When I began planning my webinar – Successful Strategies for English Language Learners – I asked you guys for what you needed to know about teaching ELL’s. The biggest response that I got was - How do you get ELL’s to write on level? I talked about this quite a bit in the webinar, but I wanted to share some things I’ve been doing this year to work on this exact topic.
More than half of my class are in their very first year of academic English. Many are still in the “silent phase” where they don’t actually have enough language to participate in a conversation. So if we don’t have enough language to tell a story, how do we get enough language to write a story? I’ll admit, our first stories were rough, and felt like pulling teeth. However, my kids have made some great strides in the last 3 months. Here are some things that are working for my students:
1.) Use those graphic organizers! My students use a graphic organizer for every single writing piece they do. By using these graphic organizers, which only require one or two words, they know have some vocabulary that they can use when they are building sentences.
2.) Focus on ideas. Let students get those ideas on and forget about grammar. Then, during editing, choose one grammatical idea to focus on for each writing piece, thereby making editing manageable for your ELL’s who often feel overwhelmed with trying to build perfect English sentences. (Some editing topics I’ve worked on are: having a subject in every sentence, having only one verb and one subject in one sentence (later we’ll work on complex verbs and complex subjects), stretching sentences with adjectives, grouping our ideas into paragraphs etc.)
3.) Allow for simple sentences. My students often take the words from the their graphic organizers and build sentences like
“I have a cat. My cat is big. My cat is brown. My cat has fur.
I have a dog. My dog is fast. My dog is fluffy. My dog eats a lot.”
Once they are successful with simpler sentences, take one of those editing sessions to talk about different types of sentences.
4.) Let them translate. This is especially important for students who are learning English after they have already learned to read and write in their home language. Often, my students know exactly what they want to say, they are just missing that one word that they need to build the sentence. For these times, my students are allowed, and encouraged to translate, using either a friend who speaks their home language or a translating device – like Google Translate. I do stipulate that this translating is for single words and short phrases and NOT for sentences and stories, as these devices translate word by word and do not take grammar into account. Also, I don’t want my students to use these devices as a crutch, but as a helper.
5.) Use creative projects. My students’ new favorite way to write is through a website called Storybird. This website allows them to use art provided by the website to build online storybooks. This website has inspired my students to write stories unlike the ones I get out of them when they are writing simple stories. Last week, we all wrote haunted house stories. One of my brand new to English students wrote this story called Omar the Alien and the Haunted House. I was so proud of her, but more importantly, she was so proud of herself. In the beginning of the year, I couldn’t get her to write. Now, she’s the first one done, and her writing is getting stronger and stronger!