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Re-purposing the writing process for beginner ELLs

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Trio Writing authors Alice Savage and Colin Ward offer 6 practical activities to help your beginner level students write successfully in English.

For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense.  However, non-native writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level.  Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone.  We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.

The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on.  They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.

The following classroom activities offer options for tweaking the standard writing process.  They are meant to be flexible, working tools that can be used individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its goals.

1. Front-load with language

Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar?  Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.

For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language.  The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, rivers, a desert, and other place nouns.  Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.

Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert.  Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:

Use the words to make phrases about your country.  Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.

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In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.

The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.

2. Conference at the point of need

One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs.  Multi-lingual writers may need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task.  In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference.  This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.

Conferencing Checklist

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  • The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.
  • Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.
  • Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.
  • Ideas discusses ways that a strong student might stretch their skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.

3. Share the revision process

Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills.  The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.

Grammar Puzzles

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Collaborative Writing

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4. Repurpose peer review

Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well.  For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?

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Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.

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Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.

All materials adapted from Trio Writing by Alice Savage and Colin Ward, Oxford University Press

An earlier version of this article first appeared on englishendeavors.org.  If you’d like to read more ideas for the English language classroom, click here.


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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 3: Reading and Handwriting

Close up of pen on paperIn the last of his series of posts on teaching in Libya, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses how his students progressed in reading and writing.

If you missed them, read Jon’s previous posts about teaching The Alphabet and Spelling.

At some point in the process, we introduced cursive i.e. ‘joined up’ writing. This was largely to satisfy the pressure put on us by our students who considered words formed from individual letters rather infantile. Again, there were important considerations here as we had to demonstrate carefully how the preceding letter joined the one that followed. Letter ‘a’ for instance always joins up from the bottom, while letter ‘o’ joins up from the top. I remember how some ingenious students would print the word in separate letters and then add the lines to join them up!

You might wonder what else went on in these lessons. Only about a third was dedicated to the business of writing. The rest of the time was spent on beginner’s oral English. Of course this was made more difficult for students as they could not have a written record of what they had been taught.

Many teachers, myself included, allowed them to transliterate; that is, render in Arabic script an approximation of what they had heard in English. Fortunately for us, Arab learners of English are used to rote learning and have superb memories. Their oral English was well ahead of their reading and writing. Oral work previewed what would be read and written later, so teachers had to be extremely vigilant about their choice of structure and vocabulary and grade their language with care and precision. This discipline has stayed with me.

As the terms progressed we spent a lot of time exploiting graded readers and getting students reading aloud. I can hear the ‘tut tuts’ of some readers – ‘Reading aloud! How retrograde, whatever next?” But for us, it was an absolutely necessity that the students proved that they could see the correspondence between the printed letters on the page and how the words that they formed were actually said. We had a well-equipped library of graded readers that were used as class sets. They were too precious to lend out.

To return to the opening sentences of this series, teaching script and spelling to my Libyan learners is high up on the list of the most interesting and challenging things I have done in my teaching career. As a teacher I learned to have a great deal of respect for the efforts of my students, even if to most eyes they would appear ill-formed and juvenile. I realized that they were the result of a commitment and perseverance which few people, myself included, are capable of.

What have been some of your most interesting and challenging teaching moments? I’d love to hear them!

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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling

Pre-teens at a spelling beeIn this second post, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses the peculiarities and difficulties of teaching English spelling to students in Libya.

If you missed it, read Jon’s first post about teaching The Alphabet.

After we had taught the letters, it was time to start creating short words and introducing students to spelling.

Vowels were a particular challenge – while vowel sounds may be shown in Arabic using marks similar to accents, Arabic largely has no need to mark the vowel, as the order of consonants is enough to transmit meaning.

Clearly the first task was to lend a value to each of the vowels, so ‘a’ became / æ / as in cat; and o / ɒ / as in dog and so on.  Words were set out on flash cards and taught alongside visual images. Many words can be built phonically and students would get tremendously excited when they managed to decipher what was written on the board. Eventually we moved onto writing full sentences of language that had been introduced far earlier. For instance: ‘Hello, my name is Ali’ and so on.

When people talk about the difficulties of English spelling they often cite rare words like plough and all the different sounds that the combination of letters –ough can make. (Think of ‘enough’, ‘through’, ‘though’ and so on.) Believe me, the problems are much more basic than this! We had to start with far more basic concepts.

One of the early tasks was to introduce and teach the simplest digraphs – one sound from two letters – such as –sh for / ʃ /, –ch for / tʃ / and –er for / ə(r) /. We covered wh– for wh– questions very early on. Later on we showed how the final ‘e’ in a word could sometimes make the preceding vowel take on its full alphabetic value (think of ‘Tim’ / ɪ / and ‘time’ / aɪ /). The multitude of ways of realizing the same sound was another area that students always found perplexing. The long / iː / could be represented be as in ‘be’; –ee as in ‘see’; –ea as in ‘please’, and so on.

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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 1: The Alphabet

Writing the alphabetIn the first of a three part series, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, shares his most challenging experience as a teacher: teaching English to beginner students in Libya.

If asked to name the most challenging thing I have done as a teacher I would probably say that it was teaching the Roman script, handwriting and basic English spelling to absolute beginners during my time in Libya. While most of us have taught beginners (usually not real beginners) at some point in our teaching careers, real out-and-out adult beginners are a rarer breed. Teaching students who have no notion of the Roman script also adds a further challenge.

Nearly all our students were males between 18 and 45. Many worked in the souk (market), and a few even had problems reading Arabic. Many fell by the wayside after a couple of courses, but those who persevered have my unswerving and unconditional admiration. They came to school three times a week for a one hour lesson. Most never missed a session. Their sheer enthusiasm and commitment was infectious and motivating for anyone who came into contact with them.

So how did our school go about teaching these students? I make no claims to the programme, as it had been devised over a number of years by previous teachers and directors of studies, notably Sue and Jeff Mohamed and Jane Alexander. Drawing on their experience of teaching primary children, their knowledge of Arabic and the demands of a beginner’s structurally graded syllabus, they created a methodology that was a cocktail of different elements. I would not claim that this methodology had all the answers, but it certainly provided an excellent point of departure and impressive results.

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