Rigged Game

I'm taking a short respite form writing strategies, the theme of the month, and sharing this video of Dylan Garity at NPS 2013. I was reminded of this video this week. I hadn't seen it in a while, but it's one of those that gets me every time. It always reminds me what I'm working for. The system might be flawed but that doesn't mean we have to give up.

The system is flawed and teachers, buckling under the pressure, are leaving the profession. The other day as I drove down the road, I saw a bumper sticker: North Carolina Teachers: First in Flight. I just moved to this state to teach and everyone I met told me I was going the wrong direction.

The students I've had and continue to help, reminiscent of Juan and Ana in the video, get me up out of bed in the morning and always remind me of the work still to be done.


I had a great time presenting my new Writing Strategies for ELLs workshop yesterday. What a great group of teachers coming together to find ways to meet the needs of all their learners. This is definitely one I will grow into a longer session; I felt like we needed even more time to write.

I'll share one of my favorite writing strategies from my classroom.

I always ask teachers to think about the challenges ELLs face in their classrooms, and almost all of the time anxiety is a concern. I think this is especially true with writing tasks; what could be worse than struggling over a large assignment only to get it back bleeding with corrections.

Krashen's Affective-Filter Hypothesis tells us that learners need to be receptive to our input for maximum learning to take place. Things like anger, boredom, and anxiety, reduces the learning for students, and can make writing instruction tedious for both teachers and students. The real challenge then, is which comes first? Are struggling students unsuccessful because they are anxious, bored, even angry? Or are they anxious, bored, and even angry because they are unsuccessful?

There are several strategies that we can do as teachers to reduce anxiety in writing like modeling and explicit expectations. One of the easiest to implement though is quickwrites. Quickwrites are just what they sound like, short, timed, writings. When I do quickwrites in my class, I tell students not to worry about spelling and mechanics. Just get their ideas flowing and write the entire time.

Writing for 1 minute or 3 minutes sure seems a lot easier and less stressful than an intimidating, blank sheet of paper. It can also be turned into a game - have students count their words and have some friendly competition.

You can also string quickwrites together to create longer works. There are a number of ways to do this, but I always like to start with Gretchen Bernabei's 11-minute essay. It's a basic structure for expository writing and asks students to find evidence in a variety of forms.

Start by showing students a picture and giving them a truism (broad statements that are generally universally true, and they are arguable) ex: Sometimes good things don't last very long, Some things are worth fighting for, The bad times make the good times better.

Ask students to think about the statement, if it is true or not, and copy it onto their paper.

Students write for 1 minute explaining the truism, what it means, and their own interpretation.

Students think about novels or short stories they have read, ask them to find an example of the truism in a story. Have them write for 3 minutes about how their example is an example of a truism. Remind them to start their new paragraph with "In the story..." and include title and author.

Students think about movies they have seen, ask them to find an example of the truism in a movie. Have them write for 3 minutes about how their example is an example of a truism. Remind them to start their new paragraph with "In the movie..." and include the title.

Students think about history or current events they have heard or studied, ask them to find an example of the truism in an event. Have them write for 3 minutes about how their example is an example of a truism. Remind them to start their new paragraph with "In recent events (or history)...".

Students write for 1 minute about what the truism and their writing leave them wondering about. Begin new paragraph with "All this makes me wonder..." or "I wonder"

Students, and adults in my workshops that I illustrate this with, are always amazed by how much they write. This lends itself well to discussions about revision in a stress free environment. Students who spent a long time drafting a piece are rarely willing to go back in and revise - until they learn about and internalize the benefits.

I get asked all the time by teachers about modifying this with extended time for students with that as an instructional modification. The point of doing the quickwrites is to reduce anxiety and write for short amount of times. It is not to produce a polished piece of writing to be turned in and graded as such. Sure if you need to add a minute here or take a minute away go for it. But do not add so much time that is seems difficult to fill with continuous writing.

Ratiocination: A Powerfully Simple Tool for Editing

Bonus: Grammar lessons in authentic context.

Materials needed are 2 colored pencils or markers, and writing samples.
Prep time: minimal

Ratiocination is the process of exact, thorough, logical thinking. It is powerful for all writers because it focuses on the language usage instead of the content. Why I like it for struggling writers and English language learners? Many struggling writers do not want to go back and edit because the thought overwhelms them. For English language learners, they do not know language forms to self-edit accurately. Ratiocination is a systematic, step-by-step process that makes language usage visual. As a teacher, I love it because I can have my students focus on specific elements. As a writer, I love it because it is not a demand to change anything, simply calling attention to it so that I can think about its effect in my writing.

