Writing in ESOL: A Journey – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 9

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

Our second demonstration comes from Elissa Robinson. She’s going to talk to us about her first year teaching ESOL in the United States. Elissa taught for three years in Japan before coming back to the states last year.


Quickwrite: What do you think of when you hear ESOL (ELL, ESL)? Put ESOL in the middle of your paper and make a web to show your thoughts.


Elissa talks us through her personal background and how she got into teaching. She has a fascinating story that gets to the U.S. by way of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFOL) in Japan. challenges

Teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) presents a wide array of challenges. Many of us take for granted the fact that the children we teach (especially by middle school where I teach) are already fairly socialized into the social order. Many ELLs come to us from different cultures with drastically different norms. They have to take many mandated computer exams (confusing for students who don’t know what a computer is).

ELL teachers must go by the WIDA performance descriptors. Students aren’t allowed to exit out of ELL services until they receive a combined score of 6 on the four domains of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Elissa works with Level 1 and Level 2 students. Here are the descriptors:


Elissa speaks to us in Japanese for a couple minutes. Although she tosses in a few English words, we have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. And then she asks us to reflect on how we felt. The stipulation is that we can only use 1-2 syllable words.

This activity is probably designed to give us a taste of what it’s like to sit in a classroom where someone speaks at you in a language you can’t understand. Oh wait, this is supposed to be 1-2 syllable words. 

I felt bored. Fun at first, but that fast turned into being confused. I had no clue what to say or what she wanted me to do. It was easy to tune out. It made me think about my own use of language in class, both I say and how I say it. 

Elissa says she saw many familiar faces from her ELL classes in the room. Some of us were on the edge of our seat, eagerly trying to tease out what she was saying. Others sat dumbfounded and slackjawed (I fall into the category). And some just glazed over. We share out how we felt and the consensus seems to be confused, lost, and rendered mute by the maze of language.

The purpose, she says, was to put us in the mindset of her students. Teaching writing to a population with this unique set of capabilities presents a number of challenges. The room erupts. Everyone here has powerful experiences working with ELL populations. Our stories are never about the children; they’re all about the policies and practices used by schools and districts. Immersion, mainstreaming, push in/push out, accountability testing, etc.

Elissa says she’s going to share with us a few different activities she uses in her class. The first is called “What’s Next Writing.” Elissa passes a bag around. The bag contains lots of small tiles with pictures. We all take a single tile and then proceed to create a chain of associations.


I have a picture of a waterfall. I see a waterfall. Waterfalls are out in nature. I’m not that big a fan of nature. My wife loves nature. She is short and squat like me. I’m 5’7, which is an inch below average height. Students love comparing heights. The Heights was a terrible TV show in the 90s. I was an adolescent during the 90s. That makes me a cusper between Gen X and Millennials. I always forget that millennium has two Ms. Remember that show Millennium with Bishop from the movie Aliens? I blame watching Aliens 500 times as a child on my intense fear of spiders. 

Writing this was an interesting experience. It felt like I was taking the constraints off of my ADHD. I had to consciously make sure I didn’t go in-depth with any of the sentences. I wonder about this type of writing. I seem to be forcing/creating connections between various schemata. How does this type of writing function with the brain-based cliche of ‘what fires together wires together’?

Next up we have dialogue journals. Every Friday each student under Elissa’s tutelage would write something to her in a dialogue journal. They become places for ELL students to become low-stakes writing. She provides specific encouragement and feedback for each student, giving them increasingly complex tasks. The journals display growth from the beginning of the year to the end. These journals are amazing. Elissa also asks students to write a letter to next year’s Level 1 ELL students as a way to give them a “here’s the skinny on what you’re about to experience.” Awesome. These also, in a way, remind me of Family Dialogue Journals. Here’s a sample:


We love these, btw. The progression of writing from the beginning of the year to the end is just amazing. Students can have dialogue buddies and respond to one person back and forth throughout the quarter. They can go with parents, etc. Many options. Elissa tells us how the journals become a safe space for the students to reflect.

The last thing she has us do is create a Facebook profile for a character from history or literature. It also works for concepts. The applications are numerous. You have to add writings on the wall from others, monologues, relationship status, likes, friends, and etc. Although Elissa gives us a handout with the template on it, you can also do it online using the free website Fakebook. We’ve done this with Tweets as well.


We’re running out of time, so Elissa wraps up her presentation with This lesson reminds me that “best practices” aren’t always that. Phrases like “good teaching is good teaching” mask the fact that students are always in different developmental places. That said, there are some tips: speak slowly, use multiple checks for comprehension (asking ‘what are your questions?’ instead of ‘do you have any questions?’), and more. What a great presentation!


One comment

  1. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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