ESL Students’ Writing in English – Part 2

ESL Students’ Writing in English – Part 2

by Kendall Schuldt

One Student’s Writing Journey

One high school student who entered the U.S. recently had no background in English and hadn’t been in school for over two years. I found as she adjusted to her new setting in the U.S., she felt pressured to use English. She insisted she write only in English for my class which resulted in very little writing and a lot of frustration. She knew what she wanted to say, but it took so long to translate in her head that she often lost focus or ran out of time to finish an assignment.

After several attempts in English resulting in little writing, I finally convinced the student to start by writing in her first language (L1), Spanish. The results were not surprising. When she wrote in Spanish about her home, she could write in detail; she was focused and much more productive than when she wrote in English. Once she had finished her writing, I had her explain it as best she could in English since I don’t speak or read Spanish. She explained it to me, and I made notes about certain errors I wanted her to focus on when she rewrote the paper in English. For example, I began by asking her to focus on capitalizing “I” and using correct personal pronouns. Then I sent her back to her desk to rewrite the piece in English, applying what we had talked about to her writing. She didn’t use a translator, so if she didn’t know the word in English, she left it in Spanish. I would introduce those words when we conferenced a second time. Once again, the results showed improvement from her previous attempts at writing in English. She wrote just as much as she did when she was only writing in Spanish. She was so proud of her work, she asked if she could take it home to show her father.

As time went on, she continued to use this process in her writing assignments. I began to change her writing task from descriptive pieces about her home and family to narratives about her life and argumentative pieces about her opinions on different issues we read about in our class and in her content area classes. For example, she wrote about who George Washington was after we discussed the Revolutionary War in U.S. History, and she wrote about growing plants in biology and the process that her class went through in doing so. Her writing in English continues to improve, and she is meeting content area standards in her language arts class. The process of switching between her L1 and L2, or code-switching, with a teacher conference to help her apply new vocabulary and English skills has improved her confidence as well as her productivity and focus while writing.

Considerations for Implementing L1 Writing in the Classroom

In order to help students meet the rigorous standards placed on them in schools today, teachers must allow students to use the skills they have readily available to them.

1. First and foremost is the students’ first languages.
The focus of teachers should be on the standards and whether or not students have the skills to meet them in any language. The students’ English will develop as they are surrounded by it every day in school; teachers should make sure there is a focus on academic skills regardless of which language is used to show those skills.

2. Don’t get caught up in whether or not teachers can read or understand a student’s first language.
Allowing a student to use their L1 requires the teacher to give up an element of control, but it can result in better writing and understanding for the student. Ask a foreign language teacher to help, or use a translator to check work to ensure that students are on topic and have the knowledge to meet content area standards. If teachers are able to conference with students, they can help them apply some English writing skills to their L1 writing and begin to translate or transition their writing to English.

3. It might not work for everyone.
As educators apply this process, it is important to remember that like any other strategy, it might not work for everyone and not all students will progress at the same rate. Students will need at least some level of literacy in their first language. This doesn’t mean that students have to be completely literate, just that they have some level of writing ability. If students can write in a way that helps them to clarify their ideas, this process can be applied to them.

In conclusion, teachers can encourage their students’ progress by ensuring that they make the best use of the skills students walk into school with. Students’ L1 is an excellent tool for developing literacy in English. When talking to one of my students about her writing progress in class, she said she prefered writing in her first language and then English. “I think it is better for me. I can write in Spanish, like I think, and then not be thinking ‘how to say this in English?’ I can just write and then think about English.”

Editor’s Note: Part 1 in this series introduced the reasons behind using student’s L1 as a scaffold for developing their English writing skills.

Kendall Schuldt has taught ESL at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa for four years. Her students have won awards in the MIDTESOL Best K12 Essay contest for the past three 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 where she will continue teaching ESL.

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