ELLs in Minnesota Face Fears About a Writing Test

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 23, 2008 1 min read
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Over at Colorin colorado, a teacher of English-language learners in Minnesota has posted an article telling how she helped her students to discover what it takes to get a passing score on the state’s writing exam. Passing the writing test is one of the biggest obstacles to graduation for her ELL students, writes Kristina Robertson.

“They had a lot of anxiety around writing,” she says in the article, “and the state writing exam was like a monster growing in the room as the test date neared.”

In one way, the article, “Writing a Winning Essay,” is a prescription for “teaching to the test,” the buzz phrase with a negative connotation that implies teachers are more concerned about teaching students how to pass a test than with actual content. But Ms. Robertson tells how she not only helped her ELLs to research what will bring them a passing score on the essay part of the test but also carefully taught them how to write a well-organized essay.

In their research, she notes, students learned that if they wrote an essay for the test that was well-organized, and there were spelling errors or other mechanical errors that didn’t detract from the meaning, they could still get a passing score. That discovery, she said, surprised many who thought they had to perfect their English spelling or grammar skills to pass.

When I read this article I thought about the interesting discussion that just developed on this blog regarding “academic English” word lists. A couple of readers pointed out that there’s much more to teaching “academic English” than teaching vocabulary. This article reminds me of how teachers must be sure to teach students the structures of academic English that enable them to write an essay.

I suspect that the steps that Ms. Robertson lays out for teaching ELLs how to write a well-organized essay would be useful as well for native English speakers who have writing problems.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.