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Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching ELLs to Write Academic Essays

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 22, 2017 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

The number of English Language Learners in our schools is growing and, at the same time, both the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Common Core standards are raising the bar for academic expectations. This two-part series will be examining how teachers can best assist ELLs develop academic language and skills in writing argumentative essays, both which are highlighted in the Common Core.

Today’s responses come 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.

I’d like to share a few relevant resources that readers might find helpful:

The publisher of our latest book, Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners, has made all lesson plans and student-handouts available for free on its website (You don’t even have to register). There are several related to academic language and argument writing.

I’ve written an article for Edutopia headlined English Language Learners and Academic Language.

Here are two useful lists: The Best Online Resources For Helping Students Learn To Writing Persuasive Essays and The Best Websites For Developing Academic English Skills & Vocabulary.

And, of course, you might want to explore collections of previous posts that have appeared here on Teaching English Language Learners and Writing Instruction.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

Britton says, “Reading ‘floats on a sea of talk’ ” (1970, p.164). This is true for writing as well. If we want ELLs to use formal language in their essays, we can start by giving them opportunities to talk and refine their ideas before committing them to writing.

I structure these talking opportunities as distinct phases of modeling writing that include setting a context for writing, deconstructing a mentor text, teachers guiding students through construction, constructing in pairs, and finally writing independently. At each phase, we ask ELLs to talk about their ideas through mini-presentations, giving them opportunities to develop not only their formal register, but also their argumentative analyses.

Phase 1: Setting a Context

For demonstrative purposes, let’s pretend I want ELLs to write an argumentative essay about the benefits of using smartphones in school to aid instruction. First, students work in groups to list all of the ways smartphones are useful outside of school. Then, groups can compare their answers to find commonalities and new insights. The informal presentation between groups begins to raise the register of students’ language by having them compose a prepared statement to exchange with others.

Phase 2: Deconstructing a Mentor Text

I guide students through the reading of news article explaining how one school integrates smartphones. Next, I prompt the ELLs to focus on how the author is presenting ideas. Does the author use data, stories, examples, or analogies, etc to communicate them? I direct students to explore this question by assigning each group the task of deconstructing a specific paragraph. Then students jigsaw their analysis with other groups. Engaging this way helps ELs formulate more ideas that they can use later when they independently write.

Phase 3: Teacher-Guided Construction

It’s still too soon to release ELs to write independently, so I support them through a teacher-guided construction of text. First, we need ideas. I ask ELLs to work in pairs and list the reasons that support the use of smartphones in school. We take one of their justifications, and I model writing the paragraph. As I am crafting the sentences, I invite the ELs to contribute ideas to help formulate the wording and organization of the text. This is an opportunity for them to try out their own arguments using formal, academic language and receive immediate feedback from the teacher.

Phase 4: Pair Construction

Now that they have seen me model the writing decisions, they are familiar with the process. ELs are now empowered to construct a paragraph with a partner to explain another justification. These social interactions act an additional scaffold in preparing students to develop an independent argument for the assigned essay.

Phase 5: Independent Construction

Now that ELs have had multiple occasions to use formal language aloud with fellow students and teachers in order to internalize how writers make writing decisions, they are prepared to attempt formal writing on their own.

Throughout this process, ELLs engaged in various opportunities to organize their ideas into informal presentations, which can share the same formal register as written ideas. When students speak out loud, it prepares them to compose on paper by practicing both their formal register and their argumentative constructions with the class first. Furthermore, when teachers model the writing decisions, the process becomes visible. When literacy is made visible, ELs are no longer lost in fog of abstract expectations. Instead, their paths on journey of writing is illuminated.

Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.

Response From Vicky Giouroukakis & Maureen Connolly

Vicky Giouroukakis and Maureen Connolly are co-authors of Achieving Next Generation Literacy: Using the Tests (You Think) You Hate to Help the Students You Love (ASCD). Giouroukakis is a professor in the Division of Education at Molloy College, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in literacy, English education, and TESOL. Connolly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in secondary education for the School of Education at The College of New Jersey and is a consultant for CBK Associates:

Formal language is the language that ELLs need to be successful in school and includes academic language (e. g., classify, encounter) and subject-specific vocabulary

(e. g., thesis, permutation, simile). As opposed to formal language, conversational, everyday language can typically be acquired by students in 6 months to 2 years. Formal language can take anywhere from 5 to 7 years or longer.

