Supporting ELs with a Quick Write in ELA

A quick write is a short writing exercise that provides students with a chance to take a minute to reflect on the previous day’s reading.

As an instructional coach for middle and high school teachers of English Language Learners, I spend a lot of time in classrooms observing teacher practice, lesson design and student response. I was working recently in an ELA classroom in which the majority of the students are recent immigrants. Most of the students are in their second or third year in the U.S. and in an English language environment. The day before my visit, the class had finished reading “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes; I was there because the teacher had requested my support for her warm-up activities.

On this particular day, she had the students begin with a quick write addressing the following prompt: Think of Mrs. Jones’s treatment of Roger. Did he learn a lesson? Should he have been punished?

A quick write is a short writing exercise that provides students with a chance to take a minute to reflect on the previous day’s reading. In a quick write, there are no right or wrong answers, and the ideas generated from this activity (and the discussion that follows it) may become content for a future writing assignment. A quick write is an effective way to start the class.

Before the students began writing, the teacher took a moment to provide the following guidance:

  1. To make sure you address the prompt, turn the questions in the prompt into your answer.
  2. Think about the ideas in the question, then state your opinion with justification.
  3. Remember that the key ideas—lesson and punishment—must be addressed in your answer.

All were suitable reminders for any student in the room, but as I observed the ELLs in the class and perused their written responses, it was evident that they needed even more support.

The most common issue I saw among the EL students was simply a misunderstanding of the prompt—specifically the use of the modal verb, should, which is arguably the most important word in the prompt because it is what makes the question call for an argumentative response requiring justification. I witnessed students trying very hard to explain what the punishment was… without ever stating an opinion about it. Ironically, the character in the story is not punished; nonetheless, he probably does learn a lesson. Some of the ELL students had a slightly stronger response and wrote about why they believed that Roger did/did not learn a lesson, but they neglected to answer the second question about punishment.

In my reflective conference with the teacher, we discussed how even a warm-up activity, which is simply a prelude to the day’s lesson, requires some support and direction, especially where ELLs are concerned: a student who can successfully participate in the warm-up is more likely to remain engaged when it comes time to transition into the main lesson for the day. Warm-up activities are not always included in our instructional materials; they frequently are created by the individual teacher. Even so, when warm-ups are a part of a structured lesson sequence in published curriculum, ELL supports are likely to be omitted due to the lesser significance of the warm-up in the overall lesson objectives.

My suggestions for providing increased access and support for ELLs in this—or any—quick write activity centered on two critical ideas:

  1. First, give students a brief opportunity to discuss their ideas with one or two partners. Allow for just one-two minutes for this short discussion.

This way they can practice expressing their thoughts to another person and they can gauge whether or not their response makes sense (and appropriately addresses the prompt) based on their partner’s response. (This step is aligned to ELA Area of Focus I, Guideline 2)

  1. Provide a small bank of sentence starters or frames for students to choose from.

Considering the advanced verb forms used in the prompt, students in their second or third year of English language development will struggle to turn the questions into a statement. Did he learn… is a simple past tense verb, but in English we contort our past tense verbs when we formulate a question, so the answer has to transform into He learned or He did not learn. Moreover, Should he have been punished? is a present perfect tense form, which students in their second year of English Language Development may not have learned yet. Offering a bank of sentence starters or frames provides a simple solution to the verb tense issue, which was a barrier to even starting the response for some students I observed. Ideally, students would offer those frames and the teacher could post them with the prompt for others to “borrow.” (Area of Focus II, Specification 5c)

These two small steps may add a few minutes to the activity, but the extra time invested can lead to significantly stronger student responses and engagement.

Terri Bourg-Rodriguez is a recent retiree after a career spanning 30 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. During her time in LAUSD, Terri served in English Language Learner programs as a middle school Classroom Teacher, Newcomer Program Advisor, ELD Curricular Expert, ELD Instructional Coach, ELL Specialist and district level K-12 ELL Program Coordinator, where she led the development and initiation of a program for Long-Term English Learners and helped to lead the transition to the Common Core Standards and aligned California ELD Standards. She has delivered countless hours of professional development for teachers of English language learners. In retirement, Terri enjoys spending time with her family in San Antonio, Texas.


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