This article on teaching academic essays was original published on Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo on April 22, 2017.


Britton says, “Reading ‘floats on a sea of talk’” (1970, p.164). Before ELs write, start with talk.

If we want ELLs to use formal language in their essays, we can start by giving them opportunities to talk and refine their ideas before committing them to writing.  I structure these talking opportunities as five distinct phases of modeling writing.

At each phase, we ask ELLs to talk about their ideas through mini-presentations, giving them opportunities to develop not only their formal register, but also their argumentative analyses.

Phase 1: Setting a Context

For demonstrative purposes, let’s pretend I want ELLs to write an argumentative essay about the benefits of using smartphones in school to aid instruction.  First, students work in groups to list all of the ways smartphones are useful outside of school.  Then, groups can compare their answers to find commonalities and new insights.

The informal presentation between groups begins to raise the register of students’ language by having them compose a prepared statement to exchange with others.

Phase 2: Deconstructing a Mentor Text

I guide students through the reading of news article explaining how one school integrates smartphones. Next, I prompt the ELLs to focus on how the author is presenting ideas.  Does the author use data, stories, examples, or analogies, etc. to communicate them? I direct students to explore this question by assigning each group the task of deconstructing a specific paragraph.

Then students jigsaw their analysis with other groups.  Engaging this way helps ELs formulate more ideas that they can use later when they write independently.

Phase 3: Teacher-Guided Construction

It’s still too soon to release ELs to write independently, so I support them through a teacher-guided construction of text.  First, we need ideas.  I ask ELLs to work in pairs and list the reasons that support the use of smartphones in school.  We take one of their justifications, and I model writing the paragraph.  

As I am crafting the sentences, I invite the ELs to contribute ideas to help formulate the wording and organization of the text. This is an opportunity for them to try out their own arguments using formal, academic language and receive immediate feedback from the teacher.

Phase 4: Pair Construction

Now that they have seen me model the writing decisions, they are familiar with the process.  ELs are now empowered to construct a paragraph with a partner to explain another justification.  These social interactions act as an additional scaffold in preparing students to develop an independent argument for the assigned essay.

Phase 5: Independent Construction

Now that ELs have had multiple occasions to use formal language aloud with fellow students and teachers in order to internalize how writers make writing decisions, they are prepared to attempt formal writing on their own.

Throughout this process, ELLs engage in various opportunities to organize their ideas into informal presentations, which can share the same formal register as written ideas. When students speak out loud, it prepares them to compose on paper by practicing both their formal register and their argumentative constructions with the class first.

Furthermore, when teachers model the writing decisions, the process becomes visible.  When literacy is made visible, ELs are no longer lost in fog of abstract expectations. Instead, their paths on the journey of writing are illuminated.


Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.