STUDENTS WRITE THEIR WAY TO LEARNING ENGLISH

(Full Text)

Sheryl Lain, Laramie County School District #1, Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA

Teaser: All students, especially those learning English, benefit from regular writing time, the first principle of the writing process.  They also make gains when they have specific positive comments and teaching points.  This article shares student writing to demonstrates student improvement.  When students feel the power of their own voice, they feel welcome in Frank Smith’s ‘literacy club.’

Key Words: writing, learning English

 

Teachers have learned so much about teaching writing since the writing process movement of the 1970s.  Pioneer teachers such as Donald Graves, who established a writing process lab in 1976 (1994), and James Gray, who started the National Writing Project in 1974 (The Voice, 2006), revolutionized how writing is taught today.  Their work is especially helpful to students who are learning English.

            Graves and Gray advance three ideas to support ELL teachers:  use a writing process, start with the macro when teaching conventions, and use the Six Traits of Writing, a practical teaching and assessment tool developed in the 1980’s  that dovetails with the writing process (Northwest Regional Educational Lab, 2003).  The following essay will explicate these three ideas as well as offer student samples and a Six Trait writing rubric.

Premise #1:  Teaching the writing process

            The writing process, Graves says, ensures that students of all ages and backgrounds will gain competency in written language.  Students who are learning English must have routine writing time; they must feel they own their writing topics; they must share their writing products with others including teachers, peers and a wider audience; and they must belong to a writing community (Graves, 1994).        

            The writing process is best taught during a writing workshop, a regular time when students practice their own writing, moving from jots to rough drafts to pieces they revise and edit.  During the workshop, they apply the teacher’s short lesson.  Then students write while the teacher both writes herself and confers individually with students at work. They share their writing with their writing group, usually reading a portion aloud, and they learn from one another’s positive and specific comments, improving their pieces before publishing to a wider audience.

            The before and after pieces below demonstrate the power of regular writing time of at least 20 minutes a day when students write about topics they care about.  The author was a second grader who came to school in first grade speaking little English.  The first piece above was written at the beginning of his second grade, while the second was written after a year in writing workshop.  These were on-demand writings, meaning the pieces were not yet revised and edited.  However, they clearly reveal control over English as well as improved fluency when students are in writing workshop. 

 

Premise #2:  To accelerate learning English conventions, write.

            Javiar’s teacher adhered to the notion that students need to write regularly using a writing process.  The first order of business for writers is to chase the idea, putting pencil to paper.  This concept is especially important for teachers of ELL students, for we teachers can barely control our urge to correct conventions.  Correcting happens later.  Julia Cameron (p. 48) names the urge to fix every little thing “lint picking, focusing on the small imperfections rather than on the greater glory of the whole” (p. 48).  Instead of having students memorize rules of the language before they put pen to paper, writing workshop students write first and then apply the corrections when they edit.

            As a writer himself, Donald Graves knew the importance of micro-level skills including grammar, spelling, and usage.  However, he believed that during the writing workshop, students begin with the macro–writing their ideas down in essays, poems or stories.  Later, students tackle skills more enthusiastically as they revise and edit.

            Of course, students new to English must learn grammar.  For instance, they need to know a horde of nouns and understand how these nouns work in English sentences.  However, just as new speakers need to talk in English, likewise they need to write, haltingly at first, correcting conventions later.  Sometimes to gain fluency, the teacher might ask a beginning ELL student to write her piece in her native language, then translate the words to English.  Some English language learners lack literacy in their first language; therefore, the teacher might transcribe their oral pieces–helping students work on ideas first.

            To further develop their students’ ideas, teachers might annotate students’ pieces, showing them where to add details.  The following are before and after pieces written by an eleventh grader learning English.  His piece doubled in length from 150 to 335 words.  This student gained sufficient competency in English to pass the junior college entrance exam.  He realized his dream of playing college baseball.

Premise #3:  The Six Traits of Writing supports the writing process.

