English Learners

Writing Strategies for ELL Students

6 Min Read
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Teaching Writing to English Language Learners

English language learners bring a wealth of strengths to the classroom but encounter distinct difficulties in developing writing skills in English. Studies show that ELL students perceived cognitive and linguistic deficiencies and sociocultural differences as challenges when learning to write in English.

Therefore, teaching writing to English language learners requires direct instruction on topics like grammar, syntax, and vocabulary but also calls for consideration of students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds to make connections between languages.

Navigating through this unique set of challenges can be overwhelming for both ELL students and teachers. How can teachers equip ELL students with the skills to be confident and capable writers? Consider the following writing strategies for English language learners.

A note on language: we employ the common phrases multilingual learner and English language learner, along with the acronym ELL, but we also recognize that this is imperfect nomenclature. Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label.

How to Help ELL Students with Writing

Multilingual students are expected to master the English language by first forming sentences, then penning paragraphs, and, eventually, writing complete essays and reports. Students need support in maneuvering through and understanding the writing process as they learn English. The following strategies will help you guide students through the writing process, so they can develop the skills to plan, draft, and revise their English writing.

Prewriting Stage

The prewriting stage is the perfect time to scaffold writing for ELLs and create cross-cultural connections. Because this stage involves generating and mapping ideas, students may require additional guidance. During the prewriting stage, review students’ background knowledge, build on students’ vocabulary, and brainstorm with the following strategies.

  • Talk before Writing

    Before putting thoughts to paper, engage students in a discussion to talk through their ideas. Talking can also help students put words and phrases together as well as activate prior knowledge. Multilingual learners can then draw from their experiences to connect to the writing topic at hand.

  • Generate a Word Bank

    As a class, brainstorm vocabulary words that could be useful for your next writing assignment. From there, create a word bank that students can use and display it in your classroom. Consider adding drawings and pictures next to the words to further help ELL students. Students can also write the word bank in their writing journals to refer to in the future.

  • Use Graphic Organizers

    Graphic organizers are great tools to help ELL students map out their thinking for a writing project. A graphic organizer like the sandwich chart guides students in writing an essay that has three key details and a concluding sentence. A flow chart helps students sequence a story from beginning to end. Model how to use a graphic organizer and meet with ELL students in a small group to review the process.

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  • Model Writing

    Seeing how to write before jumping into a writing assignment is beneficial for all students and even more so for multilingual learners. Consider modeling to expose students to specific writing styles, like narrative or persuasive, as well as demonstrate the writing thought process. Write a piece using age-appropriate language, share your thinking aloud, and read the model writing to students. Then display the model writing so students can refer to it later.

  • Incorporate Dialogue Journals

    Make writing practice meaningful and interactive with dialogue journals. Through dialogue journals, students get to have regular written conversations with their teacher or peers. This student-centered approach creates an authentic way for students to build writing fluency and letter writing skills. Plus, it allows ELL students to build relationships with their teachers and classmates. As for teachers, dialogue journals serve as a great way to assess students’ progress and provide direct feedback and praise.

Drafting Stage

ELLs come into the classroom at varying language levels, so writing will look different for every student. It’s important to differentiate writing assignments for English language learners during the drafting stage.

  • Have Students Label Pictures

    In the early stages of literacy and language development, ELLs will need additional support in building their vocabulary. Picture labeling provides students with visual representations and allows them to gain familiarity with vocabulary words.

  • Use Journals as Drafting Tools

    With journals, students don’t need to worry about adhering to strict writing guidelines. They can jot down thoughts in their primary language, use new vocabulary, and explore different types of writing. Therefore, journals are great for drafting. Encourage students to free write in their journals, and later, have them look through entries to select a draft they want to polish.

  • Use Sentence and Paragraph Frames

    ELL students may have a limited vocabulary and knowledge of the English language, preventing them from stringing words together to form a sentence or paragraph. Plus, sentence structure varies from language to language, so ELL students can benefit from strong guidance and scaffolding to construct clear and grammatical English sentences. Sentence and paragraph frames are great tools to scaffold writing during the drafting stage. Sentence frames provide students with a framework to build a sentence using English grammar. Sentence frames can also be used to teach comprehension skills like cause and effect, for example, “If _______, then _______.” Paragraph frames provide students with transitional words to piece together a strong paragraph. Display paragraph and sentence frames around the classroom for students to use.

Revising and Editing Stages

Multilingual learners may feel self-conscious when having their writing reviewed. Incorporate technological tools and a collaborative review process to help students feel more at ease.

  • Implement Peer Review

    Peer review is a great way for ELL students to reflect on key writing skills and improve their writing proficiency. During the peer review process, students receive and provide clear, constructive feedback. Both the reviewer and the reviewee benefit from the process, as the reviewee learns how to improve their writing and the reviewer builds awareness of the writing process. For multilingual students, peer review is especially helpful as they practice listening to, reading, and writing English. Model the peer review process with students and give students a guideline on how to provide specific feedback.

  • Leverage Technology

    After a peer review, ELL students may get caught up in misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Consider using assistive technology to ease any possible editing anxiety. Assistive technology, like word prediction and spell-check, helps students come up with words to complete a sentence and flag misspellings or errors. Tools like digital dictionaries allow students to easily look up a word’s meaning and pronunciation to build spelling, speaking, and vocabulary skills.

When teaching writing, remember to meet students where they are and create a classroom culture where students feel encouraged to explore writing.


Set multilingual learners on an accelerated path to writing proficiency with English 3D, our dedicated ELD curriculum.

Guide all students in Grades 3-12 through the writing process with Writable.

Download our free guide to using response frames with multilingual learners.

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