Sample Ratiocination Steps:
  1. Circle all of the “to be” verbs – I later extend this to all helping verbs
  2. Make a wavy line under repeated words
  3. Underline each sentence (alternate colors)
  4. Bracket the first word in each sentence
  5. Draw an arrow from subject to predicate
  6. Put “it” in a triangle
  7. X through vague words: very, got, get, nice, bad, good, stuff, thing, awesome, wonderful, so, etc.

Typically, when I start with my English language learners I have them underline every sentence in alternating colors first. This just helps them visual sentence length. I have had 12th graders come up to me in the past with an essay written with only a period at the end. They never realized they did it until we did this step and they never changed colors. While this is a little extreme, it helps with cases that are more moderate too. Then it leads to the discussion about the effects of short and long sentences. This also helps writers hone in on fragments and run-ons.

For a struggling reader/writer, you can discuss sentence length with low linguistic demand because they can see the colors.

The second thing I typically start with English learners is drawing arrows from subject to verbs. Subject verb agreement is one of those things that can be tricky for language learners, revising for it is just conscious practice.

When I modeled this for my high school students, there was always an initial frustration at its openness. All their lives someone had told them what to write, and how to revise and edit, and they never had to think about it. They wanted me to do all the work. I would mark something and they would say, well that means you have to change it. Sometimes I would, sometimes I would say, no, I really like what that does here.

 To illustrate this further, when we read something, if there was an excellent example of writer’s craft, we would ratiocinate their writing. Once again, this helped them read as writers. When we would come across repetition, anaphora and epistrophe in writing and I asked why the writer did it, I would get generic and thoughtless responses of the author wanted to emphasize that. While yes, that is true, there is no thinking involved.

When we looked at Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we ratiocinated and students discovered anaphora in phrases like “I have a dream,” “Now is the time,” “Let freedom ring,” “free at last,” “we can never be satisfied.”

Students revised the speech in groups to remove the anaphora and compared it to the original. When we voted on which sounded better read aloud we almost always chose the original, because of the flow and the rhythm created.

I had my students interview adults around the school and in their lives about what they remembered from the speech, hearing it or studying it in school. After collecting results - outside of the arguably most famous part that my children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of the skin but of the content of their character – people unanimously remembered the repeated phrases and few other specifics. 

This just helped illustrate the purpose of a rather abstract idea. It also got them to think beyond just standard thoughtless responses.

Make Your Writing Colorful

Writing instruction can be incredibly frustrating for teachers of English language learners, because many of the activities in our teaching toolbox offer little benefit to our students who are struggling. This month I am going to focus on different strategies and techniques I found helpful in my own practice to help struggling writers.

First up…Make Your Writing Colorful

The materials needed are four highlighters (yellow, blue, pink, green) or 4 color pencils, per student or student group
The prep time is minimal

This is something adapted from Gretchen Bernabei; I highly recommend her books or if you ever have the opportunity attending her workshops. I attended several in Houston and always walked away with new ideas.

It all started with her Ba-Da-Bing sentences:

Where my feet went?   As I walked into the classroom,

What I saw?   I saw the students climbing on the desks,                                       

What I thought?   and I thought, "they have lost their minds!"

What a great and simple way to get my students to think about complex sentence structure without teaching them complex sentence structure.

My students could write them, but in their papers, I was not seeing a lot of evidence of them. And by high school we need more variety in our sentences. I could see my students were using a lot of one kind of writing but my students could not.

As a revision strategy: After my students would write I would have them highlight their writing according to this poster.

After a while, I realized the need for green to be used for action as well. This simple strategy made it very clear what students preferred writing. Some would nearly have all one color. Very few were skilled enough to incorporate all of them.

My students could then revise their writing pieces how they needed. To experiment, I gave my students index cards with visuals for the five senses, a foot, a thought bubble, a heart, and a speech bubble – all color coded – to manipulate and explore different sentence varieties.

After a while, every year the same general conversation ensues:
Student: “But Ms. E, do we need to have three colors in each sentence?”
Me: “No”
Students: “Then why have we been doing this?”
Me: “Writers use a variety of sentences to create different effects”
Students: “like what?”

So the whole class, interest peaked by this student’s challenge, makes a student’s independent reading colorful.

Students: “That’s a lot of yellow”
Me: “What does that mean?”

This discussion could go on and on, but it allows for deeper conversations about things like point-of-view, voice, and it helps students read like writers. We begin collecting “gems” or colorful sentences from student writings and mentor texts.

With my secondary English language learners, I could always tell their frustration with having complex ideas and thoughts but lacking the language to communicate them. This allows them to combine simple sentence structures to create a variety of more complex structures. As they look for these “gems,” they are seeing how to create a variety of sentences.

Additional Resources:

Gretchen Bernabei’s website: