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Friday / December 15

Moving From Speaking to Writing with ELLs


ELLsThe Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement requires teachers to shift their instructional practices in several significant ways, which in turn necessitates practice and intentionality. Some of these key shifts include embedding language development across the curriculum; an increase in oral language and multiple opportunities for speaking and listening; and an emphasis on collaboration, inquiry, and teamwork. In this way, the new speaking and listening demands of the CCSS require ELLs, who are oftentimes invisible and silent in classrooms, to participate in “academic discussions in one-on-one, small group, and whole-class settings.”

For ELLs, academic oral language is a scaffold for writing. When ELLs are allowed to speak before they write, they write much more effectively, as oral language becomes a mental outline for the writing process. For example, academic language stems (“I believe that…” or “I agree with the author because…”) used during academic oral language practice can then be transferred into writing (see figure below) as ELLs internalize syntactically appropriate responses. Additionally, when paired with more proficient partners, ELLs can benefit from a language model who can use more sophisticated vocabulary and complex grammatical structures. When oral language is archived on the Think-Pair-Share graphic organizer, it can then be applied as a foundation for longer writing selections, such as a summary of a story in the example below. In this way, oral language practice can be used strategically to write more extensive selections.

Question (Open-ended) What I think (Speaking) What my partner thought (Listening) What we thought (Consensus)
What happened at the beginning of the story? What happened at the beginning of the story was . . .    
What happened in the middle of the story? What happened in the middle of the story was . . .    
What happened at the end of the story? What happened at the end of the story was . . .    

Once ELLs have had ample academic oral language development practice that scaffolds shorter writing selections, more complex writing genres should be introduced, using the following Curriculum Cycle (Gibbons, 2002).  The four steps to the cycle include introducing:

  • A specific purpose for writing—explicitly stating the purpose and reason for the writing assignment; connecting the writing to real-world application (e.g., scientists and historians write in this style).
  • A particular overall structure for writing—providing a clear description of the organization of the writing genre. If there is an organizational pattern, making that clear to students (e.g., for argu­mentation, presenting an argument and anticipating/addressing counterarguments).
  • Connectives—introducing the specific transition words associated with the particular writing genre (e.g., for procedural writing, the use of enumeration).
  • Specific linguistic features—providing students with the gram­matical tense that they should be writing in, as well the specialized vocabulary associated with the writing style (e.g., narrative writing selections can include dialogue).

Once each of the four areas in the Curriculum Cycle (2002) are taught, the teacher can jointly construct a writing selection with the class, before having students independently write their own pieces. This allows the Curriculum Cycle (Gibbons, 2002) to connect to Key CCSS ELA Practice 2: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience (CCSS, 2013).

What do you think? How do you tackle the Common Core as an ELL teacher?

Ivannia Soto

Dr. Ivannia Soto is Associate Professor of Education at Whittier College, where she specializes in second language acquisition. She began her career in LAUSD, where she taught students who either were or had been ELLs. Soto has written three book for Corwin Press—The Literacy Gaps: Building Bridges for ELLs and SELs, ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change, and From Spoken to Written Language with ELLs—which together tell the story of systemic reform for ELLs.

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