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Mary Palmer Lilly

© 2002

Action Research:

Supporting ESL Learners In Writing

Why I am interested in this topic:
I teach in a charter middle school where there is a significant number of Hmong and Hispanic students. They typically score in the single digit percentile on standardized tests while the majority of the students score well into the 80's. The principal of our school has asked the staff to consider ways we can support these students with concentrated instruction to help them perform better across the curriculum. Naturally she is interested in improving their test scores, but all the staff would like to figure out better ways to help ESL students learn.

I teach writing as a nine week course to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, separately by grade. The students also take English, where the instruction on grammar, vocabulary, and spelling resides with the English teacher. Some of the ESL students also receive additional support in reading. This research project for the Select Institute of the Minnesota Writing Project is an opportunity for me to consider ways I can incorporate better teaching practices to help the writing skills of the ESL students at the school.

What I already know:
Based on the reading I have done on this topic, my observations of the writing skills of the ESL students, which I will describe, were echoed by all the authors whom I have included in the resources. I have observed the following in the writing assignments I have given:

  • Limited vocabulary, although it varies by student. Students frequently use the word "stuff" for nouns they don't know.
  • Ideas are repeated many times throughout an essay.
  • Verb tense problems, particularly with Hmong speaking students.
  • Incorrect sentence structure.
  • Students are reluctant to share aloud.
  • Students want to work only with other ESL students of their language when doing peer editing.

Not to be overlooked, I have to say I am amazed at how well students do working with a language (English) that is so difficult, cumbersome, and illogical. I often end a grading period feeling more in awe of their effort than frustration at the slow progress. But that isn't enough. I know there is much I can do.

What I want to know:

While these are hardly surprising observations, I would like to know some specific teaching strategies to improve their writing fluency and make writing a useful way to communicate in English. The areas that come to mind are:

  • Kinds of writing activities.
  • How to improve vocabulary.
  • How to respond to their essays and stories.
  • Ways to encourage ESL students to share their writing.

Bello, Tom; Improving ESL Learner's Writing Skills. ERIC Digest; ED409746; 1997-06-00.
The author has written this article for teaching adult ESL learners. He suggests having students practice using three different approaches to writing. The first approach, free writing, which is not usually edited or worked on further, can be time-limited on topics of student's own choice, or can be using dialogue journals, written to the teacher, classmate, or another partner. The teacher then directs students to look in these free writes for themes for future extensive writing. The second approach, process writing, involves a pre-writing activity where students work in groups to generate ideas about a particular topic, such as sharing a free write piece, brainstorming, or making lists, which help to generate vocabulary. They then compose a first draft without attention to conventions or grammar and read their drafts to each other in pairs, offering comments on content. Finally, students revise for clarification and organization. The last step, editing, focuses on spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The last approach is the language experience approach, where students discuss an experience common to each other. One student in the group acts as a scribe to develop a written text, focusing only on content. Then itis read aloud in the group by each member. Each student then develops the original text according to his/her own proficiency level. Bello suggests several writing activities, one of which is having students record their reactions to such stimuli as pictures and music.

Carroll, Pamela S.; Blake, Frances.;Camalo, Rose Ann. "When Acceptance Isn't enough: Helping ESL Students Become Successful Writers." English Journal,v85 (Dec.'96); p.25-33.
Four teachers (the above plus Smadar Messer) discuss how they handle writing assignments, portfolios, response, classroom environment, and grading. While ESL writers often have dramatic and poignant stories to tell, writing personal experience essays may be uncomfortable and culturally not acceptable to disclose such stories. Some degree of choice is important so students can avoid those kinds of topics. For this reason, trust and confidentiality is vital. When responding, it is usually the ESL students who want teachers to point our and correct errors. Authors recommend that teachers focus on correcting "stigmatizing' errors (ones that are attributed to uneducated people.) Have students read their writing aloud with their ESL peers as a self-editing tool. This helps students assume responsibility for their own writing. As respects time and classroom environment, give some assignments with fixed deadlines and others, such as revision of pieces they select out of their portfolios, with more relaxed time frame.

Hudelson, Sarah; Children's Writing in ESL; ERIC Digest, ED303046; 1988-12-00.
This author has written extensively about ESL writing for elementary and middle school age children. One needs to acknowledge that the process of writing is similar for first and second language learners. Also, culture may affect the writers' view of writing, as to its purpose and function. The ability to write in the native language facilitates the child's ESL writing in different ways. Classroom environment has a significant impact on ESL children's development as writers.She advises teachers to:

  • Provide time for writing on a regular basis.
  • Respond to the content rather than to the form of the text.
  • Provide opportunities to engage in writing for reasons that are real and important to the writer.
  • Hudelson makes the following suggestions for classroom activities:
  • Use diaries or journals to promote fluency.
  • Use personal narratives and writing workshop techniques to help learners become comfortable with the process of drafting, sharing, and revising.
  • Incorporate writing activities from other subjects so ESL learners will have experience in writing across the curriculum.
  • Expose ESL learners to a wide variety of literary forms and then provide them with opportunities to create their own work in a similar form.

