- Why is writing important for ELs?
- How can teachers support ELs in developing writing fluency?
The goal is to share a quick strategy to informally develop ELs’ writing skills. This practice also simultaneously supports critical thinking.
Research suggests that writing is a powerful instructional tool because it helps students internalize concepts (Deshler et. al., 2007; Abell, 1992). Writing requires that students “[p]ay closer attention to details, organize data more logically, and structure the arguments in a more coherent way” (Kober, 1993, p. 45).
This kind of cognitive work strengthens critical thinking. Writing is not just a skill to be mastered or tested, but it should be recognized as an essential tool to foster learning (Rivard, 1994). Writing is especially beneficial for students with developing academic skills because writing reveals the areas of inaccurate understanding that teachers can address (Mason et. al., 2009; Green, Smith, & Brown, 2007). Writing is also a tool to develop understanding for students while simultaneously serving as a formative assessment for teachers.
A Cross-Content Skill
Because writing encourages learning and can be assessed easily, all teachers, regardless of their content area, can tap into that potential to enhance learning and foster critical thinking. In my experience, however, content teachers who are frustrated with an EL’s developing writing skill will make comments such as, “Why can’t you just teach them how to write a lab report, and then bring them back” or “I don’t have time to teach report writing.”
The area-specific teachers who say this sometimes forget that:
1) every content area benefits from students having established writing skill,
2) communicating understanding in any field is inhibited by underdeveloped writing skills,
3) each content area has its own technical writing and
4) students perform better on standardized assessments when they have been explicitly taught academic language, such as writing specific to that field (Short, Echevarria, & Richards-Tutor, 2011).
Sharing the Responsibility
The strategies I’ll be sharing over the next 4 posts in our Visible Literacy series will not directly help ELs in a science class write lab reports or produce analytical essays in art. Content educators are still required to explicitly teach the language of their discourse, but we, as language specialists, are charged with modeling the process.
I consider writing an “invisible task” because it occurs mainly in our minds. Idea generating, organizing them, crafting sentences into paragraphs, revising, and editing are all decisions made in the mind and are only see when written text is produced. This week’s strategy, Quick Writing, will develop the writing fluency and familiarity necessary to complete more extensive academic works.
Mistake # 1- No Writing Time
In Kelly Gallagher’s book, Teaching Adolescent Writers (2006), he suggests that teachers often neglect to have their students write, and write often. I, too, did not make my students write very frequently; there would be weeks when students did not create texts because I focused on reading. I failed to realize how reading and writing are interconnected. I waited until the tail end of a unit to introduce writing, and when it came time to compose, students struggled to sustain their writing stamina. The infrequency of composing made it feel like too daunting of a task.
Mistake # 2 – Overloading the Cart
I made writing seem like this massive task with many factors to consider: organization, sentence structure, grammar, mechanics, voice, tone, brainstorming, creating, editing, revision and the list goes on.
This seemingly momentous task turned students away from writing before they even began. In truth, thinking about teaching all these elements of writing scared me. I didn’t teach what “scared” me.
Like many teachers, these are not the only mistakes I made; I committed many more, which I will include in the next few posts as they are more relevant to those topics.
How I Teach Now: Quick Writes (QW)
In March of 2016, I attended and presented at the English Language Specialist in Asia Conference (ELLSA) in Bangkok, Thailand where Elly Tobin was the keynote speaker. She held a workshop there entitled “Managing a Multilingual Classroom: Every Teacher is a Language Teacher,”in which she taught the Quick Write (QW) strategy (2016).
A QW is “brief written response to a question or probe” that requires students to quickly explain, comment, or reflect on an assigned topic (Green, Smith, & Brown, 2007; Nunan, 2003; Shen, n.d.).
I ask students to not worry about the things they are traditionally concerned about when writing for summative purposes such as grammar, mechanics, or sentence structure.
The brief nature of a QW frees ELs of these constraints and invites them to use writing as a tool to reflect and think. Thinking is messy, and writing that aids thinking is allowed to be messy too. Students are expected to refine these elements of writing for summative assessments but not during these informal experiences.
This is Jake’s QW from the video. Notice he is trying to show the sequence of events and the relationship between the characters.
I encourage educators to see formal writing assignments as Olympic swimming events. The athletes are able to compete at this advanced competition because they had frequent exposure to swimming in low-stress experiences when they were younger.
Beginning swimmers use aids such as foam noodles, paddle boards, and an array of floating devices. Their initial free swim readies them for learning more advanced swimming skills. QWs are like paddle boards for EL students: the informal exposure to writing and thinking prepares them for more challenging future tasks.
The Benefits of QWs
There are many benefits of quick writing. ELs become clear thinkers when given space to sort out their thoughts. They internalize content when given the extra processing time. This brief period to breathe, gather their thoughts, and synthesize information is critical to ELs who naturally need more time to think than their native English-speaking peers. Thereby, QWs both support critical thinking and foster communication skills (Kober, 1993), both of which are essential to academic achievement.
Most importantly, QWs cultivate writing fluency because it’s used frequently (Ward, 2013). ELs slowly develop a familiarity with writing because they engage in it more frequently; producing text is no longer a daunting task. The more we practice something, the less scary it seems. ELs also shift their definition of “writing practice” with QWs. Traditionally, their experience was in the form of composing high-stress, extended texts like essays and reports.
In contrast, QWs offer low-stress, shortened practice experiences that are much more manageable to produce. ELs who are at the Entering and Emerging phases of English development feel less stressed by composing text because QWs demand only brief, controlled written responses. QWs help ELs perceive writing as, “A non-threatening and informal opportunity for students to express their thoughts” (Shen, n.d.; Fisher & Frey, 2008).
