Teaching Writing: Problems Students Face

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Frank Bonkowski is an educational writer, English language teacher, and e-learning specialist, passionate about learning and teaching. As a lover of writing, Frank has a twofold mission: to teach English learners to write better and to train language teachers in teaching effective academic writing. He was a teacher trainer at several universities, including McGill, Concordia, and TELUQ, a center of distance education.  We are thrilled to have Frank as a member of our online course community at English Learner Portal.

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In today’s post I want to introduce you to a new three-credit graduate course in teaching writing.  I’ll give you a peek into one of the lectures in Module 1, “Problems students face in learning.”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

New Online professional development course

Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners is now available. This 3-credit graduate course is aimed at beginner and experienced English-language teachers who want to improve their knowledge and skills in teaching academic writing.

Teaching Writing, a multimedia course containing five modules, is your complete guide to teaching academic writing. Each module has a short video introduction, several recorded lectures, an accompanying tape script, a reading, an interview with a writing expert (in three of the modules), and a self-assessment exercise. To obtain university credit for the course, participants must complete five quizzes and two assignments.

A peek inside Module 1

peekinsideThe first module explores the context for teaching and learning academic writing to adolescent English language learners. Topics include some effective ways for teaching academic writing,  problems English language learners face in learning, the distinction between comprehensible input and output, and an overview of the WIDA writing rubrics with Kelly Reider. In today’s post, I want to share with you parts of Lecture 2.

Teaching Writing

Module 1: Problems student face in learning

External issues

externalissuesHow well do you know your students? Experienced teachers realize that they have to take the time to get to know their language students as human beings. I have always taken the time to relate to my students, to understand where they are coming from, to learn about their interests and hobbies, and to ask about what they are good at.

Language teachers need to understand the external and personal issues in the lives of their students, so well described in “Teaching writing to diverse populations” (Fowler). Let’s look at three external issues.

First, learning to write well is challenging cognitively and linguistically, not only for English language learners but also native speakers of English.

Second, some English language learners come from disadvantaged homes at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. Many students work part time which cuts into their study time. In addition, some of them have learning disabilities. In the school where I teach ESL, over 10% of the students are dyslexic or have learning difficulties often related to stress.

Third, English language teachers may not be up to the task. They may lack the pedagogical knowledge as well as effective strategies and techniques to teach academic writing. They could benefit from professional development courses to upgrade their teaching skills, such as this course.

Furthermore, English language teachers may not have access to good resources. They may not know how to implement consistently academic writing into their program.

Let’s now move on to three personal issues or problems that English language learners may have (Fowler). Learners often lack the knowledge and skills to write well. Even more importantly, they may not be motivated to write well or write at all.

internalissuesPersonal issues

Knowledge problems

I teach academic writing to intermediate and advanced ESL learners. Yet many of them do not know what good writing is. They do not know how to start to write, thinking that just putting ideas on paper pell mell is good enough. They need to improve their knowledge of vocabulary—using synonyms and antonyms for example.

Moreover, students often have a poor sense of sentence structure and variety. Learners may know who the latest pop stars are, but they have limited knowledge of current events or social issues in general.

Finally, learners are not always familiar with some of the purposes of writing, such as to persuade or inform readers.

Skill problems

Let’s move on to skill problems that many English language learners face (Fowler).

A common problem I see among learners is that they are not interested in planning. They fail to plan which effectively means that they plan to fail.

Another problem is that they do not how to revise their writing. It is like pulling teeth to get them to reflect on their writing. Another issue is that they do not know how to self regulate their ideas and actions. It is a metacognitive skill that they have perhaps never been taught.

As most teachers know, learners have limited attention spans. That is not surprising. The latest research shows that the attention span of adults is only eight seconds. As I mentioned before, many learners have either visual or motor disabilities.

Motivation problems

Let’s have a brief look at some of the motivational issues that English language learners have (Fowler). For example, they have rarely been taught to develop writing goals. So they do not know how to achieve success. Some think that they fail to write well because they are not smart enough. They may have this erroneous self-belief that they can never succeed.

In addition, many learners are not very persistent in their attempts to write well. They are easily discouraged by constant failure.

What are some effective ways to teach academic writing?

lightbulbEnglish language learners need to be taught how to write effectively. They need to know how to achieve their goals within a given context. Learners need to be taught how to express themselves effectively. They need to learn how to write well-organized, clear texts.

Here are three effective strategies for teaching writing that we will explore further in later lectures (Graham, 1-2).

  • First, teachers should explicitly teach learners appropriate writing strategies. They should use effective instructional models, such as Engage-Study-Activate that we look at in lecture 2.1 (Harmer, 25-29).
  • Second, teachers should help learners develop their reading comprehension skills to become better writers. Reading can be an important tool to develop writing skills (Writing). Both reading and writing can help learners think and learn better. Teachers should show learners good texts, highlighting their outstanding features.
  • Third, students should receive regular feedback to keep track of their own success in writing. This feedback can take the form of teacher to students, students to students, and student self-reflection, using for example the Virtual Writing Tutor. More about this online tool in lecture 5.5.

Other strategies that we can mention include teaching grammar explicitly, providing challenging activities, and helping students build their vocabulary (Writing).

In Teaching by Principles, Brown recommends teachers get students to:

  • Use the practices of “good” writers, such as following an organizational plan as they write
  • Do prewriting activities, such as conducting outside research or discussing a topic or question.

In the next blog post, we will take a peek into one of the lectures in Module 2,  “What is successful language learning?”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

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Set a larger table….

Set a Larger Table
by guest blogger Laurie Meberg

I had never felt more isolated in my life. My family had just moved to a town where we knew only one family. This was my first opportunity to live in a foreign town where I did not have a local community on which to rely. To make matters more isolating, I was a stay at home mom to two girls under the age of three while my husband set up his office in the town center. My shortcomings in the local language limited me further. Finally, I was used to blending into the chaos of an international city and had found myself in a small town where I stuck out more than I had in the city. While I saw the same people every time I went out of the house, they did not seem to recognize me.

My neighbors did not know what to make of this blonde-haired, fair-skinned family who had just moved into their building. They had heard through the grapevine that my husband would be teaching English lessons to take the place of our dear friends in the local language institute. While most of the neighbors and people in our community avoided us as they passed us by – watching us only out of the corners of their eyes – one family in particular took us in. My next-door neighbors and their five teenage daughters were life to me in that season.

MebergBlogWithin a week of our arrival, Muzyen and her family greeted us and welcomed us. When I came home from errands, they eagerly kept the kids while I shuttled groceries up the three flights of stairs. Muzyen understood my younger daughter’s nervous cries and stood singing to her in the hallway as they watched me work. When her daughters were home, one of the daughters would keep my girls entertained while I cleaned the house or cooked dinner – teaching them songs, hand-games, and stories.  When my family returned from outings and clomped and chattered our way up the stairs, Muzyen’s family would open the door to talk with us and visit with our little kids. Occasionally, on long afternoons, Muzyen would break up the monotony of my day by inviting me for tea. She offered sweet pastries and savory dishes as we fumbled through small-talk and conversation.

I learned through our visits that Muzyen’s husband had recently retired from a career in mining. In their early years of marriage, the couple lived far from their families while Muzyen’s husband worked long shifts in the mines. She spent those years home with little children having to find her own friends and support system but the early years had been very hard. She encouraged me by empathizing with my isolation and welcoming me into her life.

Holidays were the hardest days for me as a foreigner in a strange land. Surprisingly, our own holidays were not so hard. Rather than wallow in self-pity about missing our family, I would find creative ways to make traditional foods, decorate with what we could find, and teach the children about our holidays. While I missed celebrating with our extended family, I would visit with friends in other cities. I found that – rather than our own holidays – the local holidays were harder for me.

As a local holiday drew near, I noticed the community brimming with excitement as 02A12D2Geveryone prepared for a big event. The neighbors would clean their homes top to bottom – so thoroughly that they would even hang their carpets over the balconies to dry after hand-washing them. The community scoured the local markets and stores for specialty foods they would use for traditional meals, toys to give their children, and outfits to wear for the festivities. Furthermore, people stocked up their kitchens as shops would be closed for a few days.

While some ex-pats might take this as an opportunity to relax and stay home, I could not. Despite my introversion, I longed to be part of the festivities. I too wanted a reason to cook, clean, shop, and visit – anticipation that transformed the routine.

Al Fresco Dining, With Food Laid Out On TableMuzyen knew what it was to be an outsider. Because of that, she invited us to join her family’s festivities. One of the more intimate components of their celebrations was a breakfast to break their fast. Muzyen had already graciously included our family at a few of their iftar dinner meals. The breakfast marked the beginning of a three-day celebration. This was more of a family affair. Normally new friends or neighbors might visit on the third day, but in my observation not typically the first breakfast.

Muzyen taught me a lesson that day. She modeled for me how to be a neighbor and how to be a friend. There were not elaborate schemes or agendas hidden in her invitation – rather a simple invitation from one woman who had experienced isolation to another woman who was in the midst of it. She had no idea that some of her traditional foods were similar to those of my grandparents and she had no idea how honored I was to be included. She expanded her table, added four plates, and welcomed us in – not as strangers but as if we belonged.

I have applied this lesson many times in the past ten years. How hard is it for me to welcome a newcomer to our celebrations?  Being a newcomer is lonely. But to welcome a newcomer in speaks volumes.

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mebergLaurie Meberg has been working cross-culturally for seventeen years as a teacher, community developer, and refugee liaison. She learned two languages through immersion and tried to learn a third through friendships in a multicultural community. She has frequently helped emerging English speakers by being a conversation partner – mostly over cups of tea. She lives in Colorado with her husband and three children.
She can be found on instagram @ _lauries_stories_

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English Learner Portal    January 2018

10 Possible Alternatives to “International Night”

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Today’s blog is written by Laura Gardner.  Laura has 16 years of experience working in public education, refugee resettlement, and social work.  While in public education, she worked as a district level manager for immigrant family and community engagement as well as a school social worker.  Learn more about Laura on our English Learner Portal website.

Many schools across the U.S. host international or multicultural nights each year.  At intnightthese events, students and/or their families typically set up tables to highlight their countries and cultures and the rest of the students and families walk from table to table sampling food and looking at artifacts and maps.  While organizers of these events have good intentions and aim to honor their students’ cultural backgrounds, sometimes these events can seem internationalnighttokenistic.  How can we build family comfort in schools throughout the school year?  With 79% of teachers in the U.S. being white* and 25% of students being children of immigrants, getting to know the cultural backgrounds of students requires a deeper dive.

intparadeThere are often two goals of international nights. The first is for students to learn more about other cultures and the second is for teachers to learn more about the backgrounds of their students and their families. With those goals in mind, what are 10 possible alternatives to international night?

  1. Invite immigrant parents or community members to speak in your class about their background and culture or a particular topic (i.e. a Vietnamese refugee could speak to students who are learning about the Vietnam war, etc.).
  2. Invite immigrant parents or community members to come to the classroom and share a story from their home country.
  3. Visit the main places your students and their families spend their time (places of worship, stores, community centers, neighborhoods, etc.).
  4. Travel as much as possible outside of the United States, particularly to the home countries of your students. Talk with students and their families about your experiences.
  5. Conduct an immigrant parent panel. For this professional learning opportunity, invite 3-6 immigrant parents to form a panel. Have one educator ask questions to each parent such as “Can you tell us about schools in your home country?” and so on. Be sure to provide teachers in the audience with an opportunity to ask their own questions.
  6. Invite immigrant parents to provide input on the rules and values that are practiced at school. Discuss any “cultural mismatches” between home and school.
  7. Take an interest in immigrant parents’ approach to raising their children. Ask questions about their family life.
  8. Ask immigrant parents or community members for information needed. Every time you seek background information on something from another country or culture, ask a parent from that culture (or student, if appropriate) to tell you what they know about that topic.  For example, if you have a lesson on Chinese New Year, find a Chinese parent in your school or community leader to talk to for more information and/or invite the person to speak directly with your students. Resist the urge to Google for lesson plans when you have direct sources of information nearby.
  9. Invite immigrant parents or community members to provide input on the curriculum.
  10. Help students make connections between what they’re studying and the immigrant communities in their own town.  For example, an IB (International Baccalaureate) class studying India could visit a local Indian organization rather than visiting the Indian embassy.
international

