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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ELL Students ‘Are No Strangers to the Art of Argumentation’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 26, 2017 16 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How do we teach ELLs formal language and how to write argument essays for the CCSS?

Part One’s responses came from Tan Huynh, Vicky Giouroukakis, Maureen Connolly, Margo Gottlieb, and Ivannia Soto. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Tan, Vicky, and Maureen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s suggestions are contributed by Julie Harris, Emily Phillips Galloway, Nonie Lesaux, John Spencer, Erik M. Francis, and Donna DeTommaso - Kleinert. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Julie Harris, Emily Phillips Galloway & Nonie Lesaux

Julie Russ Harris, EdM, is manager of the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A former elementary teacher and reading specialist, Harris’ work is guided by the goal of increasing the quality of culturally diverse children’s learning environments, Julie has authored several articles and is co-author of Cultivating Knowledge, Building Language (Heinemann, 2015).

Emily Phillips Galloway, EdD, is Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University. A former reading specialist, her research focuses on the development of language skills that support advanced literacy in struggling readers and linguistically diverse adolescents. Phillips Galloway has written pieces for practitioners and researchers and is most recently co-author of Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills: A Guide for Leaders in Linguistically Diverse Schools (Lesaux, Phillips Galloway & Marietta, Guilford, 2016).

Nonie K. Lesaux, PhD, is Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard University. Her research focuses on promoting the language and literacy skills of today’s children from diverse linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds, and is conducted largely in urban and semi-urban cities and school districts. Lesaux’s research appears in numerous scholarly publications, and its practical applications are featured in various formats, including recent books: Cultivating Knowledge, Building Language: Literacy Instruction for English Learners in Elementary School (Heinemann, 2015) and Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills: A Guide for Leaders in Linguistically Diverse Schools (Guilford Press, 2016):

Our students are no strangers to the art of argumentation. In everyday conversations, young people regularly show us that they have opinions worth advocating for and that they are eager to learn about and question others’ arguments. But answering the call of the CCSS means a heavy emphasis on written argumentation—in which case persuasion takes on a less familiar, and often more challenging, shape. This means hard work for many students, but a particular challenge for English language learners (ELLs).

For the majority of ELLs, the language needed for everyday argumentation in the social context is likely familiar. However, argumentative writing to meet today’s standards requires proficiency with a specific type of English: academic English. This language type (or “register”) is used in school, civic, and professional settings and is distinct from the way we speak and write to convey a point in social, everyday situations. From the precise words used, to the jam-packed sentences, to the stepwise logical argument structure, the learning curve to getting to academic language for argumentative writing is steep. And we are learning that many ELLs need lots more opportunities to develop these language skills required for academic argumentation.

With the challenge of developing academic language in mind, the answer to the question of how to get our ELLs to produce strong written arguments actually lies in the work of systematically and cumulatively building up their oral academic language.

You may be thinking, “If the focus is argumentative essays, what does oral language have to do with it?”

We often think of oral and written language as separate domains, just as the CCSS do. While this separation may be useful for planning instructional goals, the lines must be blurred and blended in practice. Supporting ELLs to demonstrate facility with written academic English means first providing lots of supportive, structured opportunities to use these language skills in speech. After all, we all need the words and the skills in the spoken context before we can move to the written. And then we need to talk about our writing and get feedback, which informs how we revise our written arguments. For all skilled writers, it’s a talk-write-talk cycle. For ELLs, this cycle is especially important.

What might a talk-write-talk cycle that develops the academic language needed for argumentative writing look like? At the broadest level, ELLs move back-and-forth between content-focused discussions and writing opportunities that beg them to take a stance on an issue of interest and import. For example, students might begin by talking through evidence—using words like alternative, clarify, and justify—and collaboratively working through the logic and shortcomings of possible arguments and counterarguments.

Next, to continue to organize the stance they plan to take, individual students might begin to put these ideas to the page, working with a prompt and their notes (and even a graphic organizer).. Students should then talk together again about their similar or differing emerging perspectives. These discussions, ideally guided by protocols, will help develop their reasoning skills and will support the production of a more coherent, persuasive, written piece. This iterative process, oral-to-written language and back again, should happen across days and even entire units of study.

