Smiling teacher working with young student.

Lori Stark May 20, 2021

Strategies for English Learners: Supporting Elementary Students with Writing

Lori Stark

BetterLesson Master Teacher

This blog is the third in a series that highlights the work of the “Meeting the Needs of All Learners” Master Teacher Project. Each author is an experienced educator from the Kansas City area with deep expertise in differentiation and working with students with disabilities and English Learners. Learn more about the project.

Writing can be challenging for all young learners, but it can be especially difficult for English learners. The writing process is quite complex. First, we must organize our ideas in our minds and compose a coherent sentence. Then the idea must be written down, sounding out words and processing through tricky spellings. This part of the process can cause the most frustration for students, as their idea suddenly becomes jumbled in their head just as they’re trying to write.

This was certainly the case for one of my first-grade students named Miguel, an English learner. Anytime there was a writing task in his mainstream class or with me in the English Learners room, he would get very frustrated and upset. My heart broke for him as I could see how painful this was for him.

All of that changed when I began using the “Think It, Say It, Write It” strategy.

Think It, Say It, Write It: A Scaffold for Composing Text

In this strategy, the teacher asks the student to think about what they might like to say in response to a writing prompt (“Think It”). The student is then invited to share their sentence orally (“Say It”). The teacher assists the student by keeping track of the student’s words and provides a sentence frame. Depending on the level of need, the teacher can either supply some words and blanks or just blanks for the student to write in. The teacher can prompt the student as they write. For example, “You said…Can you write that word here?” (“Write It”).

I knew Miguel could become a successful writer because he already had good phonological awareness and could successfully blend and read words with common spelling patterns. By building on this strong base of phonics and using the “Think It, Say It, Write It” strategy, many struggling young writers can be successful.

Provide An Authentic Writing Purpose

This strategy is especially useful when students have the opportunity to write for authentic purposes. Students enjoy writing for real-world purposes, such as in this strategy that utilizes Newsela Articles as Mentor Texts. For any new or beginner English learners, consider the Newcomer Photo Book, which not only encourages authentic writing but also promotes reading fluency.

Even young and struggling writers like Miguel enjoyed writing when they knew it was for authentic purposes. In particular, we worked on writing restaurant reviews in my first-grade ELL group. This was a fun and engaging way for Miguel and his classmates to hone their writing skills. By integrating the “Think It, Say It, Write It” strategy into our real-world writing, Miguel learned that he really did enjoy writing.

Offer Feedback AND Celebration

As students gain confidence in their writing skills and begin to write more independently, they can benefit from timely and constructive feedback. Try this writing conference strategy to help students strengthen their writing skills. Additionally, don’t forget to create opportunities for students to celebrate their great writing! Some ideas to accomplish this include Celebration BoardPersonal Narrative Celebration, and Party Down.

When Miguel finished his review of a popular local restaurant, he couldn’t wait to share this writing piece with his peers and other teachers. Getting positive feedback on his writing served to bolster his confidence even more. Miguel was even more excited to see his finished piece displayed in the hallway right alongside the papers of his classmates.

The Reward: Students Who Love Writing!

Through the use of scaffolds and strategies, Miguel became a successful writer. He even began to look forward to our writing class. Additionally, he truly enjoyed sharing his writing with peers, family members, and other teachers. Miguel’s transformation into a successful writer is positive proof that the “Think It, Say It, Write It” strategy works.

There is nothing more satisfying as a teacher than seeing your students succeed. By recognizing their needs and finding supports and scaffolds to address those needs we are setting our students up for success. This success and newfound confidence have the potential to carry over into new endeavors as they progress through subsequent grade levels and life.

Find more strategies within our English Learners focus area.

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