ESL Students’ Writing in English – Part 1

ESL Students’ Writing in English – Part 1

by Kendall Schuldt

Throughout the United States, the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the public school system is on a sharp incline. As of the 2014-2015 school year, there were 4.6 million ELLs attending public school in the U.S. (National Center for Education Statistics). As these students enter the U.S. school system, it is crucial educators prepare themselves to meet students’ needs. Students struggle to comprehend brand new content and then respond to it in writing in English. How can teachers better support these students in their attempts to express their thoughts, feelings, and understandings of grade level content?

One support teachers can offer students is one that they have before instruction even begins: their first language or L1. A student’s L1 is a strong support, specifically when it comes to expressing ideas and understanding content. Allowing students to use their L1 as a scaffold in the development of proficient writing in English is one way to support and differentiate for these students. In her book, Writing Between Languages: How English Language Learners Make the Transition to Fluency, Danling Fu (2009) observed, “When English language learners write in English they are thinking in a limited or less fluent language, which results in thought blocks” (p. 13). Allowing students to write in the language they naturally think and process information in can lead to a clearer thought process and therefore better writing.

Of course the goal is for students to achieve proficient or even fluent writing in English. However, that doesn’t mean students can’t begin drafting a writing piece in their L1 and slowly apply their knowledge of English to what they have already drafted. As students’ English comprehension increases, the amount of time spent drafting in their L1 will decrease. This method of writing can allow students to transition into their second language while still maintaining their first language literacy. The process mirrors the transition native speakers of English go through when transferring their oral skills to writing which suggests this could align with the natural progression of students’ learning of a second language or L2.

A Classroom Example

Over the last three years as an ESL teacher, I have worked with 9th-12th grade students from many different countries with varying levels of English proficiency. All of them have some level of literacy in their L1. While many of my students come into my classroom already having some literacy skills in English, there are a few who are complete newcomers to the U.S. It is with those students that I have found their L1 to be a great asset.

In order to help my ELLs develop their writing skills, I begin having them write in their L1 and then conference with me, applying their knowledge of English and gradually transitioning to less and less of the L1. The process begins with students writing completely in their first language, then drafting their writing again in English focusing on specific skills. Eventually the students write more in English and less in their first language. It might be a long process, but so far it has been very effective.

Editor’s Note: Part 2 will focus on how this technique helped a specific student improve her writing in English.


Fu, Danling. (2009). Writing between languages: How English Language Learners make the transition to fluency, grades 4-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast facts: English Language Learners. Retrieved from

Kendall Schuldt has taught ESL at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa for the past four years. Her students have won awards in the MIDTESOL Best K12 Essay contest for the past 3 years. She received her Master’s in Literacy Education from Drake University in 2016. Her undergraduate degree is from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in English Language Arts. This fall, she will fulfill a lifelong dream by moving to Seattle, WA to teach ESL.

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