• by Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2015 •

Dr Kristin GraysonWriting is one of the most difficult skills for English learners to master. It can be difficult because it involves so many aspects of language, including syntax (grammar), vocabulary, verb tenses, articles, spelling, transition words, and idioms. This article summarizes some of the latest research about providing English learners with quality writing instruction. Sample activities for the language or classroom teacher are included.

In an early article in 1993, Stephen Krashen, proposed two ideas about English learners and writing: “(1) Writing style does not come from writing or direct instruction, but from reading” (supporting the Reading Hypothesis, which he proposed in 1989), and (2) “Actual writing can help us solve problems and can make us smarter.”

These ideas support the use of sustained silent reading (SSR) or drop everything and read (DARE), where students are allowed to read materials of interest to themselves at their own chosen level for a specific duration of time each day. Language, some of which is rarely used in everyday conversations, is modeled for students while reading.

Krashen explains that listening is to speaking as reading is to writing. Language is acquired during authentic and meaningful exposure. For writing, this means that more writing does not necessarily improve writing, but that models of good writing are seen through reading and lots of it!

Teachers can provide reading models as the prompt for writing. For example, students can read a specific type of text, such as technical, opinion, reports or fiction. After reading, students should summarize the reading in one to two pages of writing.

Jim Cummins, noted linguist, elaborated on this same idea, in the framework he presented during his keynote at the TESOL (Teachers of English for Students of Other Languages) 2015 conference in his speech: Teaching through a Multilingual Lens. According to Cummins, in order for English learners to develop the language skills they need, they must first have print access and literacy engagement. Engagement with literacy happens when teachers scaffold meaning, connect to students’ lives and their funds of knowledge, affirm their identity by valuing their cultures and languages, and extend language through explicit instruction.

Cummins states that phonics is not the answer for English learners and their reading and writing skills. In fact, he states that research shows that phonics is only helpful through first grade and after that does not add anything to reading comprehension. The keys for English learners are print access and literacy engagement. According to Cummins, engagement itself is a variable that can especially support students with low socio-economic status.

Following the ideas of Krashen and Cummins, this means students need to be actively sharing and collaborating. For example, teachers need to ensure that their classroom set-up does not isolate English learners and allows for interaction with other students. For sharing, students can take turns choosing words from their own language. They can explain to the class the meaning of that word and why they chose a particular word. Greetings can be posted in the languages of the diverse student body. Additionally, student work should be displayed.

In order to have access to print, library books should be available for students and parents, including books in the languages represented in the school population. The school library also should have extended library hours so that parents can also have access to its books.

For engagement with print, Cummins emphasizes a focus on language. This focus must be deliberate with a validation of the student’s identity and culture. Some ways that teachers can do this are to have students compare their native language and English and discuss how the grammar and vocabulary may be similar or different. Students also should write and reflect on their language experiences.

Cummins emphasizes that students should be encouraged to use their first language, such as by communicating with classmates in their native language about how to solve a problem and then explaining the answer in English to the teacher or in their writing.

Lily Wong Fillmore advocates for teachers to help students develop the habit of paying attention to language. Students don’t necessarily notice language on their own. However, when it is a focus and is repeated intentionally, it becomes a habit, and students acquire the academic language in English that they need to know.

Fillmore also stresses that teachers engage students in instructional conversations in order to help students notice the ways in which meaning relates to words, phrases, and clauses in text. This language focus needs to be preplanned. When the benefits of bilingualism are factored into instruction, increased achievement can take place (Villarreal, 2015).

At first, English may seem confusing to students. But, by learning about how the English language works through its word origins (available on different websites), English makes more sense. As an activity for this, students can examine groups of words and make their own generalizations about how the English language works (such as by comparing the pronunciations words that begin with ca-, co-, cu- and words with ce or ci-).

Direct grammar instruction is not how native English speakers learn to speak such complex grammatical structures. For example, how and when to add the do auxiliary in specific types of questions is usually acquired through exposure to oral language. Direct grammar instruction may help some English learners at some levels as indicated in Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis (checking on the rules). However, in order to really become proficient writers in English, students must have text available and must be actively engaged in reading and then writing.

Authentic and meaningful instructional activities are important for English learners (IDRA, 2015). A daily reflective journal is just one way to make that happen. A daily prompt might be: “What helped you the most learn about…?” In a reflection journal, the responses should not be graded for things such as grammar. Rather it can be used as an interactive journal with a peer or teacher adding a response to the student’s reflection.

Writing letters to other students or to teachers about a given school activity is another example of writing for authentic purpose. Another way to make writing authentic is to have students collaborate together. For example, Student A writes the first sentence in blue, while Student B acts as the writing coach. Then the students switch roles with Student B writing in a different color. Seating students with this collaboration in mind can make classroom management easier.

Writing reflects culture, as indicated by the early research of Kaplan in 1966. For instance, American writing is represented by a straight line, while Asian writing is commonly represented as circular. Thus, by reading a student’s own writing, the teacher can determine some of what the student knows and learn about the dimensions of their students’ cultures.

Therefore, teachers need to serve a dual role: they must understand the culture of their students, and they must help students learn about the culture of the school and the community where they now reside. One of the ways teachers can learn about their students’ culture is to teach common vocabulary on a given theme and then ask students to write about their own experiences with that theme, such as about their family. We can learn about our students through their writing.

The important take-away from the research is that reading and writing go together. Reading allows us to interpret text, and writing allows us to construct meaning from text.


Cummins, J. “Teaching Through a Multilingual Lens,” TESOL 2015 Conference speech (March 28, 2015).

Fillmore, L.W. “Supporting Access to the Language and Content of Complex Texts for EL & LM Students,” Powerpoint presentation (no date).

IDRA. “New Research on Securing Educational Equity & Excellence for English Language Learners in Texas Secondary Schools,” IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program 2015 Symposium Proceedings (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June 2015).

Kaplan, R. 1966. “Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education,” Language Learning (October 27, 2006).

Krashen, S. “We Learn to Write by Reading, but Writing Can Make You Stronger,” Ilha do Desterro (1993).

Villarreal, A. “Recalibrating Readiness and Instruction Based on Strengths of English Learners – Implications for Early Childhood Education Research and Practice,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2015).

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an education associate in IDRA’s Department of  Education Transformation and Innovation. Comments and questions may be directed her via email at kristin.grayson@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]