A Writing Lesson that Works

A Writing Lesson that “works” for English Language Learners:  Finding their voice

By Debbie Arechiga

A writer goes through a remarkable journey in their lifetime.  Writing begins with the earliest forms of written representation whether it is scribbles, marks, or partially formed pictures, and over time, progresses to eloquently written prose.  Composing text is one of the more cognitively demanding tasks required of our students.  The task involves cognitive, physical, linguistic and content skills.  Yet, at the same time, the writer has to consider the audience and purpose of communication. The spoken word is often fleeting and is always in a state of revision; we repeat, rehearse, change thoughts quickly, self-correct often without conscious attention, use the same words over and over, use words incorrectly often without knowing, and the list could go on!  Yet, the written word is permanent in that it represents a writer’s thought at a certain moment in time.  Certainly, a writer can make changes but in the early stages, the effort of going from thoughts to forming a word and then a complete thought takes so much energy that changing the form is not a reasonable expectation.  So what does all of this mean for how we approach writing instruction with our English Language Learners?

  1. If learning to speak a new language is a trial and error process then learning to write in that new language will evolve in much the same way.
  2. Commit to the process:  Celebrate the writer’s attempts and encourage every step of the way.  In other words, teach the writer, not the writing!
  3. Believe that the writer is capable of performing the writing task through your actions and words.  Demonstration is the most powerful tool for learning something new!

As a literacy consultant I am blessed with the opportunity to demonstrate lessons in teachers’ classrooms.  I want to share a writing lesson that I have taught with great success in classrooms where students haven’t yet found their voices as writers. So many of our students find writing a daunting task especially when trying to overcome the “writing as you speak” stage of writing.  To learn the craft and feel comfortable as a writer takes a lifetime.  Our English Language Learners deserve writing experiences where they can observe and interact with a teacher demonstrating writing techniques and have the tools to make attempts with this skill under the guidance of supportive teachers.  Too often, we expect too much…  too soon.. with minimal support.  The result is a classroom full of passive learners, afraid to take risks, confused and frustrated about the process.

This lesson was developed in response to the common questions received in dialogue with teachers about this topic.  How can I help my students write with more detail?  What is the secret to helping students develop topics more fully and write with more voice?  My students write with the same boring sentences… what do I do?  While reading Georgia Heard’s book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary Classrooms,  it occurred to me that our students, especially our English Language Learners, need to dig into their feelings and experience emotion in order to discover their voice as a writer.  This lesson is an adaptation of one of her ideas found within this book: Four Room Poem:  Writing to an object.

It is obvious as I walk into the room that students will have opportunities to engage in their learning. Students are seated in small groups next to writing partners so to encourage the language of writers – talking through ideas – so crucial to getting ideas on the paper.  I walk around the room handing out various objects one at a time from my shopping bag.  I pose a few questions:  “When I hand you this object will you take some time to feel it, smell it, and describe it to your partner.” The motivation is high and the room is buzzing with quality talk about the sights, smells and feelings of their objects. Every object is different ranging from small toys, school tools to home necessities. It only took me about 15 minutes to gather enough objects laying around my house for this lesson – it’s amazing how quickly something useless can be used for something purposeful!  “You have noticed that I have placed an object on your desk and I bet you are wondering why… Today, you are going to write to an object.  I post the objectives written from the first person perspective so that each student can take ownership for their learning today.

I will plan and draft a descriptive poem about an object.

I will express my own thinking and ideas by participating in partner discussion.

This may sound odd talking to something that is not real like a person but you will quickly discover that there are many ways we can talk about and write to an object.  I have placed a paper divided into four squares on your desk, please take your paper and number it into four rooms like mine…  We will be writing something different in each of these rooms.  I have an object in this bag yet I am not going to show you because I want you to see if you can guess what it is through the use of my words on the page.  As writers we must learn to show and not just tell.”  Using one student as an example,  “Rather than just tell me that you have a necklace, we will write in specific ways to show others what makes this object unique.  In the first room I demonstrate for the students how I am going to write a description of my object by telling you what I see, feel, or smell.

Room #1 - Description
Yellow-green
Round like an orange
fuzzy

As I write more words I mention how I can compare my object to something else like by telling you that it is round like an orange. “Maybe some of you can compare your object to something else. Now Writers, will you talk with your partner and describe your object by telling them the color and size of your object. Maybe you can think of a word that describes how it feels when you touch it.”  As I walk the room I help students use their language of description and quickly put it on the paper.  One of the ELL students grins with confidence when he realizes that he naturally used a simile with his words, “flat like a pancake”. I always carry around some sticky notes so that I can quickly write down some language that a student uses that will help them “hold” that idea for their writing.  I call these sticky notes, “vocabulary holders”.    I move on to Room number two where I model for students how to write the action to best describe what their object does.  We have a short conversation about verbs and I ask them to underline the action word(s) once it is written down.