            For several decades writing process teachers have benefited from a tool developed by Northwest Regional Educational Lab known as the Six Traits of Writing (2003).  Created to help teach and assess writing, the Six Traits model helps students understand the components of writing:  ideas, voice, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions.  When students understand the components of writing, they can better improve their writing.  For example, one of the traits is word choice which encourages ELL students to broaden their vocabulary.  Another is sentence fluency which teaches writers to compose sentences adhering to English syntax.  Finally, all students including ELLs become more fluent when they write down their ideas first ,working on conventions last.  The trait called idea teaches students to flesh out their ideas demonstrated by the student samples above. The Six Traits tool helps all kids crack the code about what makes writing work.

            The Six Traits not only clarifies writing but also dovetails with the writing process.  When tackling a writing project, the writer first snags her idea.  Then, feeling strongly her purpose and envisioning her audience, she writes the first draft.  This business of feeling and picturing creates voice.  After drafting, the author revises–changing, adding or deleting.  After the draft is word processed, the author pays close attention to her organization.  She makes sensible paragraph breaks, rearranging sentences so the writing is more logical.  She might have someone read this draft, suggesting ways to make it clearer, asking questions, and pointing out what works.  This step is called revision, still the idea stage. Next, the author tightens up word choice and sentence fluency.  She reads it out loud to see if the sentences are choppy or rambling or robotic.  Finally, she focuses intently on conventions, fixing every little thing and asking others to proofread, including peers and the teacher.  After the final fix-up, the author is ready for the piece to be enjoyed by her audience.   

            This tool had such as impact on language arts classroom teachers who witnessed firsthand student improvement that it became the rubric for my state writing test.  Though neither writing process nor the Six Traits tool is new, what is novel for many ELL teachers is the idea that the Six Traits dovetails with writing process, emphasizing the idea stage and saving issues of correctness until later. This is especially important for ELL students as they learn, as the students above did, about fleshing out their writing.  Writing more means learning more English for Ells and non-ELLs alike.

            Table I below is a brief example of a Six Traits rubric that supports teaching and assessing writing.

Table

 

4

Exceeds in all categories

3

Shows appropriate use

2

Shows growth but not there yet

1

Shows little or no evidence

Idea

 

●      uses worthy ideas, the maturity level and depth of supporting detail improve as students mature

 

 

Organization

 

●      uses paragraphs to show movement of thoughts

●      uses some transition words

●      uses catchy lead and solid conclusion

 

 

Voice

 

●      shows interest in subject

●      uses metaphor

●      uses concrete words

●      uses vivid verbs

●      uses other signs of enlivening the writing (dialogue, rhyme, personification)

 

 

Sentence

 

●      uses variety of sentence length

●      uses variety of sentence beginnings

●      sentences flow and make sense when read aloud

 

 

Word

 

●      shows appropriate vocabulary development

●      uses occasional word play or zinger words

 

 

Conventions

 

●      spells most words correctly

      after editing

●      uses pretty accurate conventions (capitalizing, end marks, commas, quotation marks) after editing

●      uses legible handwriting

 

 

 

Conclusion

            All students, especially those who are learning English, benefit from regular writing practice using the writing process.  When students write frequently, when they write initial drafts free of concern about issues of correctness, when they write about subjects they care about, when they understand the traits of writing–all of this helps students gain fluency and feel the power of their own writing voice.  This is what we want:  to welcome all our students into the literacy club (Smith, 1987).

Author Bio

Veteran secondary English education teacher, director of the Wyoming Writing Project, language arts curriculum director, state level instructional leader, international speaker for Bureau of Education Research and author of numerous published articles, chapters, poems, Sheryl Lain is the author of A Poem for Every Student, a book about building classroom community.  

References

Cameron, J. (1992).  The artist’s way.  NY:  Putnam.

Culham, R. (2003). Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.  6 + 1 traits of writing. NY: Scholastic.

Graves, D.H. (1994). A fresh look at writing.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

National Writing Project Staff. (2006).  “James Gray, education reformer.”  The Voice, Vol. 11. No. 1.

Smith, F. (1987).  Joining the literacy club.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.