Alice Savage

Using Trio with beginning multi-lingual writers

Trio writing          TESOL Chicago is coming, and that’s usually a time when people are thinking about course books. With this in mind, we are reposting a reflection on the TRIO series. After using it with real students, we’ve discovered some interesting results, especially when it comes to recognizing the power of intersections. When we start looking at where vocabulary meets grammar and where paragraph meets essay structure, amazing things can happen.

First let’s start with beginning writers. 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 two general patterns have emerged among the lower level students at the beginning of a TRIO course.


One type of writer pours words onto the paper as they occur to him. Here’s an example involving a Colombian gentleman who 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. He wrote from what Steven Pinker calls “a web of thoughts.”

Representing the other approach to writing, we have Maria, a Venezuelan mother of two. Maria carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs that adhered to the assignment. She organized her drafts into distinct paragraphs, each containing a combination of simple, compound and complex sentences, which she could identify as such. 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 a teacher could make sure that both Maria and Raul made progress. Maria needed to stretch herself, perhaps with creativity and 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, she wrote two. When her two paragraph assignments seemed polished after the first draft, she added a third paragraph in a subseqent draft. Sometimes she tried out a shift in focus for that third paragraph, and it often added interesting new information. This “stretch” work allowed Maria to elaborate and yet it fit with the process writing assignment.

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). 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 to write the ideas he had in his head. 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.

Teaching writing at low levels is challenging. On the one hand, research often seems to scold teachers for being formulaic. On the other hand, many students ask for clear strategies that can help them get good grades and write “correctly.” In our experience so far, Trio has worked well for supporting students in navigating these competing demands. By providing exercises that help students with the intersections related to sentence construction and paragrahing decisions, TRIO can help not only the well-prepared Marias of the world, but also the many Rauls.

2 replies »

  1. Yes, yes and a resounding YES from this lower-level writing teacher. I have both types of students, and for years, I found it challenging to help students like your Raul. After having taught with Trio Writing 3 and now with Trio Writing 2, I can say that I LOVE LOVE LOVE these books. I am finding that my students enjoy the structure (formulas) and like replacing words with their own ideas, or adding their own ideas just as Raul did above. The scaffolded excercices build on each other, and the vocabulary and grammar are woven throughout the book. I like that my level 1 students were able to use gerunds as subjects! Instead of teaching the “why” of verb + infinitive, this book simply gives applicable examples of ” like to, try to, offer to, etc”. The students will learn the “why” later on, but for now, they are using the correct forms because of the chunked vocabulary. Compared to other books, I am seeing better writing more quickly with Trio. Finally, the idea of paragraphing is introduced right from the start, so when they move on to higher levels, the idea of a multi-paragraph draft (essay) is not so daunting/confusing. I recommend this series for high beginning students and even lower intermediate students.


    • Thanks Erin! I was talking to a student who was working with another book, and she couldn’t figure out the word form for a gap fill because she didn’t know if the preceding word “minimum” was a noun or an adjective. “That’s why we try to work with vocabulary in recognizeable chunks now,” I said. “We can use the words we know to figure out the words we don’t, and it’s easier to fit them into meaningful slots.


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