Finally, as respects assessment, Hudelson recommends that progress be documented by collecting work in writing folders, using checklists, and making anecdotal notes regarding changes in students' writing behaviors and strategies. Her final word is, interestingly, that schools and districts should use writing samples rather than standardized tests for evaluating writing of ESL students.

Hudelson, Sarah; "ESL Writing: Principles for Teaching Young Writers." ESL Magazine, v2 n3 (May-June 1999); p.8-10,12.
In this article, written ten years after the article cited above, Hudelson outlines seven widely accepted principles of writing for ESL children and adolescents such as:

  • Taking risks - students learning English have to be willing to take risks with the new language and make mistakes. This is true in their writing as well.
  • Reading to write - reading of quality texts provides ESL learners with models of good writing.
  • Choice - learner choice and control are important. Resist assigning topics when learners say they can't think of what to write about. Instead, work with learners to generate their own topics and choice of genre.
  • Native language writing ability - allow ESL learners to use the resource of their writing abilities in their native languages.

Hudelson then gives examples of how good writing teachers practice these principles at various grades in K-7th. It is important to model one's own use of the writing process. The 7th grade teacher has students write about what they are learning in their various subjects and to respond to the content in a personal way. She responds to the writing logs using conventional English to give the ESL learners a model of what is standard, rather than correcting their writing.

Primary Resource
Bev Alsleben -7th/8th Grade ELL Teacher; Highland Park Jr. High, St. Paul, MN
Bev offered the following strategies that she uses in classrooms comprised entirely of ELL learners:

  • Write comments on the content, the ideas, give a few ideas as to what I would like to hear more about. Students don't really know what American teachers want to hear. Help guide their content.
  • Give them a range of topics.
  • Offer many models of good writing - LET THEM IMITATE. That's how we all learned.
  • Let ESL students work together at first on sentence patterns. Use workbooks and have them practice on their own writing. (Azar books)
  • Seeing past tense problems resolved will take many years. Don't expect it to happen in my time with them but continue direct instruction on it.
  • Use brainstorming, drawing/sketching, and then discussion as a pre-writing activity.

It is ok to expect sharing in a mixed ESL/non-ESL group at some point. Sometimes you just have to say that they must. Have ESL students share 2 or 3 lines they especially like, rather than the whole.
As respects environment, her experience is that Hmong students prefer a collaborative group process over an individual process.

My Plan
I will have an opportunity to work with just ESL students in a small group setting this coming school year. I am especially eager to try the following strategies:

  • Use the Language Experience Approach on more assignments. Encourage walking trips outside of the classroom to make observations and record them, discuss them and write about them - a good place to work on sentence structure and verb tense.
  • Include group list-making of applicable vocabulary as part of the process.
  • Spend 10 minutes each day on free writes in writing notebooks. Discover with them themes that emerge for topics on personal choice pieces.
  • Have ESL students share their writing by reading aloud in pairs.
  • Use more visual prompts in the classroom, such as: posters, art work, unusual objects, theater props like fake food table settings, or tools, as if doing a home project.
  • Read more quality writing by young teens (i.e. the Chicken Soup books) and adult authors to my ESL students. Give them copies of the text to use as models.
  • Use wordless picture books as stimulus for story writing.
  • Spend just as much time speaking and reading as we do writing.
  • Have students collect their work in portfolios, including their writer's notebook.
  • Be flexible with due dates of writing assignments, especially revision.
  • Check in with students as to how extensively they want their writing "corrected." Give feedback in the form of writing sentences, rather than quick phrases or questions in the margins as I do for native English-speaking students.
  • Offer a wide array of topics, particularly from other subject areas.
  • Stay focused on using the writing process. Graphic organizers, such as idea webs, and clustering are useful.
  • Continue to seek out books and resources for ideas on how to support ESL learners in writing.

I will evaluate the effectiveness of my strategies by examining their writing portfolios. Together, the student and I will discover all the ways in which they have made progress and celebrate. Self-efficacy is the most important asset these students can take from their education, and seeing success and feeling successful are the best ways to build it. Since I will be working with a rather small group of students, I will be able to make notes and give frequent feedback on the skills they are developing. Having studied two foreign languages, one as a middle-aged adult, every new word learned is a step to becoming more proficient. With that in mind, I know that 100% of my students will make progress.


