4 Reasons to Choose Writing Workshop for ELLs

Over the years, I’ve consistently heard many of my students’ parents admit with inordinate amounts of shame that they don’t know English, that they desperately want their child to learn it, and how they’re ready to do whatever it takes to hear their child speak it fluently. It is now abundantly clear to me that English is not just the language of opportunity in urban India. It is also the language of high status, respectability, and freedom. It is a ticket out of generational poverty and a disenfranchised life. This is especially and viscerally true for the first generation English Language Learners (ELLs) I’ve had the privilege to teach for over 8 years. For them, English literacy is not just empowerment, but also hope: a possibility of a bearable, productive future. 

This truth stares in the face of English teachers of ELLs every day as we try to get on with the daily grind of teaching: the lesson planning, the grading, the myriad other uncertainties and ambiguities, and the highs and lows of our profession. And, for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to choose curriculum and pedagogy, the freedom comes with great responsibility: to ensure that the ELLs under our care don’t end up getting the short end of the stick yet again.

While I’d be the last person to claim that a particular pedagogy or curriculum is the answer, in this post, I make an attempt to share the benefits of choosing the writing workshop for many of my middle school ELLs.

Before I begin, though, here are a few important things to know about my workshop classroom to put things in perspective:

The ELLs in my middle school classroom who have thrived in the writing workshop classroom almost always: 

  • are fairly fluent in spoken English (with errors consistent with the influence of the home language) 
  • have a CEFR proficiency of B2 or higher 
  • have a vocabulary size of 8000 or higher 
  • can spell and read no lower than a year or two below grade level 
  • don’t have any additional learning difficulties or disabilities

My mini lessons and conferences are tailor-made to suit my learners’ needs. They are not directly taken or slightly modified versions of units planned for non-ELLs. My class also features practices necessary for ELLs that may not strictly adhere to the ethos of the writing workshop. 

In case you teach ELLs whose low levels of language proficiency present a significant barrier in the workshop classroom, ensuring that they have access to additional support in the form of explicit language teaching is necessary. Note that the older the student, the more pressing is the need for such support. We must always remember that it is not enough for the student to thrive in our class. They must be equipped enough to thrive even in the next grade. 

4 REASONS TO CHOOSE WRITING WORKSHOP FOR ELLs

In the hands of a skilled teacher with empathy and knowledge of language learning, the writing workshop can facilitate:

  1. Differentiation

Your pedagogy shapes you as much as you shape it. Unbeknownst to me, the writing workshop has taught me the truest form of differentiation: the ability to see, respond to, and honor each student to be the unique, wonderful, and complicated learners they are. And, this has had the greatest impact for the ELLs I teach. 

Most differentiation PDs train our minds to stop reading the class and our excel sheet tracker as a homogeneous entity. They teach us to see patterns and groups of students. More often than not, I’ve seen this translate to action as follows: See 5 clumps of students instead of 1. It is obvious that ELLs are among the easiest to be clumped together as one group despite the fact that each of them are universes in their own right. 

The copious amounts of independent writing time and the 1-1 nature of writing conferences can provide the ideal conditions for the teacher to unclump ELLs from their group and their label, to see them for who they are and how much they know. 

Time and again, writing conferences have reinforced for me the fact that no two students are the same. I now think twice before I give the same advice to 2 ELLs when one of whom is struggling in her home language too, while the other writes shayari1 in hers. 

Needless to say, the flexibility offered by the writing workshop makes it arguably easier to cater to the needs of non-ELLs who can move as fast as they can/need to without waiting around when I’m trying to teach basic verb conjugation to my ELLs. 

2. Intellectual Challenge 

Much like older readers with difficulties in reading are bored reading stories/books at their “level,” older writers with difficulties in sentence structure and low vocabulary sizes are not usually sufficiently intellectually stimulated with “writing exercises” that teach them the basics. 

Topic choice, predictable chunks of time for writing, conferences with a teacher invested in their growth, and peers dabbling with a varied array of topics together create an environment where the ELLs can bring their true intellectual “level” to the fore as opposed to being restrained by the writing prompt given by a textbook/teacher. 