As our linguistically diverse, emerging debaters, budding op-ed writers, fierce advocates and pundits enter our classrooms, we can embrace and further develop their skills and competencies toward meeting the CCSS and toward academic and civic participation. Getting there is just as much about talking as it is about writing.

Response From John Spencer

John Spencer is a former K-12 teacher and present professor. He is the co-author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student:

So much of the conversation around formal language has revolved around academic language and Tier Two vocabulary. However, there is often a more subtle challenge. Many ELL students struggle with grammar. They have a hard time understanding and using complex verb tenses, like the past perfect. They struggle with passive voice.

When I taught middle school, I taught the verb tenses in an explicit, systematic way. Students learned about the purposes and contexts of different verb tenses and then practices with verb tense formulas. However, I told them that grammar was meant to be fun and messy. If mistakes were allowed in math and science, they had permission to make mistakes in grammar until they got it right.

These verb tense lessons would lead into creative projects. Students would create interactive slideshows, write blog posts, record podcasts, and film documentaries where they would integrate the formal, complex verb tenses into their work. It felt natural rather than forced. It was a chance to be creative rather than filling out grammar worksheets. Ultimately, students were able to learn the grammar in a way that stuck and in a way that increased their self-efficacy.

Response From Donna DeTommaso - Kleinert

Donna DeTommaso-Kleinert Ed.D. is an ESL teacher in the North Penn School District in Lansdale, Pa., and an adjunct professor at Montgomery County Community College and Rosemont College:

Teaching Writing to ELLs

As teachers, we can scaffold essay writing to make it an achievable task. The brain loves to recognize patterns and sort information. Although the five paragraph essay can be seen as confining to some teachers and writers, it provides a framework that emergent ELL writers can use to be successful. As they grow in language proficiency, confidence and metacognitive thinking in the L2, they can branch out of the framework.

The following components facilitate ELLs as writers:

The Language of Writing

There is an academic language to writing. Help students become proficient in the language of writing by teaching, modeling and analyzing writing models. This can be done by having students go through models and highlight and identify elements using writing vocabulary. Reinforce the language, by having students identify the language of writing in their own writing. If you see the attached pictures, when students complete their writing, have them highlight and identify the elements of writing and use the language of writing. Finally, have them orally use the language of writing to describe his or her writing.

Graphic Organizers

Most teachers provide students with graphic organizers to support essay writing. It is also important to move older students into creating their own graphic organizers that make sense for them.


Prior to writing anything, make sure you have provided enough oral practice in the use of academic language, details and topics they are writing about. If the students are comfortable speaking complete sentences, they will have no problem writing complete sentences. Use a variety of interaction strategies to facilitate the use of academic language in complete sentences. Prior to writing a five paragraph essay, have students work with a peer and talk through the entire essay.

Thesis Statement

The thesis statement is the GPS of an essay! Teach students to identify their topic and engage in what their opinion is about the topic. Simply teach topic plus opinion. Add two or three prongs for beginning writers to assist them in scaffolding.

A Framework For Writing

Due to the brain’s desire to sort, categorize and organize, it is effective to provide ELLs with an essay framework. It is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Provide a framework that ELLs feel comfortable writing within such as the framework below:

Introduction paragraph

Attention Grabber—question, statement or quote

Answers the following questions/some may not apply:







Thesis Statement : Topic + Opinion + (Prongs for emergent writers that need the scaffold)

Body Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4

Transition phrase or words such as First of all, In addition, and Furthermore

Topic Sentence

Transition words to connect details or introduce evidence

Details using the E’s Evidence, Explain, Examples, Elaboration

Conclusion Sentence

Conclusion Paragraph

Restate your thesis

Restate topic sentence paragraph two, three, and four

Draw a major conclusion

End with a clincher statement that makes the reader continue to think

Teaching the Argument Essay

Prior to engaging in any argument writing, it is essential to orally hold a socratic seminar or debate. With the oral interaction, teach the language of argument and defense. Provide students with sentence frames. Have students orally use claim, rebuttal, counterclaim, opposing viewpoint and transitions related to an argument such as on the other hand. There are different frameworks for argument writing. However, when first teaching argument writing the following framework seems to work.