Room #2 - Action
Bounces high in the air
Rolls on the ground

In room three, students talk to their object.  I ask students to think about some questions that they would ask their object or maybe there is something important that your object needs to know.  The students find this task appealing and a bit funny.  I demonstrate my thinking as I write down my conversation with my object.

Room #3 – Talk to your object
Why do you spin so fast? 
Why can’t I hit you all the time? 
You better watch out for those rackets.

I ask students to take some time to talk to their object.  This exercise really helps bring out their true voices as a writer.  By breaking the task into four separate rooms, students are able to focus on one craft of good writing at a time – in the first room: description, in the second room: using precise verbs, the third and fourth room: writing with voice using emotion and feelings.

In the fourth room, I ask students to consider a memory, wish or a feeling that they have about their object.  I model three different possibilities.  If I were wishing something I might say, “I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.”  My feeling would be, “I am thrilled when you help me win a game.”  Can you think of more feeling words than sad, mad and glad?  We generate a few different feeling words. If I were writing a memory about this object I would say, “I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.”

Room #4 – A memory, wish or feeling
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.  
I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.

By this time students have figured out my object and I remind them of all of the words I used to “show” them rather than “tell” them that I had a tennis ball.  As I walk around the room I remind students that they might start their writing with phrases like “I wish.. or I remember…”  Supporting writers with language probes helps our English Language Learners find the proper syntax for communicating their ideas. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 12.17.38 PM

The energy in the room is growing. Students are all abuzz about their writing – very excited to share their writing.  The lesson could easily culminate for the day after the completion of their plans but I take the opportunity to show the visiting teachers and this group of students how to take their four rooms and write a free verse poem.  In your classroom you may divide this lesson over two days.

“Writers, now that you have four rooms where you have spent time writing to and about your object, let me show you how to take your great ideas and create a free verse poem.”  This class has discussed elements of poetry and they understand that all poetry does not need to rhyme.  “My job as a writer is to take a look in all four rooms and decide how to put these ideas into a coherent piece that makes sense and communicates my ideas.  Lets see…. (I begin to think-aloud to show my students how I think about how to organize my ideas.) I am going to start with the third room where I talk to the object.  I like the idea of starting with my questions.  I begin to draft…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?

I think I will write my description of the object from my first room next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Yellow-green,
Round like and orange,
Fuzzy

You notice that I can decide if I want to put a capital on every line to begin and what punctuation I will use.  You have a lot of freedom when you write free verse poetry because as the author you determine the form and flow of your piece.  I think it makes sense to put in my action words next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Yellow-green,
Round like and orange,
Fuzzy
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,

As a writer I constantly reread my piece to listen to how the ideas flow together. Let’s read it together… What do you think?  I think I am ready to finish with my feeling and my wish about this object.  Which should I put first?  The class likes the idea of ending with my feeling so I draft…

 

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Yellow-green,
Round like and orange,
Fuzzy
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.

I am going to finish my piece by naming the object at the end of the poem.

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Yellow-green,
Round like and orange,
Fuzzy
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
A tennis ball. 

In the debriefing with several teachers after the lesson, they are amazed at student’s output.  We discuss what makes this lesson work for all learners.  Some key ideas surface:

  1. Motivation occurs when students have opportunities to write with purpose and have some knowledge of the topic! (in this instance, writing to a concrete object.)
  2. Engagement with the writing experience occurs through ample opportunities for talk with their peers and feedback from the teacher.
  3. Writers need four variables in place to feel successful – knowledge of some content; vocabulary to express their ideas; structure to guide and help break down the task; and an ease with conventions, initially, to help ease the flow of ideas.  All four variables were met in this lesson.

The beauty in this type of lesson is the writer can carry what is learned or experimented with today toward future writing experiences.  You can compare this idea to that of a seed that scatters and spreads to sprout in new places.  For example, students have a better idea of how to paint a picture with their words using attributes in a narrative piece.  Students can think in new ways about how to end a piece with a memory, wish or a feeling.

Debbie Arechiga spent almost 20 years in Tucson, AZ  as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor and staff developer before branching out as an independent consultant with Tools for Literacy.   She has been a presenter at many national conferences and is recognized by those who have worked with her as a true practitioner in the field of literacy. In 2005, she received her masters in the Art of Teaching from Grand Canyon University.  Debbie is recognized for her abilities to help schools and districts make rapid strides in student achievement with children of poverty and children learning a second language.  She just recently published her first book, Reaching English Language Learners in Every Classroom: Energizers for Teaching and Learning. 

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

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