Federal Commentary

How I Teach My English-Language Learners to Love Writing

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 22, 2015 5 min read

When I started a new career as a high school English-as-a-second-language teacher in 2011, I figured I was better equipped than many teachers to help students learn to write. I had been a journalist for 14 years for Education Week, and for most of that time I had specialized in writing about English-language learners. Four years later, I’m still in a trial-and-error stage in finding the most effective ways to teach adolescent ELLs to write. But I have had some success.

Most of my students have made good progress in English on the standardized test, ACCESS for ELLs, developed by WIDA, a consortium in Madison, Wis., and used by about half the states plus the District of Columbia to measure ELLs’ annual progress in English.


The students’ results are the outcome of instruction from all their teachers, not just me. But I believe my focus on teaching writing in an English-language-development class for students with a Level 4 out of 6 on the WIDA scale helped many of my students polish their skills so they could test out of the ESL program.

I’m particularly satisfied that a handful of ELLs who were born in the United States and never went to school elsewhere finally scored high enough to leave ESL classes after they took my writing class.

My approach to writing has both evolved from experimentation and drawn on ideas I learned in conducting a review in 2014 of research on the teaching of writing to ELLs in U.S. high schools.

• English-learners need models of writing and instruction in specific genres.

ELLs can go astray in myriad ways during writing and need to be taught the differences between genres, such as an argumentative essay, a personal narrative, and a research paper. Ken Hyland, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, argues for the use of “genre pedagogy” for second-language learners, in which students learn about text forms, rather than use of a process approach, in which students learn steps of writing.

Hyland wrote in a 2007 article in the Journal of Second Language Writing that in genre pedagogy, supporting the learning of students “takes many forms but typically includes modeling and discussion of texts, explicit instruction, and teacher input.”

His approach resonates with me. When I give a substantial writing assignment, I provide models. We talk about the genre. For example, when teaching how to write an argumentative essay, I stress the need for students to back up their claims with facts or examples and to address counterarguments. I provide a template with phrases to start for main-idea sentences.

• Students benefit from meeting authors.

Serving the District of Columbia and Baltimore city public schools is a wonderful program run by the Washington-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which buys books for students to read and keep and arranges for authors of those books to visit classrooms. My students have become more interested in reading and writing after meeting authors.

Teenagers are more likely to complete writing assignments and write well if they see themselves as writers."

Last school year, my classes received visits from six authors, who were diverse and passionate about their writing. For example, my students read the short story “The Summer of Ice Cream,” about a couple of boys helping their Nigerian father run an ice cream business in Salt Lake City. Then they met Tope Folarin, the author of that story, who talked with them about how he based the story on his own experiences of trying to figure out what it means to be American. When I assigned English-learners to write their own stories, Folarin’s work provided a model.

• ELLs need to talk first and write later.

While initially my inclination as a teacher was to have students read a model for an assignment and then launch into their own writing, I’ve found it’s more effective to have students talk about a topic before they write about it. This approach works particularly well in teaching students to write argumentative essays. For instance, they’ve debated if gun laws should be changed to be more restrictive and whether public schools should open their doors to military recruiters. After debate, it’s not hard for them to identify arguments to support a claim or counterarguments that they must address in writing.

• If teenagers feel they have something to say, their writing will be much more interesting and developed.

Whenever possible, it helps to give teenagers choices. For example, after my students wrote two argumentative essays on topics that I chose, I let them write an argumentative essay on a topic of their own choosing. They’ve written about such topics as why skateboarding should get the same kind of respect that other sports do, and why teachers should let students use ear buds and electronic devices to listen to music when doing independent work. The student newspaper published three essays by my students. I handed out copies of published student work with great fanfare, and made a pitch for how writing enables teens to make their voices heard.

• Teenagers are more likely to invest in writing if it’s for an authentic audience.

In addition to urging students to write for the student newspaper, I’ve asked them to write letters to people inside our school. Even more effective has been having students write letters to real authors.

These letters are quite involved. I require students to write two paragraphs about what they’ve learned in reading the work and back it up with examples. In addition, they have to tell the author about a personal connection they made between what they read and their own lives and pose a question for the author.

Some students have been quite reflective in letters. “Your book helped me to think about the rest of my life, such as how would I act if there would be a war,” wrote a student from Egypt to Skila Brown, the author of Caminar, a novel about civil war in Guatemala. Another student, from Eritrea, wrote to Ms. Brown: “Your book helped me to understand how to survive in the jungle. It gave me a message that facing a problem and dealing with it can help me to become a man.”

• Teens are more likely to complete writing assignments and write well if they see themselves as writers.

The editors of a special issue of the Journal of Second Language Writing on adolescent second-language learners published in 2011 explained that identity formation plays a major role in adolescence and can greatly influence teenagers’ interest in academics. The editors said that making progress in writing may seem impossible to teenagers who haven’t yet figured out who they are. If adolescents don’t see themselves as writers, they groan when I announce a writing assignment, and some do not finish it.

But increasingly, as my students have met authors and received positive responses to their writing from me, they have begun to see themselves as writers and feel capable of taking on writing challenges. No matter how well-designed a writing lesson is, it won’t fly with teens if they feel that having to write puts them way outside their comfort zone.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as Can a Former Journalist Teach English-Language Learners to Write?


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