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How to Teach ESL Writing

I teach seventh grade English-language arts in a multi-language school in Sacramento. Filipino, Mexican, Hmong, Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Ukrainian, and Korean students, each with their primary languages in tow, keep this veteran teacher learning and experimenting with writing instruction. Additionally, the student population at our school is highly transitory. Kids come and go. At times I feel like an ER doc.

In fact, the analogy is quite appropriate for an ELA teacher who treats the writing challenges of English Learners (EL). For those of you who don’t watch the plethora of medical dramas on television, the ER doc is responsible for triage.

Triage (pronounced /ˈtriɑʒ/) is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition. This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the French verb trier, meaning to separate, sort, sift or select.[1] There are two types of triage: simple and advanced.[2] The outcome may result in determining the order and priority of emergency treatment, the order and priority of emergency transport, or the transport destination for the patient, based upon the special needs of the patient or the balancing of patient distribution in a mass-casualty setting (Wikipedia).

Now this is not to say that EL students are all incurably sick; many are gifted thinkers who already are successful students. However, glossing over the specific needs of developing EL writers and hoping that they will “catch up” in their writing when their oral language and reading abilities in English “catch up” is simply akin to medical malpractice.

Having diagnosed and treated a wide spectrum of EL writing over the years, my most useful two triage tips are 1) effective diagnosis and 2) prioritization of patient needs into two types of treatments: emergency and long-term care.

1) Diagnosis—In spite of my twenty-nine years in the classroom, I am a surprisingly inaccurate “gut-level” diagnostician. I make assumptions based upon prior experience and stereotypes, despite the fact that I know better. I’m human. However, I’ve learned to rely more and more on effective diagnostic assessments to take the “me” out of my diagnoses. A few, easy-to-use whole-class reading, spelling, and grammar diagnostic assessments inform me how to differentiate instruction for my EL students.

2) Treatment—In writing instruction, teachers of EL students face two key decisions:

  • What must be treated now and what can wait.
  • What is immediately and easily treatable and what will take time to treat.

In grading written work, in sharing during student-teacher writing conferences, and in planning differentiated direct instruction, an effective teacher has to have a workable “treatment plan” for teaching EL students to improve their writing. Following is my plan based upon the key two decisions shared above. To stay consistent with our analogy, I will classify the two treatment options as emergency treatment and long-term care. I list specific symptoms, i.e. examples of student writing problems, but in no particular order.

Emergency TreatmentSymptoms

Pronoun CaseHim gave she her sandwich.

Relative ClausesThe girl which I know is pretty.

Demonstrative PronounsThis desk over there is my favorite.

Pronoun ReferencesThey keep them pencil for himself.

Verb Tense ConsistencyI go to school and will study very hard.

Simple Verb FormsI done know that already.

Subject-Verb AgreementThe students speaks English.

Common Irregular Verb FormsI buyed him a candy bar.

ArticlesHe has basketball to shoot to practice for a games.

Adjective PlacementShe is a teacher very smart.

NegationI don’t need no help.

Simple coordinating conjunctions (BOAS) but, or, and, soIf she won’t, but I’ll quit.

Common subordinating conjunctionsBecause I don’t know English, I don’t write.

Plural and Singular NounsI did my writings in pens.

Predictable Sound-SpellingsWen he understands me I kin hep him wit his hoamwurk.

FragmentsAfter I go to the movies.

Long Term CareSymptoms

Idioms (especially in prepositions)I look in the table for the book.

Figures of SpeechShe gave her effort her best.

Word OrderI can hear what is the girl singing.

Denotative VocabularyI took the metro from here to my aunt’s house in Canada.

Connotative VocabularyShe runs very slowly.

InflectionsTo gain the confident, I try to speak loft of English.

Verb PhrasesI miss to study for my test.

Sophisticated Verb Forms(Progressive) She will be presented her project tomorrow. (Perfect) I will have gave him two dollars at lunch.

Uncommon Irregular Verb FormsI lended her my notebook.

Correlative ConjunctionsEither you study, so you don’t; both I don’t care.

Sentence VarietySubject-Verb-Complement in every sentence.

Run-onsShe opened the door she helped him sit down after lunch.

SubjunctiveIf I was richer, I would give you presents.

Irregular SpellingsThat was wierd.

Why not make sense of EL writing instruction with a curriculum that will help you efficiently integrate grammar, usage, diction, and syntax into writing instruction?

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

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