entire paragraph. You can also use this with the writing prompts you’re using with your students. It allows ELLs to participate in the same writing topics while getting a little more scaffolding.

In the free download, I also have some you can print out and use on a bulletin board, making it easy for all your students to use.

2. Reduce Text & Close Read

My second strategy is to reduce the amount of text they are using. We know text-based writing is so important, but we don’t want students who are ELLs to worry about reading a text that is at grade level if that’s not where they’re at.

We can also have students close read the passage with a partner or with us so they can close read and write down notes. Again, it gives them the chance to grasp the passage better.

I also like to have a read-aloud available. We have this for all of our texts in our Simplify Writing Program. It really helps our ELLs. You can also record yourself reading your texts to help students.

3. Provide models

I provide models for students in all of my writing lessons, so this isn’t an activity I need to modify. When I do a mini-lesson, I model exactly what type of concepts students will use in their writing. Then, they have examples to take into their writing time.

I’ll display the model really big, so it’s easy for them to see. You can also provide a copy for them to look at if you pre-prep it. This is helpful for all students to know what you’re expecting from them and what the writing should actually look like.

4. Mentor Text

A mentor text is closely related to providing a model. You can use a mentor text to show students what a specific skill or concept looks like in writing. Not only is it engaging, but it’s a way for them to visualize it, which is half the battle when teaching writing.

5. Quick Writes

Make time for quick writes. Allow all students to have time to do no-stress, no-pressure quick writes like journaling or writing based on a verbal or picture prompt. This allows them to focus on getting their thoughts down. This might mean writing in their native language and translating one or two sentences for ELLs. Or they may focus on just building out a very small paragraph.

It will be different for each student, but the quick write allows you to differentiate for each student so that they can write at their ability level.

Visual writing prompts (above) are from the Simplify Writing program.

6. Word Walls

This next strategy is another activity that is great for all students. Word walls are a collection of words that students can use in their writing specific to the writing type or topics you’re working on. Word walls are beneficial if they’re writing on a science or social studies topic with a lot of academic vocabulary.

7. Utilize their native language

Allowing students to write in their native language is not a bad thing. You can have them translate it over or use Google Translate (there are so many tools to help do this.) But when students aren’t ready to write in English, and you still want them to participate and move them towards that goal, this can be really helpful.

8. Pre-teach academic vocabulary

I think this tip is helpful for all students—pre-teach the academic vocabulary. These words in passages are usually bolded because they are grade-level academic vocabulary. It’s helpful to pre-teach these words to ELL students, and it doesn’t hurt to do that with all your students. 

You can easily do this by using a vocabulary lesson before your writing lesson. It will make a huge difference.

9. Simplify directions

My best strategy for teaching writing to all students is to give a bite-sized lesson and have students do the exact same thing in their writing directly after. I don’t want to give students directions and tell them a long list of things to do. Instead, you want to give them a very short checklist with one or two items they can do in their independent writing time.

It’s the same with ELLs, but it might be a slightly different checklist based on their skills. Again, you want to ensure the directions are very simple and easy to understand without many complicated steps.

Make sure you stop and define writing terms when you are using them in a lesson. For example, if you’re talking about “thesis,” stop even if you’ve gone over it before, and remind them of what a thesis is. We have to make sure they understand the language we’re using and are building that English vocabulary.

Those nine strategies help me when teaching writing to English Language Learners. Of course, you can pick and choose which ones you use. You will find that some fit certain situations better than others.

Again, there is a free download where you find the sentence frames and a few other resources that can help you. If you haven’t visited Simply Writing yet, check it out. The program includes a complete resource library for English Language Learners along with our regular intervention units. We also have audio read-alouds for all the passages that students are reading so we can fully support them.

If you have any questions about teaching writing to ELLs, please leave them in the comments.

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April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 

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