Giants Steps with Nonfiction Writing

Giants Steps with Nonfiction Writing

by Judie Haynes

Teach your English Language Learners to write using nonfiction text and the writing process. See this article adapted from my June, 2006 article in Essential Teacher.

A recent professional development program in my district on the writing process prodded me to re-examine how I teach writing. I have been teaching process writing to English language learners (ELLs) over the past 20 years. (This is a method of teaching writing where the focus is on the process not on the product.) It was during this in-service program, however, that I realized how many modifications I make to the writing process to meet the needs of my English language learners.

The biggest challenge when teaching writing to new learners of English is that many of them develop their text in their native language and then try to translate into English. This translated writing is full of inaccurate verb tenses and unintelligible sentences. There are so many errors that editing becomes problematic for teachers. I feel strongly that it is better to help students avoid writing in English through the filter of their native language. In my experience, the problem is particularly evident when grade 3-6 students have developed writing skills in their first language and that language is very different from English.

For this reason, I don't have my students free write. (This is a writing technique in which students write without stopping and without worrying about correctness.) Why teach them to write incomprehensively? Nor do I encourage beginners to write in a journal, as this writing is also unstructured. One classroom teacher told me that she had students write every night in a journal at home. I could only imagine the results of that with English language learners. Their text would range from incoherent writing to work that has been overseen and overcorrected by parents. The writing would definitely be product oriented.

What problems do our students face when learning to write in English? First, their vocabulary is restricted and they limit themselves to words they know how to spell. As a result, they repeat the same words and phrases again and again. Their sentence structure is generally chaotic and grammar obscure. Let's examine the work of a 5th grade newcomer who wrote the following text in her mainstream classroom in response to the prompt: "If you were an animal, what animal would you like to be and why?"

"I like be eagle becas eagle birds king and he fly very up. They scard. When they baby, they take off they feather and they squek they claw." Yimin,(September, 2003)

How do we avoid the garbled writing that Yimin produced? I am convinced that English language learners write better if they begin with non-fiction reading and writing. Graphic organizers such as story maps, T-charts, and Venn diagrams help scaffold writing and provide students with language chunks that can be used in their text. If topics are developed orally, non-fiction vocabulary expanded and charted, and correct sentence structure modeled, student writing will improve dramatically. One way to achieve this is to teach non-fiction writing during writing workshop and to modify writing process steps for beginning English language learners. The topics used during this lesson should be taken from the students' subject area content. I recommend the following steps :

Prewriting: You will need to spend a lot of time in this stage with new learners of English.

Writing: Have students practice writing from a story map, Venn diagram or other type of graphic organizer. Provide them with an organizer that you have written together on the non-fiction topic. This gives a beginning writer the language and structure that they need. Show clearly what should be covered in the writing and how it should be organized.

Editing: Don't expect students who are not fluent in English to self-edit. They will not usually find their own mistakes. You will have to be more hands-on with the editing of non-native speakers and conference with them on a regular basis to discuss their works-in- progress. If you have your students peer-edit, they may be reluctant to share their work with native speakers. You may want to group beginners with more fluent native speakers. Give pairs a specific item to check. For example "Check the "s" at the end of a verb if you are talking about one other person." You may need to teach a mini-lesson about the item you want edited.

Revising: English language learners will not remember what to revise unless changes are clearly marked on their papers. Instead of writing "Add more information here," write more specifically "Tell what eagles eat here." If students are a part of the editing process, the revisions will be more meaningful to them.

Publishing: This is an important step. Help students develop a sense of audience by encouraging students to share their writing with classmates and family. Display work in the classroom and hallway or make classroom books.

I see my students take giant steps when non-fiction writing is introduced to beginners in writing workshop and steps are modified as shown above. Yimin wrote this piece on a forest animal in her ESL classroom.

"Eagle are carnivores. They live in forest. They eat small mammal, fish and snakes. They use eyes to see prey. They catch food with sharp talon. They are diurnal because they hunt in the day."

Yimin's non-fiction writing is comprehensible. The unit vocabulary has been correctly utilized, errors in grammar are easily identified and rectified and the sentence structure is accurate. She is now ready to try other types of writing.

Resource Picks
Encourage your English language learners to write. Visit and have your students create their own comic strips. It's a wonderful resource to spur students of all ages to read,write,and communicate their ideas and to practice English.