Alice Savage

Using Trio with diverse multi-lingual writers

Trio writing            After teaching with TRIO writing at all three levels, I’ve observed several characteristics of the developing multi-lingual writer. One observation is that there is no one type of developing writer. Depending on the country, educational history, and other life experiences, each writer has an absolutely unique voice and set of needs, yet I’ve noticed two general patterns.

One type of writer pours words onto the paper. I can think of one example in particular. This Colombian gentleman was able to write several pages without stopping. With a rich life experience and a gregarious nature, Raul was a veritable fountain of ideas. However, his writing did not meet the objectives laid out in our program syllabus. He did not write in paragraphs, and his grammar reflected the conventions of his native Spanish.

At the other end of the spectrum, a different sort of writer carefully constructs sentences and paragraphs that conform to the specifications of assignments. This writer carefully adheres to conventions of language and paragraphs to stay within a safe zone of accuracy. A Venezuelan mother of two, Maria was a perfect example of the cautious writer. Maria organized her writing into distinct paragraphs, each containing a combination of simple, compound and complex sentences. Her ideas did not flow as easily as Raul’s. Maria wrote less, but she was accurate.

Guess which one passed the course?

Before answering that question, it might be more useful to ask how I as a teacher could make sure that both Maria and Raul made progress. Maria needed to stretch herself, perhaps with critical thinking skills, while Raul needed to focus on some basic language strategies.

Maria was fairly easy. Her skills were consistent across language awareness and content development. She was able to work alone and with peers to take small risks in her writing. When a paragraph asked for one level of detail. I suggested she write two. When her two paragraph assignments seemed polished after the first draft, I asked her to write a third paragraph in the revision. Sometimes I gave her an idea for a shift in focus for that third paragraph, and sometimes she came up with a new focus her own. This “stretch” work allowed Maria to elaborate and yet it fit with the process writing assignment in part three of each chapter.

Raul, on the other hand, had to fold his many ideas into English patterns. He expressed a desire to write grammatically, but he was frustrated with the number of Ts on his drafts (T being the symbol for a grammar translation error). Raul was able to address this challenge by doing a stepped-out sequence of exercises.

Raul started his disciplined approach to grammar by doing substitution work in the vocabulary section of each chapter in Trio. For example, Raul struggled with word order and tended to put adjectives after nouns. He was able to work on this in Chapter 4 of Trio Writing 2. The part one vocabulary gave him several words in adjective + noun phrases: a strong community, a healthy life, a meeting at a local park and joined a noisy group. Raul did a simple exercise designed to help him use the pattern in new ways. He simply substituted other words for the words in the phrase. Here are some examples.

Joined a noisy group:  joined a fun group  –  joined a big group   –   joined an international club

A healthy life: a busy life   –   a terrible life   –   a successful life   –   a wonderful life

Raul also did exercises designed to help him put his ideas into sentences. The part two grammar lesson is supported by builder boxes. In chapter 6, Raul used these builder boxes to practice writing a very specific type of sentence. It as a subject pronoun followed by be with adjective + infinitive. Raul used the builder box below to create guided sentences by choosing one item from each column. This was actually quite difficult for him because it required a completely new type of mental focus. See some examples below.

It is (not)

was (not)







to see

to experience

to enjoy

a strange city

new people


to go

to take pictures

to walk


at night

in the forest


It is fun to see new people.

It is dangerous to go there.

It is hard to take pictures at night.

It is important to experience nature.

While these sentences did not necessarily reflect Raul’s imagination, he was able to make choices to create meaning. At the same time, he made a breakthrough in accuracy. Raul then combined the two strategies by making substitutions to the framed sentences from the builder boxes. Without support, he was able to produce the following:

It is fun to meet Colombian people.

It is not dangerous to walk on the beach.

It is interesting to see Cartagena at night.

Raul worked with this scaffolded grammar approach through several iterations and sentence patterns. Then he began to put sentences together to create paragraphs about a travel experience. While he ended up choosing not to write about Colombia, he used the sentence pattern in the following excerpt from his paper. (Full disclosure: this is a second draft, so minor errors have been addressed.)

            My family and I went to San Antonio last year. I expected to see an ordinary city, but San Antonio had many tourist places. It was interesting to see the river walk. My family and I ate dinner in a restaurant. We watched the boats on the water. It was fun to see different people and take pictures.

Raul was aware that his paragraph was not going to win a Pulitzer prize, but he was happy because he had achieved clarity. He was able to bridge his awareness of grammar and his writing so that he had a new mental system for doing assignments.

Happily, Raul’s effort paid off. He was able to pass the class. As for Maria, she was able to skip a level because her portfolio of assignments demonstrated that she had met the outcomes for this level as well as the next.

It is not easy to be a writing teacher let alone a writing course book author. On the one hand, research often seems to scold us for being formulaic. On the other hand, many students ask for clear strategies that can help them get good grades and write “correctly.” I am grateful that Oxford University Press gave us the opportunity to try and navigate these competing demands. By including vocabulary and grammar support before the writing process, we can help not only the well-prepared Marias of the world, but also the many Rauls.

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