Creative writing:


My children left for summer camp this morning. I sent them off on the luxury charter bus with big hugs and kisses, told them I loved them, and to be sure to write home - the usual litany. It was harder to see them go this year than in the past. I think it is because they have become such fun people to hang out with. Plus, I don’t have to manage them most hours of the day, just be present with an occasional fun idea, a few bucks, and a full tank of gas. My 12-year-old son has a blossoming sense of humor and he is one of the most positive kids around - he always finds the silver lining when something goes wrong or is less than desirable. My 10-year-old can be a bit grumpy about things, but it’s a safe bet that he’ll want to snuggle up with me as we take on another chapter of Huckleberry Finn, no matter the hour. Loving to read good books aloud, I rarely refuse the opportunity for cozy time with my baby.

My oldest was born with a ball perched permanently in his palm, always hopeful that a game of catch or HORSE on our miniature basketball court will materialize. This child has been blessed with a kinesthetic intelligence that fills his seasons with fun, friends, fresh air, and occasional fame, not to mention a fabulously fit body. He has kept these skills alive and well-tuned in his mom, making me feel ever youthful, and afterwards, we always share a few laughs and a story to tuck away in our memories about the workout. Teetering on the cusp of puberty, he is in the “stay up late, sleep in, indulge in some Sports Center, and then consume bowls of cereal” mode. Now that summer has arrived, the phone calls from the girls have dwindled to none, and he is happily playing with Legos and Playmobile with his brother and the neighbors.

My younger lad prefers the mouse and the remote to balls. Although his choice of cartoons leaves something to be desired, this is a child who can and does find something educational in the most dreary of animation, and, not to be overlooked, in the thousands of commercials he has already digested at his tender age. While he loves to play the ball games, the idea of practicing is wholly distasteful to him. Instead, it is the newly discovered game of chess that has brought him his own hours of fun, friends, and occasional fame; and the calorie output matches more closely his calorie intake. His other favorite activity is jumping on the trampoline. This is a pastime which he indulges in periodically throughout the day, (probably in between his favorite shows), and he can tempt his mother into contests of who can get the last high bounce or give the other the highest flying seat drop. I have spied on his private, solo games, both on the tramp and in a pool, when he enters a fantasy world where he encounters villains and emulates his cartoon heroes with punching and kick-boxing action moves. I never reveal my observations or comment on this private world as it seems to be a type of meditation in his own sacred space.

So that’s half of my immediate family in absentia, leaving me to enjoy the bathroom all to myself, void of the smelly uniforms bunched up in front of the tub, their owners having hastily evacuated and abandoned the whole dirty works. For two whole weeks I can go to bed early and read, without interruption, anywhere in the house. The usual five nights of baseball or soccer games between these two boys are temporarily available for experimenting with recipes and taking in chick flicks. As I ponder these benefits, perhaps the time without them will be too short and go too fast.

The half that remains consists of my husband and me. We were the first half, married for eight years before our first child was born. I don’t miss those days. Five of those years were filled with many anxious months of worry that I would never have children to hug and kiss and read to and send off to camp so that I could miss them. Coping with infertility was heartbreaking, but by the grace of God, it made me stronger and it didn’t last. Most profoundly, it made me realize that I didn’t marry just for love, I married for children, the essential ingredient in my recipe to make family.

As we were driving up to our cabin this evening, my husband and I noticed that Hobbes, the furry black puppy dog in the back of the car, has taken on a new role - he is now the baby in the family, forever to be dependent on us for nourishment and companionship (I wonder if he wants to listen to me read Old Yeller) He adds a new and lively dimension to the dynamics between long-time marrieds who have become accustomed to having their children fill the conversations with sugar and spice and vinegar. My husband will be sad during these weeks. The house will be too quiet for him and he will find refuge from the silence in television noise. Hobbes and Fred, the ferret, will absorb some of his attention, and gradually, he will answer the beckoning call of his golf clubs. Together, we will eagerly await each day for letters from our little darlings. While he sees the boys as absent - our family incomplete - I see them as out gathering stories and memories to fill their heart and soul. We are always family, whether half across the globe or in the next room.

Night is falling over the lake. There is a pleasant calm, with the serenade of a boat or two obliging the “no wake” zone in the narrow channel. The dog rests on the floor of the boat, the fishing line continues to be cast and stripped, a blue heron squawks (the only sound that catches the Hobbes’s attention) I type away, and the din of twangy midwestern accents exchanging chuckles and fishing stories floats over the water. As my husband reels in a 13-inch bass, I turn to the dog to admire and react enthusiastically to the catch. Alas, Hobbes is rather nonplused and it is only I who is elated. The boys would certainly be cheering gleefully for their dad. We head back to the cabin to merge our meager remains of family with more family, our own siblings, and with guests. We will celebrate the patriotic day with these folks, as one American family.