You Can’t Write What You Can’t Say!

This blog post was updated in January 2019.

Rethinking Traditional Approaches to Writing Instruction for Academic English Learners

College and career readiness standards and assessments focus heavily on the mature comprehension of text, with related evidence-based academic interaction and constructed written response. To craft a thoughtful response to a text-dependent question, students from grade 3 and beyond understandably struggle to write in a way they don’t customarily speak. 

While no child speaks academic English as a first language, young scholars from well-resourced households typically approach formal presentation and writing tasks with a stronger linguistic toolkit than English learners and reticent readers from under-resourced families. Schools serving students with profound English vocabulary and syntax gaps must reasonably make every effort to provide reading intervention support as early and intensively as possible. However, schools striving to offer daily doses of reading fluency and comprehension development often do not have an informed and cohesive tandem initiative to bolster academic writing confidence and competence.

The nationwide poor writing performance on high-stakes assessments for English learners and peers from socio-economically challenged communities strongly suggests we rethink the traditional writing instruction we offer our most vulnerable students. English learners and struggling readers in grades 3–12 need informed, interactive, and systematic instruction across the curriculum that addresses their academic English language and rhetorical voids.

Providing Coaching and Explicit Linguistic Support to Close the Academic Writing Gap

Rather than spending abundant class time silently journaling, completing graphic organizers, or receiving misinformation from peer editors, neophyte writers need every teacher to serve as the over-the-shoulder writing coach their parents cannot generally be. All too frequently, the bulk of instructional time within a unit of study is devoted to reading and discussing the focal narrative or informational text. While teacher-led discussions and collaborative interactions may help academic English learners gain basic access to text, they do not equip these youths with the topic-focused word bank or high-utility academic vocabulary necessary to effectively verbalize their thoughts on paper. Copying content off the board onto a graphic organizer may serve as an idea generator, but again, it fails to provide the linguistic mortar a fledgling writer needs to convey understandings in academic register.

The college readiness instructional shift toward more informative, opinion-based, and argumentative assignments places underprepared writers at an even greater disadvantage. Beyond primary grades, every major writing type required within English language arts coursework requires a command of distinctly different academic prose. 

Take, for example, junior argumentation in upper-elementary and middle school coursework. Students who approach grade 4 writing demands fresh from primary coursework and a steady diet of narrative reading and personal response tasks are ill-equipped to articulate and support claims using a more formal register. Linguistic features of argumentative prose include strong opinion verb phrases such as firmly believe or strongly support and appropriate transitions to introduce reasons and evidence rather than the simple sequencing verbs—first, next, then, finally—children deployed in stories and personal narratives. Expressing one’s opinion in academic register also requires precise topic-focused vocabulary beyond words potentially provided in the related text, and high-utility words like several, including, or relevant.

Preparing academic English learners for formal writing assignments requires serious rethinking of the traditional writing process approach: brainstorming, drafting, peer feedback, revising. At every writing stage, these youths deserve planned and explicit linguistic support.

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Blog contributor Dr. Kate Kinsella is an author for HMH's READ 180 Universal and English 3D intervention programs. READ 180 is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration.