Evidence-Based Directives in Developing English Learner Writing Proficiency

By Dr. Kate Kinsella

Current research on teaching academic content and writing to English learners in intermediate and secondary grades points to the need for explicit guidance and targeted language supports to help students move from information presented in a graphic organizer to writing sentences, and from writing sentences to composing paragraphs. Additionally, planned and interactive examination of accessible exemplar texts must undergird units of study in informative, opinion/argument, and narrative writing. Scheppegrell (2017) advocates for such “genre-based” writing instruction for English learners at all ages and levels of English proficiency to ensure they comprehend the organizational features and language forms characteristic of distinct writing types. Another key finding is that pre-writing lessons should integrate intentional, interactive language instruction in priority vocabulary, sentence structures, and grammatical forms students can later leverage in formal assignments (What Works Clearinghouse. April 2014. NCEE 2014-4012). 

Steps in Introducing English Learners to a Formal Writing Type

Years of supporting English learners in grades 4-12 to successfully transition from the routine journal and story assignments of primary and newcomer coursework to grade-level, standards-aligned course demands like an argument essay have deepened my understandings of the conscientious teacher planning and intentional instruction these students deserve. I don’t purport to cover every instructional imperative in this brief article, rather some bedrock instructional supports for English learners that their English-only classmates will no doubt equally appreciate. 

Step 1: Prepare a Clear Definition of the Writing Type

Many English learners, novice and long-term alike, are apt to approach a prompt for a formal assignment such as an opinion paragraph or personal narrative essay with comprehension gaps regarding the essential elements of the writing type. Without a firm handle on the expectations for organization and development of ideas, many simply respond to the general topic but not the specific task demands. 

It is imperative to present an accurate yet accessible definition of the assignment writing type, one suitable for their age, level of English proficiency, and literacy skills. I offer the following definitions as examples from my English language development (ELD) practice in 4-12 contexts: the first pitched at an entry point for a younger or emergent speaker with basic English literacy skills; the second more detailed and nuanced for an adolescent English speaker and reader at intermediate to advanced proficiency.

Opinion Paragraph Definition for Novice English Learners

What is an Opinion Paragraph?

Opinion Paragraph Definition for Intermediate – Advanced English Learners

OPINION PARAGRAPHAn opinion paragraph states a claim in a topic sentence, and supports it with reasons and evidence from sources. The introductory (topic) sentence clearly states the writer’s claim about the topic. 
Detail sentences support the writer’s claim with logical reasons and evidence from text or the writer’s prior knowledge and experience. Transition words or phrases connect opinions, reasons, and evidence. The concluding sentence restates the writer’s claim about the topic.

Step 2: Prepare an Appropriate Writing Exemplar 

Based on consistent feedback from former English learner students, whether in K-12 or college coursework, the most valuable second-language writing instruction they have received included analysis and marking of an accessible exemplar that met the specific assignment expectations. Being provided with an appropriate writing model for a major assignment would seem to be common practice in intermediate and secondary coursework across subject areas. However, this practical learning scaffold is rarely afforded multilingual learners and striving readers. Whether it is a model of a science fair proposal, a current event news article summary, or a personal narrative, English learners depend on their teachers across the school day to serve as the informed writing coaches their families can rarely be. This includes showing them a well-crafted and comprehensible model of what they are intended to produce. If the teacher isn’t capable of identifying or creating an appropriate assignment exemplar, one can question the fairness of charging an English learner or striving reader with the task. 

A predictable challenge for educators of English learners is identifying a writing exemplar that is not only on topic but also suitable for learners within a specific English proficiency range. Early in my career, while directing a Freshman English Program for first-generation college students, I learned the hard way how important it is to come equipped with an approachable writing model that can at once engage and educate students. My well-intentioned yet naïve colleagues and I included in our syllabus a traditional anthology of iconic essays written by published U.S. authors, from Joan Didion to James Baldwin. Because our students were recent high-school graduates from immigrant households, they found the essay subject matter far from compelling, and text structure to be an inaccessible model of the writing they were expected to produce. Out of desperation, I scoured my files of former student writing and selected an opinion essay on a contemporary issue that these first-semester bilingual college students found immediately comprehensible. In future classes for college and high school English learners, I compiled a course reader with previous student essays that served as catalysts for animated pre-writing discussion and engaged exemplar analysis. 

Because a relevant exemplar is such an axiomatic teaching and learning tool, I advise composing a suitable model or adapting a piece of former student writing. If I devote time to writing an exemplar paragraph or essay for a more advanced ELD cohort, I can easily modify it for learners approaching the task at earlier stages of English proficiency. Optimally, colleagues can collaborate on identification and development of appropriate exemplars for prompts that will become curricular mainstays. Once students have submitted final work, these compositions can be archived with permission and adapted to serve as models or drafts for practice revising and editing. 

Experience has shown me that the exemplars provided by English Language Arts curriculum publishers are frequently unwieldy, irrelevant, or devoid of intent to promote positive identity development. I have not found it beneficial to devote class time to extensive analysis of a writing sample that is completely disconnected from the specific prompt I intend to assign. English learners are often challenged by the shift in conceptual focus and struggle to perceive the essential text features. Of equal concern, the unrelated model lacks precise topic words, suitable transitions, and phrasing for the introductory statements and reflective conclusion they might repurpose.

Sample Introductory Opinion Prompt and Exemplar

Prompt: Teachers, parents and students often have different perspectives about the influence of texting on students’ communication skills. Based on experience as a middle-school texter and writer, is texting ruining students’ academic writing skills? Write an opinion paragraph that states your claim and supports it with reasons and evidence. Draw from your background knowledge and first-hand experience.

Sample Opinion Paragraph Exemplar (Intermediate – Advanced English Learners)

Texting is Not Harmful

After learning about texting and students’ writing skills, I firmly believe that texting is not ruining students’ academic writing. A key reason is that students know when it is appropriate to use textisms, and when they need to use correct spelling and grammar. For example, I regularly use emojis and GIFs when I send messages to my classmates and friends, but I never include them in my homework assignments, presentations, or essays. Another major reason that I am not convinced texting is ruining student writing is that most of us use technology with software for writing like GoogleDocs and Microsoft Word. If I accidentally use a textism like IMO instead of the phrase In my opinion, the computer will immediately point it out as a mistake for me to edit. So even if I apply texting language in a draft, I can easily correct it. For these reasons, I conclude that students’ writing is not seriously harmed by texting. 

Step 3: Guide Fluent Reading of Writing Exemplar

Guide reading of the exemplar using an evidence-based reading fluency routine.

To reap the benefits of a writing exemplar, English learners must first be able to read the material fluently. Fluent reading includes accurate pronunciation, appropriate pacing, pausing at meaningful intervals, interpreting punctuation, and expression. Because English learners are often basic readers in their second language who approach academic prose with gaps in language knowledge, they cannot be expected to comprehend text after a teacher read-aloud when they have been simply listening. They also cannot grasp the exemplar features from a displayed model with no concrete analysis tasks other than the teacher’s commentary. 

Structure multiple accountable readings of a writing exemplar and provide effective models of fluent reading for all basic readers. Otherwise, any attempt at exemplar analysis will be fruitless. The Oral Cloze Fluency Routine is a productive alternative to unproductive strategies like Popcorn Reading and passive teacher read-alouds (Harmon and Wood, 2018; Kinsella, 2020).  

Rather than passively listening as the teacher reads aloud a writing model or text section, students follow along with a copy in hand, silently tracking and chime in with a word the teacher has selectively omitted within a sentence. Students pay close attention to the teacher’s pronunciation, intonation and timing. They stay actively engaged and poised to fill in the missing word. This low-stress fluency-building routine with an active and accountable process can be repurposed with peers during a Partner Reading of the writing model or assigned text passage. 

Oral Cloze Steps

Read aloud a single paragraph and omit a few selected words while students follow along silently and chime in chorally with the missing words. Model fluent reading at least twice, omitting different words, and picking up the pace slightly.

Partner Cloze Steps: 

Students read the assigned paragraph three times: once silently to choose words to omit while reading to their partners, once aloud to their partners, and once following along and chiming in with the words their partners leave out. 

Choosing Words for Oral Cloze

  • Omit three or four words per paragraph, each within a different sentence and evenly distributed from the beginning to the middle and end. 
  • Omit nouns or verbs at natural places to pause, after a meaningful phrase or at the end of a sentence.
  • Choose words that drive text comprehension, such as academic vocabulary you have already taught. 
  • Choose topic-related words that were introduced earlier in the text.
  • Do not choose words that will pose pronunciation problems. 
  • Do not distract students by omitting too many words or stopping mid-phrase and interrupting fluent reading. 

Exemplar with Words Highlighted in Preparation for Guided Fluency Reading

Prepare for introducing an exemplar by reading the text in advance and carefully selecting the words you intend to omit on the first and second read. If you omit words on the fly during a spontaneous read aloud, you are less likely to select strong yet familiar choices that come at the end of phrases or clauses.

Yellow = 1st read Blue = 2nd read

Step 4: Guide Discussion of the Writing Exemplar

Along with an assignment exemplar, students benefit immensely from a set of marking tasks and response frames to guide reading, discussion, and text marking. When the exemplar is merely projected on a screen, students lack a tangible resource to interact with and return to for precise language choices and review of correct grammatical forms. Additionally, when the exemplar is simply read aloud by the teacher without a visual aid, English learners cannot hold the teacher’s verbal analysis of the text’s strengths in their auditory storage. Distribute a hard copy of the writing model accompanied by a set of specific marking and discussion tasks. A familiar set of marking tasks and response frames can be repurposed as students read and offer feedback on each other’s drafts. 

Sample Text Marking and Discussion Tasks for Opinion Paragraph

Mark the opinion paragraph text elements. Discuss them with your partner.

  1. Put brackets around the writer’s claim within the topic sentence. 

The writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Draw a box around transition words or phrases that introduce a reason

(One, Another) transition that introduces a reason is ___.

  1. Underline and label reasons that support the writer’s claim with the letter R.

(One, Another) reason that supports the writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Underline and label evidence that support the writer’s claim with the letter E.

(One, Another) piece of evidence that supports the writer’s claim is ___.

  1. Star six precise topic words. Check six high-utility academic words.

(One, Another) topic word is ___; (One, Another) high-utility word is ___. 

  1. Put parentheses around the restated claim in the concluding sentence.

The writer’s restated claim in ___. 

Step 5: Create a Precise Word Bank with the Writing Exemplar

A well-crafted exemplar paragraph or essay can be mined for vocabulary English learners can later apply in their own drafts. When I adapt former student writing to use as an exemplar, I regularly strengthen the work by adding more words related to the prompt focus as well as high-leverage academic words used in formal writing. Topic-focused words in the exemplar paragraph include nouns like software and assignments as well as strong verbs like harm and edit. High-utility academic vocabulary includes words not commonly used in casual conversation but widely applied in academic interaction and writing. Within the exemplar addressing the impacts of texting, two high-leverage academic word choices are the adjectives key and major used as frequent word partners with the noun reason

English learners approach most any writing topic with gaps in vocabulary knowledge. It isn’t fair or productive to simply encourage them to consult a peer or use a thesaurus when they are likely to be assaulted with a tome of unfamiliar words. I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to equip developing English speakers with portable words for the assignment topic and the text type. Every class has a range of English proficiency so I strive to include words that will provide a suitable lexical stretch for my diverse learners. While analyzing the exemplar and identifying precise word choices, I can point out the writer’s efforts to use synonyms as lexical chains as in the conscientious selection of the nouns students, friends and classmates or the verbs ruin and harm. Students enjoy the process of identifying strong word choices with their teacher and classmates and compiling the precise word bank. This resource can be posted as a visual display or duplicated and distributed as an assignment reference. 

Precise Word Bank Generated from Student Writing Model

Writing Topic Words

High-Utility Academic Words

    to text, texting, textism    students, friends, classmates    academic    writing skills    to ruin, to harm, harmful, harmed    spelling, grammar, language    emoji, GIF, message      software, technology    homework assignments, essays    to edit, mistake, draft

    to firmly believe    key, major     appropriate    correct     regularly    to include    to be convinced    opinion, reason, example    to apply    to conclude

Closing Thoughts

English learners approach standards-based writing assignments with formidable language and literacy challenges. We can support them in becoming more effective English writers by devoting more class time to planned, intentional, interactive instruction that ensures they understand assignment expectations and approach the task with accessible models and applicable language tools. 

Kate Kinsella, Ed.D. (drkate@drkatekinsella.com) writes curriculum, conducts K-12 research, and provides professional development throughout the U.S. addressing evidence-based practices to advance English language and literacy skills for multilingual learners. She is the author of a number of researched-informed curricular anchors for English learners, including English 3D, Language Launch, and the Academic Vocabulary Toolkit. 


  • Harmon, J., and Wood, K. 2010. Variations on Round Robin Reading. Middle Ground 14 (2).  
  • Kinsella, K. 2020. English 3D: Language Launch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  • NCEE. April 2014-4012. Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School: Educator’s Practice Guide/What Works Clearinghouse. Washington, DC. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.
  • Schleppegrell, M.J. 2017. Systemic Functional Grammar in the K-12 Classroom. In Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (Vol.3), edited by Eli Hinkel. New York, NY: Routledge. 

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