Six Tips to Scaffolding Writting for ELLs

The inevitable fact of education today is that students must write. They are being asked to write in a variety of different ways, and teachers are looking for more depth in the writing. So, what does that mean for English language learners?

At the middle and high school level it is incredibly stressful for both the student and the teacher to reconcile the demands of the standards with a student's language proficiency level.

Here are my 6 favorite strategies for scaffolding writing.

1. Allow use of native language (L1) first.

This is a great strategy for students with lower proficiency levels. Students may have a prior knowledge of the subject matter in their native language but lack the means to say it in English. In this case you are allowing students to still engage in the content. Students with the lowest proficiency levels might even be allowed to put their response into a translator, this should be a support and not a crutch. If they know how to say something, they should not be putting it through a translator.

With many of my students who were Intermediate and Advanced level, they would tell me that they would lose their train of thought with their writing because they spent so much time focusing on content and language. So I would let them quickwrite and plan in their native language, with the expectation that what was turned into me would be in English.

2. Speech to Text/Dictation

Once again, English language learners often come to class with a wealth of experiences, and oral language tends to be stronger than reading and writing skills. This recommendation comes from the language experience approach, which promotes reading and writing through oral language. This is an oversimplification of the process but, the student gives an oral response that is recorded exactly as they give it, and then read back to them. This can be done with the teacher, or an aide, or with technology it can be done that way. Read&Write for Google offers Speech to Text, as does Google Docs, there are also more expensive options like Dragon speech recognition software.

3. Sentence Stems

Sentence stems and frames are an incredibly powerful tool for scaffolding. It increases the language output of students at lower proficiency levels. This helps to reduce stress for the student, and allows for teachers to get a better understanding of content knowledge because language will not play much of a factor in their answers. It never fails that the more students work with these scaffolds the more they can begin to internalize language structure and even apply it in other situations. Sentence stems are appropriate for all language learners, but they should be simplified for lower levels.

I get asked a lot for sentence stems that teachers can use, and I have some general ones, but they are easy to create for each lesson. Thinking about your content objective for the day, you probably have a list of questions you want students to be able to answer to show that they have mastered that objective.

Content Objective: I will identify causes of the American Revolution.
Question: What is one cause of the American Revolution?

A sentence stem is created for the answer you would like to receive.

Sentence Stem: One cause of the American Revolution is _____________.

I love sentence stems for all students for written and oral responses because it takes the guess work out of what I'm looking for. That means instead of playing guess what is inside the teachers head, the students are engaging in content and it is a truer representation of what they think and know.

4. Outlining

When considering writing assignments for English language learners, take a look at Can-Do descriptors or proficiency level descriptors for their level. For lower level students it can be beneficial to allow students to write their written responses as an outline with bulleted lists, instead of a complete written response. This way they can focus on expressing what they know about the content instead of language. As a teacher with less experience with the writing of English language learners, this can also make it easier for you to read and check for content understanding, because many times with lower level students meaning can be obscured when they try to write above their ability levels.

5. Graphic Organizers

This is similar to allowing students to create an outline. Once again it is giving the student an opportunity to show what they know, and what they can do without worrying too much about putting it into a complete written response. This could be a web with the main idea in the middle and supports branching off of it. Or something that 4 Corners that might lend itself to more writing. This is another thing that can be scaled up and down as far as language output goes to meet the students language proficiency level.

6. Vocabulary/Phrase banks

Finally, makes sure that the wording in your writing task is clear and that students understand all of the vocabulary in the prompt. It takes make repetitions of words to master them fully, so check in with your language learner and make sure that it is clear from the start. Give students word banks of target words and phrases for them to use. Giving students a word bank helps take the guess work out of what you are looking for. It also reduces anxiety of things like spelling. Providing phrases that they might need helps them practice using English correctly. I found that if I challenged students to use a certain number of words in their response, or a challenge to use the most, I was usually pleasantly surprised by the number of connections they could show between the words and concepts. 

These can be combined for powerful results. And when your students complete writing assignments with on level content successfully their confidence and abilities grow.

It is important to remember, these are scaffolds, not crutches. Allowing English language learners to do these things is differentiating, it is not giving them unfair treatment. It is unfair to expect from products from English language learners that are beyond their language ability. And it leads to make of the things we hate as teachers: cheating, plagiarism, and student apathy because it is easier to fail than try. 

Also, all English leaners are not the same and do not need the same things, just because it helps one doesn't meant that it will work for all. These are also not excuses for students to remain stagnant. If a student is beyond one of these lower level examples I've shared, raise the expectation while keeping in mind the reasoning behind these scaffolds.

These are things that can help English language learners, but might help other struggling students as well. 

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