QWs and “Visible Writing”
I understand some readers might be thinking, “Wait. how do QWs connect to the concept of making writing ‘visible’?” In truth, the Visible Literacy philosophy is to explicitly teach academic literacy skills, but QWs is just about using writing to process and think. QWs don’t seem to align with Visible Literacy.
Because writing is such a cognitively demanding task, QWs make writing more familiar and comfortable for students. It’s similar to the Olympic swimmer analogy. QWs help build the “writing muscle” and develop stamina for composing text. Therefore, it is essential to helping ELs cultivate academic writing skills later on.
QWs & Content Classes
Because no content area owns either thinking or writing, QWs can be used in all disciplines (Fisher & Frey, 2008) to process information, internalize concepts, develop critical thinking, and cultivate communication skills. Content teachers are free to use QWs at the beginning, middle, or end of the class (Mason, Benedek-Wood, & Valasa, 2009) – whenever they feel a need for ELs to stop, think, and process information.
Quick Writing in My Class
QWs can be done digitally on laptops, mobile devices; physically on scraps of paper or sticky notes. As my ELs spend a significant amount of time working in front of screens, I have my students QW in their English notebook to give their eyes a break. Interestingly, their minds seemed to be more engaged, and they produce much more thoughtful ideas when Quick Writing in the notebooks than on their laptops.
I run a vocabulary program with my ELs to teach them the most frequent words used in academic language (I’ll post about it in more detail in a few weeks). First, I present a situation that uses the vocabulary word. For example, I would ask students, “What factor do you have to think about before buying a car?” Then I ask students to do a QW to internalize the word “factor” by completing a sentence starter such as, “A factor I have to think about is…” Using QWs this way enables ELs to engage with the vocabulary word and build context around the word.
There’s no formality to it – no table of contents, no dividers, no page numbers. I just ask them to write the date every time they QW so that we gather formative data about their writing progression and thinking skills. Here is an example of a student’s QW in her English notebook. On the same page, you will see a QW completed after Free Reading followed by a QW to internalize the vocabulary word “indicate”. This page represents three days of using QWs.
I use a collaborative discussion method called the Harkness Discussion to help students develop critical thinking and speaking skills. Usually, after viewing the stimulus, we start the discussion with student-generated questions. At times, I will switch up the routine and start with a QW where students reflect on the stimulus quietly through writing.
Then they share their reflections in pairs or small groups without reading the responses. This momentary pause allows them to gather their thoughts before speaking to the group (Mason, Benedek-Wood, & Valasa, 2009; University Writing Council, 2011). Because QWs are quite flexible, I might have students QW about the ideas shared during a discussion if it was particularly thoughtful.
When to Use QWs
When used at the beginning of class, QWs can connect prior knowledge to new concepts (Cleland, Rillero, & Zambo, 2003). For example, when introducing my “Heroes” Unit to my 10th graders, I asked them to describe a time they observed when someone did something heroic, in real life or in the media. The QW was served as an introduction into the unit by asking students to connect their experiences to the concept.
I use QWs in the middle of class to have students process new information. For example, when my 7th graders use Visible Reading to comprehend Patricia McCormicks’ Sold, I ask them to QW about their thoughts on the events that we read in the past few pages. This lets them organize the events and synthesize new details about the characters.
I often use QWs at the end of class to help ELs process a skill that we have been working to cultivate. For example, I might ask my 6th graders to QW to describe how they used reading strategies in today’s lesson. When a student quick writes about a specific process, it helps them form internalized skills that are transferable to other disciplines.
It encourages ELs to form new insights, reflect on the problems they have experienced, and evaluate how they dealt with those challenges (Literacy & Learning, n.d.). Using QWs to process a skill is one of the most powerful uses of QWs because it builds ELs’ awareness of learning. When students think meta-cognitively, they fully take part in their own learning instead of having learning be imposed upon them.
Things to Consider: Sharing QWs
There are multiple options when considering sharing QWs. Students can share with a partner, in small groups, just with the teacher, or with the whole class.
It’s important to let students share their thinking orally with others because it further develops their cognitive skills produces deeper insights. Partner and small-group sharing experiences build ELs’ confidence in speaking with the larger group .
I advise against grading QWs because it goes counter to the informal nature of a QW where students are free to make mistakes without incurring a penalty. The purpose of a QW is to allow students to casually express their thinking in writing.
Teachers can still use the data from QWs to inform their instruction, however, so it can still serve as a formative assessment.
I remember the tremendous pressure the standardized assessments produced when I worked in publics school in New Orleans and Philadelphia. This pressure caused teachers to cover only content and leave less time to process information and internalize skills.
QWs might offer an alternative by encouraging educators to invite their students to pause and think through writing. This pausing allows ELs to synthesize and internalize content needed for the assessment. Therefore, QWs help students retain content that are assessed on standardized tests. When I want my ELs to retain an important idea, I let it sink in through the QW.
There are various other strategies that facilitate writing daily and across disciplines. You can find seven specific strategies shared by Jennifer Gonzales from the Cult of Pedagogy. Many educators appreciate her resources because she offers practical advice to solve permanent education issues. She specifically mentioned using sentence stems, which I have provided several on my Bathroom Briefs posters #6 -8.
1). QWs are opportunities for ELs to informally express their ideas in writing.
2). QWs develop communication skills, foster critical thinking and serve as formative assessments.
3). Quick writing is a flexible structure that can be used in all disciplines.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope that it inspires you to use Quick Writes in your class to facilitate the processing of information, to reflect on learning, and to cultivate writing fluency.
Next week’s article we’ll continue the theme of making writing visible to ELs. I will share a process of deconstructing the writing prompt with ELs to empower them to understand what the prompt is expecting. This approach is mainly about modeling the process for students so that they have skills needed to write independently.
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