This presents a particular challenge because in today’s Common Core era, all students, including ELLs, need to learn how to write argument essays that require specific terminology and rhetorical skills. ELLs are at a disadvantage because they need to develop and clearly communicate strong arguments in their writing as well as use abstract terms while at the same time learn English. Consider the following example:

Academic Language:

The consensus view seems to be that the use of standardized assessments in schools should be limited.

Conversational Language:

Most people believe that students should take fewer tests.

There are a few ways to teach ELLs formal language and how to write argument essays for the CCSS.

One way is to explicitly teach the concepts and vocabulary of an argument essay, such as the terms, central claim (or thesis), supporting or minor claims, counterclaim, evidence, and reasoning. These terms need to be used consistently throughout the school year and be omnipresent in the classroom--on the bulletin board, in students’ binders or google docs-- and applied to class assignments.

Another way is to teach, model, and have students apply process writing, an approach based on the idea that the steps of planning, drafting, revising/editing, and publishing produce good writing.

Planning or prewriting activities, such as brainstorming, allow ELLs to express their ideas and design a plan that will help them begin drafting their argument essays. One strategy is to give students topics of interest (curfew time, the use of cellphones in school, etc.) and have them argue a position in small groups. They can present their arguments in a gallery walk and then be given feedback that will make their claims stronger. Mentor texts should be introduced here to provide examples of argument writing that could serve as models.

During drafting, ELLs begin to formulate their stance and provide supporting evidence. Writing frames can offer good models and provide an organizational structure for students’ argument writing. These are scaffolded structures that could be word or sentences starters, cloze paragraphs, or full essay templates. Modeling the process of argument writing is an effective instructional strategy that teaches students that constructing strong arguments and providing sound evidence-based reasons in a logical structure requires hard work.

Through peer and teacher conferencing in the revising stage, ELLs work on their writing to improve the meaning and form of their argument essays. Modeling peer editing and grouping ELLs with native speakers supports them as they learn to give each other feedback. Many ELLs may not be able to recognize errors or know how to edit their peers’ work or their own. Teachers can give students checklists to focus on key ideas, grammar, mechanics or have them color code argument elements in their drafts to makes the balance of the components of the writing visually evident to the students.

After students have submitted their final drafts and teachers have reviewed and/or evaluated them, it is time to celebrate their argument writing by sharing it with an authentic audience. Students may publish their writing in the school newspaper, blogs, pen pals, online magazines or share their work with other teachers, peers, or administrators.

When students engage in process writing, they acquire not only formal language that is demonstrated in their writing but also conversational language when discussing their work.

Response From Margo Gottlieb

Margo Gottlieb, co-founder and lead developer of WIDA, is a teacher at heart. She has had the privilege of working with thousands of educators throughout the world. Margo is proud to be an author and co-author of over a dozen books on assessment, curriculum design, and standards for language learners:

You have two distinct questions here; let me take one at a time. First, formal language, as all communication, has to be embedded in a context; it can’t be taught in isolation. Formal language in essence is a formal register; sometimes it is referred to as academic language or the language of school. Said another way, formal language or register is a style of speech and writing that fits the situation or task, audience, and in school, the content area. For example, in teaching ELLs about argument, have them craft an e-mail disagreeing with a friend’s position on an issue, an informal register, as a precursor to writing an editorial response on the same topic for a school newspaper or website, a more formal register.

On to the second question- what are some instructional strategies for ELLs to produce argumentative essays that represent college and career readiness standards, such as CCSS? You chose an excellent question, as engaging in argumentation can push students to explore the world around them, become participants in it by forming opinions or claims along with supporting evidence, and then taking social action to apply their learning to real-life situations.

Here are some tips for facilitating ELLs’ writing of argumentative pieces:

  • Couple select college and career readiness standard(s) with corresponding English language development/ proficiency standard(s). In that way, ELLs’ language development will be reinforced through content.

  • Bolster the language of argumentation through listening, speaking, reading, and viewing to promote ELLs’ academic language development in conjunction with the conceptual development.

  • Work from students’ strengths. If ELLs’ oral language is further developed than their literacy, for example, first have students debate or present an oral presentation on the topic in preparation for or together with writing.

  • Introduce aspects of argumentation one step at a time. Have students respond to issues of the day with opinions and reasons in the lower grades and with claims and evidence in higher grades.

  • Use graphic organizers, such as T charts or semantic webs, to have students arrange both sides of the argument. Graphic organizers serve as scaffolds for ELLs, as all students, to help them access and make meaning from grade-level topics.