When you are ready to plan your schedule of parent/community events, please visit the English Learner Portal Resource Center for a free “Planning Checklist for ELL Family Nights”.  You will find this document in the Family Engagement folder.

*https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf

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Social Skills with Newcomer Students

The Importance of Social Skills with Newcomer Students
by Graciela Williams, Guest Blogger

turkeyThanksgiving is almost here, and, undoubtedly, your classroom is buzzing with excitement for the soon-approaching break. You might find that you and your students have finally found a steady routine. You may even feel that your students have some sense of your classroom rules and requirements, even if many of those aren’t exactly followed to a “T.” Your sense of classroom “normalcy” is at its peak when, suddenly, you get word that you will have a new student. Not only will you have a new student, but it will be a new student that speaks limited English. You have been here before and know the difficulty of adding a new student into the mix, but a student that speaks limited English is a step further. The classroom dynamic changes, and the educational “catch up” game quickly follows. This scenario is all too common in many schools across the U.S. Teachers and school administration begin to identify the challenges of students who start school mid-year, but they soon find themselves focusing on classroom dynamics and making sure that the student meets certain targets for educational purposes. An area that can be easily overlooked is the newcomer’s social and emotional well-being. Adjustment in the classroom involves much more than the student’s physical and mental understanding of school and classroom norms.

Research is finding that new incoming students require social and emotional support studentsduring school adjustment periods. Although the needs of the students increase, the school’s ability to provide adequate resources and staff to meet the needs of the students remains limited. Even with limitations, schools can still make sure that all of the newcomer’s needs are met in order for the student to be successful in the classroom. Incorporating social skills lessons within the classroom can promote an environment where newcomer students share experiences, establish connections, and practice their English abilities.

Sharing experiences, for newcomer students, in a non-threatening environment is a great way for students to start building connections and relationships with their peers. girlsBeginning conversations at the lunch table or at recess can be intimidating, but providing an in-class activity, where students share in small groups, can help promote effective communication and relationship building. It allows the newcomer to participate in the lesson all while learning essential vocabulary skills. Social skills lessons can help promote English by having newcomers practice their English skills within the four domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Social skill lessons can also help the teacher understand their student’s background in a non-intrusive manner. Understanding the student’s past experiences can shed some light on educational learning experiences and current levels of social, emotional, and physical adaptation to a new learning environment.

For a FREE sample social/emotional lesson, visit the “Newcomers/SIFE” folder in the English Learner Portal Resource Center.  This activity promotes the four domains, while engaging students in a fun, interactive activity where they feel comfortable sharing about their experiences.  The full lesson plan and Feelings Cards included!

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gracieGraciela Williams “Gracie” is a licensed bilingual school social worker in Annapolis, Maryland. Gracie currently works with newcomer students and runs several social skills groups around the county. She specializes in working with international students who have experienced trauma. She has done extensive work incorporating and facilitating student and parent reunification groups within the school system. Gracie has worked as an Adult ESL teacher and program manager for literacy centers in South Carolina and Colorado. She has a bachelor’s degree in counseling from Bob Jones University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of New England. Gracie is also an Adjunct Professor for Goucher College, where she teaches a graduate level seminar course regarding At Risk Students, and she is an Adjunct Community Faculty for The University of New England providing field instruction to current MSW students.

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English Learner Portal    November 2017