It is important to note here that teaching the basics of English syntax and semantics in a writing workshop would mean major changes to how the writing workshop is taught and which genres, and consequently which mini lessons, are included. And since ELLs will need more opportunities to practice difficult language concepts like subject verb agreement and collocations, the workshop must accommodate such practice. 

With the necessary support and practice opportunities in place, I have seen my middle school ELLs thrive on the intellectual challenge offered by the workshop environment. What I appreciate most in this regard is the fact that the teacher is not required to rack their brain to challenge students and keep them engaged. The pedagogy does it for you while you can focus on the teaching of language and writing. 

3. Student Voice through Choice 

Unfortunately, more often than not, empowerment through choice is reserved only for mainstream students. It is easy to inadvertently take away choice from students who need it the most: ELLs in many cases. 

For one, choice in the writing workshop loudly and unambiguously states that you believe the ELL has something worthwhile to say even though they may be groping in the dark for the right words to say it. With choice, the groping is no longer just for the sake of learning a language they are poor at (while being oppressed by it, with the hope of eventually getting empowered by it.) It is now with “authority and purpose: to write with passion about what they know and care about, for reasons they believe in.” (Atwell XVII)

Choice has allowed my middle school ELLs to wrestle with complex issues in their lives through writing: from how reading allows them to escape an oppressive home to the chaos and internal turmoil when they realize they might have a crush on their teacher

When the teacher avoids cognitive overload with the right kind of planning and scaffolding, it is possible to create a writing workshop classroom where the ELL can find (and learn) those words. 

If finding the words that seem to be stuck in your throat is not finding your voice, then what is?  

4. Community  

Community in a classroom is like the mental health and emotional stability of one’s parents. Its importance becomes apparent only when it doesn’t exist. Bell Hooks says that “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” (Hooks 8) I’d like to go a step further and say: excitement aside, any robust learning cannot happen in a room full of insecure, bickering teenagers who are ever ready to bring each other down. 

Interestingly enough, I’ve hardly seen authentic community building through the countless community building activities that purport to do so. It’s akin to assuming that the dysfunctionality in a family can be fixed by going on a family trip to Disney World. A community of learners must connect in a genuine and honest manner about and around their learning. Painting a wall together does very little if one holds deep seated resentment against the student next to them about their grades. 

My experience in challenging classrooms has shown me continually that a sure shot way for a community to emerge in a classroom is when its members see, acknowledge, and honor each other despite their differences while supporting each other to learn and grow. In an ELL writing classroom, this would mean that 

  • a student who is fluent in English is able to share mutual respect with a student who cannot yet write correct sentences. 
  • When a student writes something beautiful, another student is moved by it and is happy to say that she is moved by it, despite the fact that she can’t write like that. 
  • When S1 needs help with, say, conclusions, she will choose a peer conference with S2 who is good at writing resonant conclusions irrespective of whether S2 is in her “group.” 
  • A student who has written a piece in Hindi is able to read her work aloud to the class without fear of judgement 
  • Students are able to go beyond the initial niceties and acceptable yet cliched peer feedback, engage a 100% in their peer’s writing, and give the necessary tough feedback because that’s what they owe each other. 
  • Students are able to recognize their own and their peers’ growth on a day to day basis even though the ELLs in class may be behind benchmarks for the grade. 

In all my years of striving to build an academic community, I’ve been the most successful when I used the writing workshop. Come to think of it, these are also the years when I did the least amount of work to build community. As I engaged in teaching and learning writing with my students, the classes I taught grew into safe spaces on their own. Not only did I not have to address hard issues like stolen books before tests, but also never had to think about community till the last day of the school year when my students and I knew that a wonderful time together was coming to an end. 

What are your WHYs for choosing writing workshop? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

Stay tuned for my upcoming posts for writing workshop with ELLs. I hope to cover teacher readiness, student readiness, planning, lessons, conferences and assessments. 

– Aishwarya 

Notes

1 shayari refers to poetry in Urdu/Hindi on nuanced and sophisticated themes that hold deep understandings and philosophical musings about life. It is a cultural tradition and an artistic movement while remaining heartwarmingly personal at the same time. 

Bibliography

  • Nancie, Atwell. Lessons that Change Writers. Heinemann, 2002.
  • Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

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