Change the framework above by changing paragraph four into an argument paragraph and paragraph five a conclusion or “last word” paragraph.

Paragraph 4 - Hold your argument

“On the other hand,” state the opposing viewpoint.

Use examples, evidence and explain the counterclaim.

Follow the counterclaim/opposing view with a strong rebuttal.

Use evidence, examples and elaboration to explain how the claim you support outweighs the counterclaim. Make a strong claim.

This is the chance to argue back and prove your claim is stronger. This paragraph should read like an argument that goes back and forth.

End with a strong conclusion sentence

Paragraph 5 - Conclusion of the argument

In conclusion, restate the claim and opinion

Restate two reasons to support the claim

Restate the counterclaim

Restate the rebuttal

Make a strong statement as to why the claim is essential to support your argument


Providing ELLs with a framework and a pattern to work within scaffolds them into writing and makes something that can viewed as abstract as concrete.

Sample of Beginner Informational Paragraph Writing

Begin by teaching the language of writing and providing a framework.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT’S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD. He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards. He also provides consultation on the development, implementation, and compliance of academic programs funded under policies and provisions the Every Students Succeeds Act (n.e. the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965):

We can teach ELL students formal language by showing them the performance objectives and ask them to identify content-specific (terminology) and content-obligatory (academic vocabulary) they might not understand. We can also encourage them to develop English speaking and listening skills by having them identify these words by phrasing them in an interrogative sentence.

For example, if the performance objective math standard says, “Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities,” the teacher asks the students to identify the content-specific words they do not recognize or understand in the form of an interrogative sentence: What is a ratio? What is rate reasoning? What is a ratio relationship? What is a quantity?

The teacher then writes these words down on a whiteboard. Then the teacher asks, “How can you identify the other words—the cognitive verbs, the conceptual nouns, the prepositions—you might not understand in the interrogative form?” The student may ask, “What does it mean to understand? What is a concept? What is a relationship? What does it mean to describe? What does it mean to be between?”

ELL’s not only need to be able to express and share their learning in writing but also orally. This should occur at the beginning of any unit or individual lesson in which new academic vocabulary (Tier 2) or subject-specific terminology (Tier 3) words are introduced. The teacher can use this learning experience to assess prior knowledge and familiarity with vocabulary and language.

They can also use these questions to start off units and lessons, having the students develop and expand their vocabulary by reading, researching, and reporting what these terms and words mean in their own words. For ELL students, this provides them the opportunity to develop not only lexicon (the words you know) and semantics (meaning of words) but also phonology (speaking) and syntax (sentence structure). It also allows the ELL student to feel as if they are contributing to the lesson and are being heard by having the questions they ask start off the learning experience.

In regards to writing arguments, ELL students should be taught how to develop and write sentences that are written using the first person pronoun “I” as the subject and state of being verbs—or stative verbs—such as believe, feel, think, appreciate, or recommend. ELL students first need to learn how sentences are structured and how to structure sentences using verb-tense agreement. Then we can teach students to start any sentence in which they express their ideas, feelings, or opinions with the I + stative verb + finisher.

For example, we can teach students to express and write their opinion about whether the death penalty is a justified or unjustified form of punishment using the formula I (subject) + stative verb (believe) + the death penalty is a justified form of punishment. We can have them support their argument by teaching them to start their commentary with I + believe (stative verb) + this + because + evidence / reasoning (finisher). To teach them how to shift from sharing opinions to crafting arguments, simply ask the students to erase or cross out the I + stative verb at the beginning of the sentence. Their sentence will now say The death penalty is a justified form of punishment.

Listen to how powerful that sounds! Not only will our ELLs, or any student for that matter, learn what distinguishes opinion from argument but also learn how to strengthen and use tone in their writing. However, before ELLs can commence to express their arguments and opinions in English, they must first learn about sentence structure and verb tense agreements.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Julie, Emily, Nonie, John, Erik and Donna for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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