Let’s Start Writing! Inspiring Young EAL (English as Additional Language) Students to Write in English.
Written by teacher and literacy specialist, Jill Duncan Gozdowski.
Edited by Matthew James Friday
Students who are learning English as an additional language are an exceptionally diverse group.
The variations in level of education and English language proficiency may sometimes leave you wondering where to start.
Today we’re bringing you back to basics with a writing assignment in Jill’s kindergarten class. Whether your learners are five, or twenty-five, they are never too old to get a little messy with learning.
In the beginning…
We are our own story! What holds a child back with their own story is that someone told them what is a story or how their story isn’t sufficient, or there is too much teacher-focus on conventions (spelling, handwriting, etc). This takes the energy out of the pencil and the confidence out of the heart. No confidence, no pencil-action, no story, nothing. Therefore, writing starts with confidence and wanting to write.
The Woe of ‘Weekend News’
I had a student who came to me in Grade One who did not want to write. He taught me so much about how sometimes teachers’ best intentions actually inhibit young authors. He came from a class where writing time was dedicated to ‘Weekend News’. This child didn’t do anything over the weekends, so he chose to stop writing.
Have you ever tried to write ‘Weekend News’? It actually is very difficult to do. I don’t know about you but some of my weekends are just taking a run, reading and baking. How many times can one write that story? Anyhow, after talking with the student, we started to talk about all the different types of stories: from using our imaginations, to how he got to school or different things that happened out at recess. A story can be anything that you would like to create.
He then looked at me and said, “You mean I am my own story!”
I exclaimed, “YES!” I pointed to the paper and had him start running his finger across the blank white page while he orally told me his story of when he arrived from West Africa to Germany.
Learning Not to Limit
I learned so much from his story about him and his perspectives. I also learned just how we teachers could limit our authors with writing prompts. We always must be mindful in our practices. We always need to put ourselves in our students. Do you want to write about weekend news or would you rather write about a pizza monster or superhero or your grandmother?
We are natural storytellers at any age. We are constantly gaining our understanding of the world and our place within it through our connections, which begins with our own stories. Not one of our stories is the same. There might be similar happenings, but we all have different perspectives and outcomes from experiences.
We need to be clear of how we define writing, especially when working with younger writers with little or no English. It is anything on paper that sends a message. This could be a scribble, picture, words or story. At every phase it will visually look different but it consistently carries a unique message. So at the very earliest stages the meaning could continuously change but the meaning is clear to the child.
The following pictures are of kindergarten-aged students from my last international school in China with a 100% EAL community.
Pictures that Show Stages of Kindergarten EAL Writers:
|1. The story is carried within the picture and the author shares orally.||2. Teacher scribes the story after the child draws and shares orally.||3. Student gives it a go connecting writing to his picture. Listening for initial sounds and ending sounds.||4. This is a stage where the writer begins to put it all together with the picture, sounds and story.||5. This writing is similar to the stage above with labeling for which is a great strategy for beginner writers.|
6. This shows a multi page story from a writer in Kindergarten. This student puts all the pieces of writing together fluently with stamina and independently adds details to their story.
As you can see, the writers are beginning to find their voice and create their own narratives through the written word. The stages above are throughout our classroom of writers. They are all very unique in their learning journeys as authors.
Before We Start
Establishing both storytelling and writing in our youngest writers is essential, but how do we find the ‘hidden’ stories within our classrooms? Hidden behind language and confidence barriers. These were questions I wanted to address when I started work with the Early Kindergarten teaching team in my last international school in China. Here are three basic starters for all teachers.
1. Everyone is an author – we must believe that all of our students are authors regardless of their age or language level. We must be interested in the words (and worlds) they share and encourage them to record them on paper in whatever manner they are able.
2. The environment – our writing environments need to be flexible, comfortable and nonthreatening.
3. Choice is your best friend – there needs to be choice in writing. After all, in an inquiry-learning environment, ‘choice’ is at the heart of initiating the student’s response to inquiry, regardless of age. Even in non-inquiry environments, you will be amazed how inspiring it is for students to be able to choose, for example, the type of paper they write on.
We started our writing time in a circle on the carpet where we shared our ideas about stories. What is our own unique story going to be about today? Are you going to use our imaginations like (and then I give examples of kids work from the day before) or are you going to write about something real like NAME who inspired us yesterday with his story about his grandpa?
I give them a few moments to just think within their minds to visually see their story. Then the authors begin brainstorming out loud and sharing ideas. Lots of times their ideas begin to connect together. We have students who actually are using their bodies acting out their stories before they are written on the page. It is important to allow students choices in the way they brainstorm because each author is so unique in their own approach.
Let the Writing Begin!
As I excused each student to their table when they are ready and gave a focus within their writing. A focus could be their pictures or labeling the picture, finger spaces, stretching out the sounds or a number of other things. However, each focus is unique to each author, their needs are all very different. This is the opportunity we need to always be looking for in our conferencing because this enables them to grow as authors. However, you have to be mindful to not inundate. Here are some additional things to try.
- Be hyper ENTHUSIASTIC. “Happy Writing and I can’t wait to hear your AMAZING story!” Young, nervous writers need to physically feel your excitement.
- As each child is writing I moved around the classroom and continued my conferencing. See as many students as possible.
- Spelling – In the early stages of writing we don’t help with their spellings because then we are telling them that a technical skill is more important than their own ideas. Rather we help stretch words for them to hear the sounds. When they ask for reassurance, we ask what sounds they hear and give it a go.
- Taking risks – the above technique is essential to encourage risk-taking, especially amongts EAL learners who are often either afraid of mistakes or in the belief (sometimes culturally driven) that only perfectly spelled writing is valid and worth doing.
- Getting stuck- when some students feel stuck within their own writing we have them run their finger along a blank page while telling us the story. At the end we say OK that is your story now let’s begin writing it!
- Table sharing – near the end of Writer’s Workshop every child begins to share with their friends who are finished. This enhances the listening and speaking skills as well as prepares them for our author share – if they would like to read for the class.
- Circle sharing – we then gather in a circle to celebrate the authors that would like to present to a bigger audience. We are very serious about behaviors during this time. Sitting, listening with our eyes and ears as well as giving applause at the end. At times there are connections made to stories as well with other stories that were shared or read before. This helps to build scaffolding for the following days lesson.
Reflecting on the Teaching and Learning.
The most important part of early writing is always checking in with our teaching that we are encouraging independence and confidence. We need to accept the phase of where each child is and encourage appropriately. Let go of the misconceptions about early writers and be sure your writing environment is inviting their unique stories.
All the teachers I worked with were surprised at the growth in such a short time when giving choice, which gains independence and confidence to their authors. The teachers were now asked to look for “windows of opportunities” to inspire their writers to take new risks. The writing guides the teaching for each individual child. We all waited excitedly to see what is going to develop on the page for each author! Every writing time is filled with excitement, new risks and new lessons!
I believe children are seeds of the earth, so sometimes the natural weather or the moon phases causes a disruption in their flow as a writer or enhances their writing. You know what I mean – furious wind inspires wildness in the children! Also, what emotions they have encountered in the day can be disruptive. There are those times where authors experience a writer’s block too. The same things that have happened to me in writing this article is the same that students experience.
Also, at times we may see the window of opportunity for our young students but they resist because they are unable to feel their own confidence in that moment. In short, they sit or cross their arms and tell us, “no!” It is a balancing act between acceptance, encouragement and celebration. These children are not ready in that moment. Step away, give them time, and try again another day. Try again. Don’t give up. You know your students best and you will know when to give attention to the emotions or when they should be ignored. Either way, with gentle persistence, these moments will be overcome.
There are no inhibitions to expressing a story. I have worked with many students who have limited English or have learning specialties through their writing. They always give their best effort. While deciphering the letter sounds or language on the page was difficult for us as teachers, the story was told through their emotions, body language, sheer enjoyment and expression. To encourage that process is to give this and every child the best possible chance of expressing ‘their story’ and their message.