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 Ciera Walker…


Ciera Walker is a fifth-year systemwide ELL teacher for Blount County Schools in East Tennessee.


When I began teaching, I noticed students really struggled with writing; they didn’t enjoy it or understand its purpose. They lacked essential skills and fundamental knowledge of the writing process but were expected to engage in writing tasks on grade level. They wrote only because their teachers told them to. It was clear to me that my students had significant content knowledge, but were lacking in confidence and unable to write independently. I wanted to find a way to get my students excited about writing, so I focused on setting clear, rigorous, and achievable expectations that would help my students to better internalize the steps involved in the writing process. The idea of “Black Belt Writing” was then born out of a desire to not only provide my students with opportunities to succeed in writing, but to bolster their confidence by creating a way they could visualize and track their success.

The idea for “Black Belt Writing” was also influenced by the work of educational research focused on student growth and achievement.  Inspired by Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset research, I wanted to create a classroom culture built around authentic conversations about growth in an environment of encouragement and community. I find that my students want to help and encourage one another when they are working on writing tasks and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. John Hattie’s Visible Learning research, particularly related to the positive impact of feedback on student achievement, was equally influential.

I set up “Black Belt Writing” by laminating sheets of construction paper and stapling them to a bulletin board in a three-by-three grid.  Each color represents a different writing (or “belt”) level, and corresponds to increasingly difficult expectations on the WIDA writing rubrics. A folder corresponds with each level and contains “can-do” statements that show the students what they need to do in order to move to the next “belt.” Students are free to reference the descriptors in the folders as needed, and soon begin to self regulate as they work towards the next level. Students take a “belt test” once a month where they are given a prompt and they write independently to try to get to the next level. After students complete their “belt test,” I schedule a conference with them. We use the folder that corresponds with their level as well as the folder from the next level as a rubric to assess their writing. When my kindergarten through fifth grade students advance to the next level, we have a “belt ceremony” where the students receive a “belt” in the color of their level. The students love to celebrate their accomplishments as a class, but their confidence is bolstered as they share their success with their other classmates and general education teachers as well.

The board also provides my students with a visual of their growth and progress. At the beginning of the school year, I take a photograph of my kindergarten through fifth grade students, which they move on the board as they progress. My sixth through eighth grade students chose to use notecards with their names instead of pictures.  

“Black Belt Writing” has not only become a tool that my students love, but also a tool that has helped me to grow as an educator. The levels (“belts”) provide data that I can use to plan differentiated lessons, group students, and create appropriate individualized writing instruction. The levels also enhance my feedback by making it more specific, targeted, and aligned with success criteria.  Additionally, the “can-do” statements are available as a guide as students write. As students begin progressing through the levels they gain a sense of ownership in their writing and they begin to show confidence and enthusiasm. They become eager to learn how to improve and enjoy looking back on earlier writings in their journals to compare their progress. As their progress becomes visual, my students become better, more confident “Black Belt Writers.”