  • Promote interaction among students by having them discuss controversial topics in partners or small groups and take on different perspectives. Couple ELLs with English proficient peers so that ELLs become accustomed to language models outside their teachers.

  • Know ELLs’ levels of English language proficiency, especially in writing, in order to match the students with the language expectations of the task. Differentiate language objectives to reflect what ELLs can do without diminishing the grade-level learning targets.

  • Invite multiple points of view that illustrate various ways of argumentation that represent the multicultural students in your class.

  • Involve students in co-constructing criteria of success for the different aspects of their argument essays. Once they become familiar with and practice identifying the criteria with work samples, have students engage in self- and peer assessment.

For more information on ELLs and academic language, see “Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms: Definitions and Contexts” (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014), a foundational book for an accompanying language arts and mathematics series with units of instruction. Another resource recently released by WIDA (www.wida.us) is its Can Do Descriptors, Key Uses Edition (2016) and Podemos K-12 (2016), with examples of how ELLs process and produce the language of argumentation for six levels of language proficiency in English and in Spanish.

Response From Ivannia Soto

Ivannia Soto, Ph.D. is associate professor of Education at Whittier College, where she specializes in second language acquisition, systemic reform for English language learners (ELLs), and urban education. She began her career in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where she taught English and English Language Development to a population made of up 99.9% Latinos, who either were or had been ELLs. She has written several books on meeting the needs of ELLs, including a new Academic Language Mastery book series, all published by Corwin Press, and is the director of the Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching (www.whittier.edu/ICLRT):

Since writing is the most cognitively and linguistically demanding of the four literacy domains, unpacking the organizational structures of each type of writing unveils what is often the hidden curriculum of school for many students. Unfortunately, as educators, we oftentimes do not take the time to explicitly teach students the insides of each kind of writing genre. Many times, we assume that students will naturally pick up these expectations when reading, or as we provide model papers. It is only with this kind of explicit teaching, however, that many students, especially ELLs, will be able to function successfully as capable and proficient writers. It is these kinds of skills that students will take with them to college and beyond, where writing demands will also vary from field to field and discipline to discipline.

One method of explicitly teaching each genre of writing is called the Curriculum Cycle, developed by Pauline Gibbons (2002). This system allows students, especially ELLs, to organize each new genre of writing by being explicitly taught the structure of each new style of writing introduced. As Gibbons (2002) suggests, “ELLs are less likely to be familiar with the particular organizational structure of different kinds of writing, and with the grammatical structure of English.” Each step in the Curriculum Cycle is outlined below:

  • A specific purpose--explicitly stating the purpose and reason for the writing assignment; connecting the writing to real-world application (e.g., scientists and historians write in this style).

  • A particular overall structure--providing a clear description of the organization of the writing genre. If there is an organizational pattern, making that clear to students (e.g., for persuasive writing, presenting argument and anticipating/addressing counter-arguments).

  • Connectives--introducing the specific transition words associated with the particular writing genre (e.g., for procedural writing, the use of enumeration).

  • Specific linguistic features--providing students with the grammatical tense that they should be writing in, as well the specialized vocabulary associated with the writing style (e.g., narrative writing selections can include dialogue).

For argumentative writing specifically, teachers can teach Curriculum Cycle by highlighting the text features below with students using a model essay or model text. A poster and/or handout for argumentative writing should be posted in the room and given to students as they write. For ELLs who are at the lower proficiency levels, teachers may need to jointly construct an argumentative piece before gradually releasing individual writing to students.

  • A specific purpose for argumentative writing--teaching two sides to an argument that is relevant to students (e.g., should students be able to take selfies in voting booths?); to take a position and justify it.

  • A particular overall structure for argumentative writing--personal statement of position; arguments and supporting evidence; counter-arguments and supporting evidence; conclusion.

  • Argumentative Connectives--first, second, in addition, therefore, however, on the other hand.

  • Specific linguistic features for argumentative writing--use of persuasive language, including “it is obviously wrong that"or rhetorical questions.

In the 21st century, students will not only need to read and speak effectively, they will need to know how to function within each genre of writing as they move from discipline to discipline, and assignment to assignment. Therefore, all genres of writing should be taught explicitly when introduced. More about how to do this can be read in “Moving from Spoken to Written Language with ELLs” (2014).

Thanks to Tan, Vicky, Maureen, Margo and Ivannia for their contributions!

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