Tips for Teaching ELLs to Write

Tips for Teaching ELLs to Write

by Judie Haynes

What are the challenges ELLs face in learning to write in English? How can you help them? Read this article and download my handout on writing from TESOL 2007 in Seattle.

Writing is the most difficult language skill for ELLs to master. Here are some of the challenges these students face in a writing class.

What is Translated Writing?

The biggest challenge for teachers working with ELLs is translated writing. This occurs when English language learners develop their ideas in native language and then try to translate them into English. Even if they don't write this native language text down, they are thinking in native language first. When this happens, the writing is full of inaccurate verb tenses and unintelligible sentences. The chaotic structure and grammar make the writing difficult to understand.

Editing this type of writing presents insurmountable challenges for teachers. One strategy is to pick a skill, such as verb tenses, to correct. However, it is better to avoid having students write down their ideas in English through the filter of their native language. Once the student has written an incomprehensible passage, you are stuck with it.

What about Free Writing and Unscaffolded Journal Writing?

Should students be encouraged to free write? (Free writing is a method of writing where students write without stopping for a predetermined amount of time.) The idea behind this is that the more students practice, the better they will write and they will write without an internal censor. It is my experience that free writing and unscaffolded journal writing are not beneficial to beginning ESL students. Students will translate from native language when writing in English. ELLs in both ESL and bilingual programs should be encouraged to write in either English or native language but should not be mixing the two.

Teach nonfiction Reading and Writing

Here are some tips to help your students avoid translated writing and promote thinking in English.

Selecting Other Genre

Once students have written nonfiction pieces and you want them to move on to other types of writing, you will still need to carefully select the genre. You still want to avoid translated writing. Give students real reasons to write: Letters, invitations, postcards, lists and interviews with classmates.

When you are ready to teach creative writing, use a dialogue journal rather than having students write in their own journals.

Have students write about topics they find interesting. Reflect what they have told you in your response in correct English. If students write at home on their own, you will find that the work is not always their own and you risk having them revert to translated writing.


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