Repurposing the writing process for beginning English learners

For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense. However, nonnative writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level. Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone. We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.

The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on. They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.

The following lesson options are meant to be flexible tools for teachers to use individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its writing goals.

  1. Front load with language lessons

Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar? Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.

For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language. The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, a lake, trees, and other place nouns. Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.

Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert. Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:

Use the words to make phrases about your country. Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.













a beautiful beach

tall mountains


There is… There are
a beautiful beach.




tall mountains.


In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.

The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.

  1. Conference at the point of need

One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs. Multi-lingual writers need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task. In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference. This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.

Conferencing Checklist

Let’s talk about…

  • The assignment
  • Paragraphing
  • Language
  • Ideas

The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.

Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.

Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.

Ideas involves a discussion of ways that a strong student might stretch her skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.

  1. Share the revision process

Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills. The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.

Grammar Puzzles

Work with a partner to do the grammar puzzles below. Then switch with another group and check each other’s work.

 1. Write the shortest sentence you can.

2. Write a sentence that has the letter K three times.

3. Write a sentence with three verbs.

4. Write a sentence that has four capital letters.

5. Write a sentence that has five words that end in s.

6. Write a sentence with exactly six words.


Collaborative Writing

Work with a partner. Write an email to out of town tourists visiting your city.

1. Write two lists, one about things to do in your city during the day and the other at night.

2. Partner A: Write a paragraph about day activities day. Partner B: Write a paragraph about things to do in your city at night.

3. Put your paragraphs together and check for accuracy.

4. Share with other partners. Write something you like on the other pair’s paper.


  1. Repurpose peer review

Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well. For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?

Reader Response

Read your partner’s draft. Then choose two or three questions to ask the writer. Listen and respond.

1.     What was your goal for this assignment?

2.     Did you reach your goal?

3.     Which paragraph do you like?

4.     Which paragraph do you want to change?

Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.


Exchange papers with a partner. Read your partner’s paper. Then discuss your responses to the questions below.

·      What do you like about your partner’s paper.

·      What does it remind you of?

Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.


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