Curriculum Opinion

Three Steps to Leverage World-Language Instruction for General Literacy Success

By Erin Lillis Kent — September 20, 2016 9 min read
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In dual language environments, aligning expectations for writing across all language instruction can help advance overall student literacy says Erin Lillis Kent, international literacy consultant.

Which is the better narrative lead?

“Let’s go!” I shouted to my brother, racing towards the backyard.


I went outside with my brother.

What if these leads were written in Chinese? Would that change the answer? Portuguese? Arabic? Is writing a sophisticated lead language-neutral or language-specific?

I’m often brought into schools—international schools, specifically—to refine K-8 literacy programs. International schools are full of dual language learners. Large groups of students arrive fluent in a school’s host-country language (say, Chinese, at an international school in Shanghai, or Arabic at an international school in Saudi Arabia) and are immersed in an English environment for many years. Most courses at these international schools are taught in English except for one 40-minute session per day of host-country language instruction. Students who speak a host-country language fluently at an international school are not unlike English-speaking students in a language-immersion school in the U.S. or English Language Learners who enter the US system. For these dual language students, language instruction is unbalanced: more teaching time is allotted to one language than another.

At international schools, my conversations with host-country language teachers almost always yield the same exasperated question: How can we teach everything in just 40 minutes a day?

Minutes matter, of course. Practice is the undisputed key to growth. So the short answer to this question is, “You can’t.” However, in my work with international schools, I also add, “There’s no need to. Much of it is already being done.”

I’m convinced that in most respects, literacy is literacy. The qualities of great writing/reading and skills of a great writer/reader transcend language. When working in a dual language or immersion language environment, a teacher’s instruction in one language can, and should, support a student’s development in both languages.

First Step: Answer the Big Question
One of my favorite things to do as a literacy consultant is prompt big (sometimes uncomfortable) conversations about overarching questions like, “What makes great writing?”

I’m no expert on Chinese or Arabic or Vietnamese or Portuguese so I wade into these conversations with host-country language educators humble and curious, ready to claim common ground where I can as well as concede differences.

I recently met with a group of Portuguese language teachers at a school in Brazil. Before our meeting, I asked teachers to administer an “on-demand narrative assessment": students wrote a true story from their lives in 40 minutes. The teachers brought the students’ writing to our meeting.

Prior to meeting with the Portuguese language staff, I spent two days with English Language Arts teachers at the same school, diving into similar narrative pieces that students had written in English. Together, the English teachers and I determined student writing that would represent end-of-year expectations for each grade level based on the school’s writing standards. We annotated the pieces to highlight evidence for the qualities of writing that we expected at each grade level.

I started my meeting with Portuguese staff by reading the K-2nd grade student samples in English to anchor us to a possible progression of how writing quality grows across grade levels. Then, I asked them to read a Portuguese sample and think about where it might fit along that English continuum of quality writing.

Right away, conversation began about differences in expectations. One Portuguese teacher said, “We would never expect a 2nd grader to write with voice like that.”

“What do you mean by voice?” I asked.

“I mean, we’d never ask students to use all that dialogue when they’re telling a story. They just say what happened at this level,” she explained.

“More like a list of what happened?” I asked for clarification. “Like first this happened, then this, then this, etc.”

“Yes,” she said. “Dialogue is too hard for 2nd graders. We don’t teach them to use it until 3rd or 4th grade.”

“Would writing with dialogue raise the quality of the writing?” I asked. “I mean, if the writer said, ""Come on!” I yelled to my brother,” would that be better than, “I told my brother to come.""

“Yes,” she said, “but we don’t teach dialogue at this point so we can’t expect them to use it in their writing.”

“What makes writing dialogue hard in your language?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“It’s punctuated differently than it is in English,” she said. “We don’t teach how to punctuate it until later. Like 3rd grade or so.”

“What if a child includes dialogue but doesn’t punctuate it well?” I asked.

“Then the child might lose points on their story because the punctuation isn’t right,” the teacher said. “It makes it hard to grade.”

“In English, we feel like punctuation is hard at this level too,” I explained. “We might not hold students accountable for perfectly punctuated dialogue until 3rd grade but we expect them to write with a storyteller’s voice—using some dialogue, action, inner thinking, etc.—beginning in 1st grade. What are your thoughts on that?” I asked.

