Over the past few months, I’ve published several series of guest posts from teachers of English Language Learners: one on teaching math, another on ELLs and Special Needs, and the most recent one on teaching Science to ELLs. I also published a mini-series on evaluating foreign transcripts.

I’ve recently begun a series on teaching Social Studies to ELLs.

And, I’m simultaneously publishing a series on teaching writing to ELLs.

This first post in the series was by Julie Motta: Guest Post: How to Scaffold the RACE Writing Strategy for Newcomer English Learners

Today’s post is by Alycia Owen…


Alycia is an international educator, instructional coach, and EAL specialist who has implemented the co-teaching model in math, science, and language arts. She has provided professional development for schools in the US and abroad and has been a workshop presenter at NESA, AASSA, and EARCOS international teachers’ conferences. She currently lives in China where she is Head of Department for EAL, offers consultation for teachers, and develops professional learning opportunities at the American International School of Guangzhou. Connect on Twitter @alycia_owen


For over three decades I’ve had the good fortune to teach in self-contained elementary classrooms, secondary content area classes, sheltered English, and to offer instructional coaching. Among the things I love most about teaching is helping students gain proficiency as writers, especially those who are new to English. Whether it’s the joy on the face of the newcomer who produces a piece of text for the first time, or the more experienced student who works diligently to publish academic writing on par with his native speaking peers, the thrill is real, for me as much as for them. But how do these moments happen? What works?

While I don’t have a magic formula, I’ve identified key moves and strategies that teachers of any subject can put in place now that will help your ELLs pull together the complex set of skills that lead to great writing. Little or no additional preparation is required. In my case, these moves take place in classrooms where individual conferences with students are the norm. It’s useful to consider them in terms of what happens before, during, and after the writing takes place.


Know your learner. We all know we should and we’re routinely admonished to do so, but we may underestimate the significance of getting to know our students when it comes to being their writing teacher. Writing, whether narrative or expository, requires authors to dig into their hearts and minds and express what’s there to a wider world. If we know our students well and have insights into what’s important to them, it allows us to have rich conversations during writing conferences that move beyond superficial discussions of the mechanics of writing and toward the intentional decisions authors make. Everything from organization to word choice to sentence structure, as ways to create experiences for an audience, can be discussed. This also allows us to do a better job building background before students dive into a writing task.

We can build on what they already know and choose materials and activities to expand their understanding of an idea or topic prior to writing, such as video clips, articles, or stories. Inevitably, and importantly, the conversations during writing conferences lead to “the plan.” How will the author structure the piece and move from one idea to the next? For very new ELLs writing at the single-sentence level, the plan may be in the form of a think-aloud in which the teacher models how the parts of the sentence fit together and generates these ideas with the student. Ready-made graphic organizers are great for these pre-writing conferences, but don’t be afraid to let students develop their own writing maps in conversation with you. You might be surprised at the creative ideas they have about how they want their ideas to flow and what they want their audience to experience. If their speaking skills are developing, a writing map may be illustrated or combine pictures and words.


This section might also be called Always because I find myself revisiting these strategies again and again throughout the year. They are in no particular order; they’re simply my favorite go-to activities that foster growth in developing writers.

Word Banks – Display words used most often in a place that students can readily refer to.

Sentence Frames – Provide the basic structure and common sentence patterns students will need.

JOT – This acronym stands for Just One Thing. Model just one thing to focus on for revisions that day and have students JOT in pairs, fixing only those specific errors as they revise. One day, it might be making sure all sentences begin with a capital letter. Another day, students might go on a hunt for sentence fragments.

Break it Down, Build it Up – Enlarge a piece of text, then cut it into pieces. Students collaborate to put the text back together into its original form. This is a great way to raise awareness about idea development, organization, and how authors transition from one idea to another.

Read Aloud/Think Aloud – Read to your students daily, no matter what their age. This gives them a chance to hear what good writing sounds like, but also creates opportunities to think together about the author’s choices and discuss how they impact the audience.

Co-create – When students always write in isolation, they’re missing out on valuable learning time with peers. Give them opportunities to work with a partner or in teams to produce a piece of text. As they negotiate what to write, they’ll invariably go down the path of talking about the whys of writing in a particular way or how to convey an idea.

Keep it Flowing – This is a translanguaging strategy I’ve developed to prevent writer’s block. When a student feels stuck, there are two choices: 1) Write the word/idea in another language, then keep moving forward in English. We go back later during conferences to learn those words in English. Or, 2) Write a question mark and keep going. Again, we meet later to find the needed words but don’t let the lack of vocabulary interfere with writing fluency.


Whether students have practiced how to write a great thesis statement or just completed a hefty research project, create frequent opportunities for young authors to read their work aloud. The routine of inviting the writer’s voice sends some powerful messages: Your writing has an audience. Your writing affects the audience. Your work putting words together to create meaning is valued in our classroom. When read-alouds are finished, reflect upon and celebrate each other’s accomplishments, too, and publicly acknowledge improvements. For example, “You all did such a great job using transition words and phrases today! Fantastic!”  

This brings me back to joy. The looks on their faces, whether age 7 or 17, when they know their hard work has paid off and they’ve achieved success, is priceless.  I look forward to celebrating the next writing milestone with my students and hope that you have lots to celebrate in your classroom, as well.