Scaffolding Writing Instruction for English-Language Learners

Step by step!

In recent years, many schools have raised the bar on writing instruction. We now expect middle and high school students to do the kind of written analysis and critique that was once limited to the college classroom.

When you teach English-language learners (ELLs), the concern is that this kind of increased expectation can lead to an even wider achievement gap. That’s why we recently asked educators in our WeAreTeachers Helpline group to share their best tips for scaffolding writing instruction for ELLs at the secondary level. Here’s what they had to say:

  1. Consider writing in their native languages: If your students are at “entering” or “beginning” WIDA levels, you might consider allowing them to write in their native languages and then to use a translator app or tool to interpret their work. Be sure to spend some time comparing the two versions side by side so that students can begin to see what their ideas and thought processes look like in English.
  2. Use dictation: “I have students use Dragon Dictation to dictate their responses out loud,” says teacher Erin M. “Then I work with the students to teach them to group topics together into paragraphs and to use a dictionary and thesaurus to add detail words.”
  3. Review writing prompts: “I give ELL students the same writing assignments as the rest of the kids, but I make sure to define any unfamiliar words in the prompt itself,” says Emily B. Do a verbal check for understanding before students start writing to avoid confusion and frustration down the road.
  4. Give students sentence stems: It’s a good idea to give students sentence stems and phrases for the different types of writing you will be doing all year long. So provide a narrative-writing word bank, an argumentative word bank and an informational word bank, for example.
  5. Encourage outlining: If writing full sentences is a challenge, encourage outlining as a first step. “I had a student who couldn’t write a paragraph in 11th grade,” says Lauren P. “So I gave him the same assignments but had him bullet-point his ideas. We then worked one-on-one to form sentences. We started with just one well-developed paragraph, but as the year progressed, he’d write a little more.”
  6. Provide models from literature: “For example,” says Erin. M., “if we were writing a reflective piece, I would show them paragraphs or selections from favorite books or articles that were reflective to use as examples for structure and even word use.”
  7. Try the four-square writing method: In this model, students simply divide a piece of paper into four sections to use as a graphic organizer for persuasive or informational writing. They write their topic/argument at the center and then one reason or claim with supporting details in each of the four boxes. As students progress, you can encourage them to add more details and evidence to their graphic organizers.
  8. Grade selectively: Choose one or two skills that you want to target for each writing assignment, and focus the majority of your grading and commentary on those skills. For English-language learners, sometimes those skills might be about language acquisition (e.g., vocabulary, syntax), and other times, you might want to focus on a deeper understanding of writing (e.g., argument building).

8 Ways to Scaffold Writing Instruction