I’ve had similar conversations over student work samples with schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, the U.A.E., etc. A few typical points rear their heads each time:

1. If I don’t explicitly teach it, I can’t hold students accountable for it.

2. My evaluation of student work is heavily based on conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.).

Here is my response to each:

1. “If I don’t explicitly teach it, I can’t hold students accountable for it.”
In English classrooms around the world, students are being taught the skills to write different genres well. For narrative, they learn to write stories in the moment, to begin a piece with dialogue, action, or inner thinking and keep a storyteller’s voice throughout. If these strategies would improve the quality of writing in another native language, why change the rules for students when they walk across the hall? In a native Portuguese or Chinese class, there’s no need to teach a child to use dialogue; simply hold students accountable for what they already know how do when writing a quality narrative.

2. “My evaluation of student work is heavily based on conventions.”
Conventions are the building blocks of language: spelling, grammar, punctuation. They are often the first thing teachers (and parents) notice about a piece of student writing. But conventions are a small part of what makes for great composition. One could argue (and I would) that it’s more important for writers to have substance than perfect presentation. The important art of making meaning—of choosing a significant topic, structuring a piece with intention, revising to affect a reader—is the substantive part of writing instruction that requires lots of practice and lots of feedback. If the art of writing is reduced to the perfecting of conventions, writers cease to take risks and growth slows.

Schools must decide what it looks like to value a child’s approximations as a writer in each language and encourage the compositional risk-taking that supports a child’s overall literacy success.

Second Step: Establish Common Learning Tools
Once a school has achieved a common answer to the question above, language teachers in dual language environments can begin to share evaluative tools. Not all criteria on a tool needs to be aligned—for example, the conventions section including spelling, grammar, and possibly punctuation would differ—but for writing skills that transfer, consistent expectations save instructional time for all language teachers and increase practice time for students.

When choosing a tool, I suggest using “skill progressions” instead of rubrics. “Progressions” detail what a skill looks like from one level to the next. They avoid a conventional rubric’s reliance on subjective qualifiers like “good” or “excellent” and instead name the work that writers do to achieve mastery at level.

To illustrate the difference between a progression and a rubric, let’s look at their different approaches to the common skill of narrative elaboration, or details:


The difference between a low and high score on this rubric relies on a teacher’s subjective evaluation of words like “minimal,” “some,” or “strong.” For students in two language tracks, the definition of these words could vary wildly based on each teacher’s perception.

Skill progressions seek to be more objective, detailing techniques used to move from one level of a skill to the next. The following is an example of a writing progression for Narrative Elaboration, or Details, in a narrative text.


- From Writing Pathways, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University

This kind of skill progression aligns writing expectations and instruction across a school, regardless of the language being taught.

Third Step: Move from My Students to Our Students
As schools with multiple native language tracks begin work to align philosophy and teaching tools, they naturally tackle the questions that underpin a Professional Learning Community (PLC): What do we want our students to know? How will we know when they know it? What will we do if some aren’t learning it? How will we extend learning if some already know it?

I see most schools guiding teachers into subject-specific, horizontal (grade-specific) or vertical (cross-grade) PLCs to discuss these questions. Foreign language teachers are often left out, or they make up their own PLC.

In dual language schools or immersion schools that embrace the idea that “literacy is literacy,” world-language teachers and English language teachers should form one PLC. Are 2nd grade students finding more success in structuring a piece in Chinese than they are in English? Why? How have the Chinese teachers taught this skill? What can English teachers learn from and lean on through the Chinese success? Are Portuguese teachers finding that students fail to weave setting into their stories? Is the same thing happening in students’ English stories? Why or why not? Which language will take on the primary task of teaching this skill while both languages hold students accountable for growth?

When goals are clear, when students are held accountable for qualities of writing that are consistent across language tracks, teachers can spend time explicitly teaching to what’s different and students can spend time practicing quality composition.

Literacy is literacy. These are our students, not my students.

It takes a village to raise a writer.

Connect with Erin and Heather on Twitter.

Images courtesy of the author.

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