Preventing ELLs’ Failure in Writing Workshop

Although “many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another,” the foundational design of the writing workshop has the power and potential to acknowledge and facilitate that elusive learning for our ELLs. (Rilke 7)

But, of course, there are no silver bullets. We must understand:

  • what the writing workshop can do, and more importantly, what it cannot 
  • what are indicators to show that our lessons cater to the needs of our ELLs and what are not
  • what are indicators to show that we, teachers, are equipped to teach ELLs using this method, and more importantly, what are not, and
  • what kind of school environments can house writing workshop classrooms successfully, and more importantly, what kinds cannot

Unless we seek to understand these nuances, we could create long-term damage, which might wrongly end up maligning the practice itself. 

What could go wrong

Every mini-lesson we teach assumes a prerequisite proficiency. Unless the ELLs in our classes have reached that level of proficiency, they will not be able to succeed in applying the lesson. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard to tell if an ELL is struggling just by the daily interactions and what they write. A few reasons for this are: 

  1. ELLs may be able to understand many craft lessons in the writing workshop classroom at a theoretical level but require a high proficiency in English to be able to attempt the craft moves in their own piece. For example, it is not very difficult to convince an ELL that varying sentence lengths make for good writing. But if they don’t have a strong grasp of the English sentence structure, how will they actually do it when they sit down to write? 
  2. ELLs need extensive practice to master certain aspects of the language like verb conjugation. Editing conferences alone don’t provide that kind of practice. Even if the student understands the grammar concept in an editing conference/mini-lesson, they will still keep repeating the error due to lack of practice. 
  3. An unfortunate consequence of choice in the writing workshop is that many ELLs attempt only the topics and sentence types they can tackle in English. Of course, this makes sense. I find that I think and express more sophisticated thoughts in Kannada and English, languages I am more proficient in. When I attempt to speak Marathi, a language I am still learning, I come across as someone with less intelligence and articulation abilities. Many times, I’ve been fooled by correctness in ELLs’ writing only to discover when it’s too late that they are unable to articulate at all in subjects like History. 

The cognitive overloads arising from “assumed prerequisites and apparent inadequate readiness”1 can lead to multiple damaging consequences such as ELLs feeling lesser about themselves. This is especially probable if you’re a good teacher who manages to create a class that celebrates writing. Unable to perform, they may feel left out and lose confidence. The worst damage we can do to a learner is to strip them of the belief that they can learn. The more the shame, the more they’ll play games of hide and seek: withhold information about what they don’t understand and what they’re unable to do. I have had students who have resorted to plagiarism, given up, shut down, or exploded. 

Worse yet are the students who don’t know that they’re not writing at grade level. The safety of the writing workshop can sometimes provide illusions of being “on track” to success in high school, whereas in actuality, they are not. Once they reach high school, it’s hard to even imagine what a sudden experience of failure can do to them. To make matters worse, the older the student gets, the intervention opportunities and success rates worsen. 

Questions that may help assess the suitability of our instruction to our ELLs

  1. Where do the students go, and what exams must they write with you, or after they leave you? Are they on track to succeed in those contexts given where they are now? 
  2. How many ELLs in your class will flourish (succeed in English academically without any hindrance) in the next grade, or the next exam they write, assuming that nothing in your instruction changes till the end of the year? 
  3. What data have you collected/can you collect to answer question 2? 
  4. What is the average proficiency that your lessons assume? (consider the application of the lesson, not just understanding) 
  5. How many of your ELLs demonstrate the proficiency you answered in question 4? 
  6. How is your ELLs’ writing in subjects like history? 

Depending on your context, I suggest that you sit down with these questions before planning your year. You may not have all the answers, to begin with. Or, you may be left with more questions, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you have started to see the persons behind the ELL labels. The answers will soon follow. You could then revisit these questions each trimester to track your progress. 

Possible next steps 

Asking these questions has helped me identify students who may need extra support and bring them to the attention of the school before it’s too late. A large part of the possible next steps may depend on the school ecosystem, resources available, and the school authorities’ understanding of ELLs. Nevertheless, the data you collect can help you to 

  1. Modify lessons to accommodate ELLs 
  2. Modify the curriculum expectations for ELLs and ensure better alignment with their upcoming exams 
  3. Include explicit instruction of syntax as part of the workshop 
  4. Provide extra practice opportunities for ELLs who need them 
  5. Collaborate with their History (or other content) teachers to understand the syntax demands in content area subjects
  6. Advocate for extra support for them in the form of explicit instruction from a teacher who knows how the language works
  7. Educate them and their parents about what lies ahead and what they must learn in addition to what’s taught in class to succeed in future 

It is crucial to always remember that the lives of ELLs are starkly different from the lives of other students in the class, and perhaps more starkly different from our own lives. Unless we learn about and understand who we serve and what is at stake for them, we run the risk of deciding what’s right for them. Unfortunately, more often than not, such decisions end up being wrong. 

Multiple harsh but necessary realizations have led me to believe that we should not end up becoming another oppressive entity in their lives owing to our rigid beliefs about the teaching of language. They already have enough of those. In the words of my teacher, Radha Ramaswamy, “One of the burdens of privilege is the outsider’s perspective.” The sooner we recognize that the fewer failures our ELLs will have to endure. 

What questions help you gauge readiness in your ELLs?

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

– Aishwarya 

Notes

  1. From Donna McKenna’s comment below
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Book Virtual Digital Edition, 1993.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I think it’s important to shift teacher perspectives around why they need to use the information you provide here. “The cognitive overloads arising from inadequate readiness…” — any assumed prerequisites create a situation where students’ readiness appears inadequate. Often teachers select lessons based on generalized skill goals, craft or genre choices, and not based on the students. Before making curricular or instructional decisions, teachers need to spend time getting to know their students so they avoid making decisions that can result in an overwhelming cognitive load. We need to start with the kids and differentiate forward, rather than backwards from the curriculum. This is not in conflict with backwards planning, but a student-driven variance.

    1. Hi Donna,
      Thank you for your valuable comment. I completely agree with you, except you said it way better than me. I have changed the sentence to “assumed prerequisites and apparent inadequate readiness” and have mentioned your name in the references. I hope that’s okay. Let me know otherwise.

      I couldn’t agree more on the point of starting where the students are and differentiaing forward.

      Aishwarya

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