Considerations for Teaching Conventions to ELLs

Teaching conventions seems to be the most straightforward part of teaching English. Learning conventions, though, doesn’t come easy, especially to ELLs. 

I recommend that you consider the four ideas that follow if your ELLs are repeatedly getting conventions wrong even after you’ve taught them. 

1. Embrace Accountability for Adequate Lessons

  • A) “I taught this, and they’re still getting it wrong!” 
    • “They aren’t trying hard enough!”
    • “They’re not paying attention!”
    • “They’re not practicing at home!” 
    • “They don’t want to learn!” . . . . . (you get the drift) 
  • B) “I taught this, and they are still getting it wrong. Why?” 

The attitude shift from (A) to (B) is an indispensable milestone in teaching. Ross Greene’s mantra, “Kids do well if they can,” is beneficial here. Once we shut out voices that continually blame students’ unwillingness to learn, we will be able to dispassionately examine their actual abilities. While students’ ability is a consequence of multiple factors, it is useful to consider whether our lesson(s) was adequate in the first place. The constant observation and scrutiny of our lessons lead to better lessons and better learning opportunities for students. 

While this attitude shift serves us well in general, it is significant for conventions in English, an area that is a constant source for embarrassment and frustration in ELLs and teachers, respectively. 

2. Ensure Complete Lessons 

The Writing Workshop addresses conventions in conferences and mini-lessons, both of which are need-based. I’ve seen this often misinterpreted as “one conference” or “one mini-lesson.” Hence, lessons that are required before and after what’s taught get missed out. 

The before lessons build the foundation of prerequisite knowledge without which students’ learning has no place to anchor. The after lessons establish the boundaries of the newly acquired knowledge without which students may misapply what they’ve learned.  Incomplete, one-off lessons are a disservice to ELLs who don’t have the foundation of spoken English and rely almost entirely on our lessons to learn the language. 

For example, let’s look at Subject Verb Agreement, a difficult concept for many Indian ELLs. With the constraint of having to teach it in under 20 minutes as a single mini-lesson, here’s what is typically covered in a middle-school classroom: 

  • In English, subjects and verbs must agree with each other. 
  • Singular subjects take singular verbs. 
  • Plural subjects take plural verbs. 
  • About ten examples 

Here are a few knowledge/skill areas that serve as prior knowledge to correctly and completely learn the above lesson. 

  1. Parts of speech: at least nouns and verbs 
  2. Singular and plural nouns 
  3. Compound subject
  4. Noun phrases 
  5. Verb conjugation 
  6. Verb phrases 
  7. Phrasal verbs
  8. Compound verbs 
  9. Modal verbs
  10. Infinitives 
  11. Sentences in the passive voice 
  12. Singular and plural verbs 

To make matters worse, if teacher-made examples don’t have the features in the above list, the student may feel successful during the lesson but will encounter all of the above and more in her reading or her own writing. The most dangerous outcome of this oversight is that students may begin to doubt their ability to learn English because, in their eyes, they’re unable to apply what was taught, something that seemed to make complete sense to them during the lesson. 

We must make no assumptions about ELLs’ prior knowledge and skills before teaching to target a convention error. It’s equally essential to ensure completeness in what’s taught. For this, recommend using a reference grammar book written for ELLs such as the Brighter Grammar series.

3. Provide Sufficient Opportunities for Practice  

One of the writing workshop’s biggest strengths is that it enables learning and practice of conventions in a meaningful and personal context. I am yet to encounter a stronger reason among students to learn a convention than, “I need to know it to make my piece better.” As powerful as this idea is, it is not enough for ELLs. They require more opportunities to practice and master conventions other than mini-lessons and working on their own pieces. 

Mini-lessons may turn out to be too short a time for enough practice with enough kinds of examples. Student writing must aim to serve the topic at hand, not the practice of conventions, and rightly so. Hence, there is no guarantee that the students will encounter enough opportunities for mastery of the conventions just with their own writing. 

When isolated practice with a range of thoughtfully created examples is coupled with practice on their own writing, we increase the odds of learning for ELLs. It is crucial, however, to note that isolated practice must be engaging and challenging. Worksheets assigned for homework hardly guarantee learning. I recommend allotting class time for practice. The practice can be a combination of teacher-led and student-led activities. When my students struggled with verb conjugation, I allocated 15 minutes every Friday for them to work in groups to memorize the verb conjugation table like the one below. Three weeks later, over 95% of the students were on track to remember the table. 

4. Teach Proofreading 

Consider the cognitive demands on an ELL in a Writing Workshop classroom. They are learning a language, trying to express complex ideas they care about, and trying to write correctly. It is evident that something has to give. I find that students are usually able to do a maximum of two of the three at a time.

When students choose to let go of correctness while writing, teaching them to proofread might be a simple yet effective solution. Nancie Atwell’s Individual Proofreading List and Editing Checksheet are foolproof ideas to teach students to pay attention to conventions as a separate and vital activity. Please note that the actual entries in the proofreading list may look very different for ELLs. Here’s the contrast of the entry for capitalization in Atwell’s classroom with an entry from mine: 

Image Source: Page 146, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell

Once proofreading becomes part of the classroom’s DNA, students begin to explore the issues of correctness in their writing on their own. Even otherwise, just by virtue of habit, proofreading reduces the number of convention errors in student writing. 

What practices have helped you to teach conventions to your ELLs? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at

– Aishwarya

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