Analysis of ELL Writing Calls for Spelling Intervention

The inquiry work described below is an Analytic Memo assignment that I completed for the Boston Teachers Union’s Inquiry Project course.  I am a member of the 2015/2016 cohort of this teacher-facilitated inquiry program. This memo provides an analysis of two student writing samples: sympathy cards to President Hollande following the November terrorist attack on Paris and essays that describe Sarah Hale, the  “Grandmother of Thanksgiving”.

My goal for this school year is to improve the written expression of my middle school ESL students. I aim for my students to develop writing skills that allow them to not only fully express their ideas but also to deepen their thinking through writing. As a 9th year teacher who has always worked with ELL students, in both ESL classes and content classes, I have noticed that writing is complex for these students at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.



In the past, I have had success in developing students’ writing skills through reading response pieces with a variety of texts as well as process writing tasks with authentic audiences (i.e. a class book of personal essays titled “How I Make Boston Strong” for the Boston Police following the Boston Marathon Bombings; argument essays on the benefits of tap water over bottled water for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Writing Contest). My teaching strategies included setting a clear purpose and audience for writing with students, modeling using transparencies and an overhead projector, using a combination of handwriting and word process technologies for draft writing, teaching techniques for writing hooks and adding details to sentences, facilitating peer editing, using student-teacher writing conferences, and, most importantly, providing lots of time for writing in class.

Although these techniques have been effective, I am always searching to learn more about how to work with students on their writing because I view writing as an essential life skill. I know that my students will be judged on their ability to write in the future, whether in academic settings or in workplaces. From collaborating with the middle school English Language Arts teachers at my school, I know that my current ESL class is composed of students who have struggled significantly with written expression. Their ELA teachers report that these students produce poor writing during their English Language Arts classes, and many of the students are long-term ELLs, having attended monolingual “English-only” education programs since kindergarten.

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My First Inquiry Question

Before getting to know my current batch of students, my question for inquiry relied on my past experience of having shorter-term ELL students who constructed mostly simple sentences in their writing:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance the variety of grammatical structures they employ in their writing?

My students in previous years had been coded as ELLs for 3 to 5 years, and they often simply needed daily writing practice and more exposure to English in order to produce more complex sentences.

However, upon analysis of my current students’ work habits and abilities, I realize that my current students are quite different. They have more writing stamina; even when given permission to check in with a friend during writing practice, they do not even whisper to one another. They remain, for the most part, completely focused on the task at hand. Consequently, they are able to produce a sufficient volume of writing. So, what exactly is holding them back from meeting the successes I have seen with students in previous years?


The WIDA MODEL Framework

Using the introductory materials from the WIDA MODEL writing assessment has helped to clarify and categorize the specific concerns most relevant to written expression for ELLs.The MODEL recognizes that it is acceptable for ELLs at the beginning and intermediate level to use copied sections of text as well as adapted (paraphrased) text in written expression as they are learning how to use the English language. However, the MODEL also maintains that the end goal is for students to produce written language that is original in both content and form, just as is expected of native English speakers.  The MODEL evaluates student writing based on three major components: linguistic complexity, vocabulary usage, and language control.

Linguistic complexity refers to the quantity of language produced. At the sentence level, are sentences simple subject+verb+object constructions, or are they expanded from this basic kernel? At the discourse level, are paragraphs organized with topic, body, and conclusion sentences? Is the presented sequence of information or order of events logical? How much does the student write in a given time frame?

Vocabulary usage refers to the variety and sophistication of words the writer uses. Are the words general high-frequency words or more specific “Tier 2” vocabulary? Are students capable of using content-specific technical vocabulary in their writing? Are the same vocabulary words repeated, or are there synonyms that add variety to the writing?

Language control includes not only grammar (morphology and syntax) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), but also precision with word choice. Is the student using precisely the right word in precisely the right place in the language sequence?

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Close Reading of Student Writing

With the lens of the MODEL in mind, I took a close look at two writing assignments from my current students. The first writing assignment was a short essay on the life and accomplishments of a historical figure. Students had about half of a class period (30 minutes) to complete this assignment. The second assignment was a sympathy letter to French President Francois Hollande following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. This assignment was completed over two class periods, and it required students to write a rough draft as well as a final draft.

Link to Google Doc with Analysis Notes

On a positive note, I was impressed by the expanded sentences that many students employed in their writing. However, I was struck by the lack of conventions in spelling, particularly those related to morphology in areas such as pluralization (i.e. countrys – This student did not automatically know to “change the y to an i and add “es” or makeing – This student did not know to “drop the e and add -ing”.) I wonder how much their writing would improve with greater use of conventional spelling.

It must be exhausting for the students to constantly have to guess at the spellings of words. Imagine how much this slows them down and interferes with their abilities to get their thoughts down on paper. For example, S. is working so hard to spell so many words through application of sound-symbol correspondence; however, this is typical of a 1st grade monolingual emergent writer, and a 6th grade student who has been in the Boston Public Schools for 7 years. A., due to either spelling or vocabulary, gives up on producing original ideas and relies on copying chunks of text. I wonder if the students are even aware how much their spelling interferes with the meaning in their writing. Do they know that their spelling is irregular and would not make sense to a non-teacher reader?

Other points that struck me were lack of attention to capitalization and use of periods, as well as the erratic placement of commas. Can the students internally sense the phrasing of their writing – do they “hear their writing breathe”? When they read independently, are they able to sort of the rhythm and structures of phrases as they read? Do my students read aloud fluently? Can they mark or scoop a sentence for its breath?


My conclusion is that my students need support with writing conventions in order to improve the decisions they make about the marks they are putting on the page. It is tempting to ignore their errors and move forward with the “fun” of teaching the content of reading and writing. However, I would be ashamed had my students gone through this year with me, a professional and experienced educator, recognizing this problem and doing nothing about it, especially since my training as a reading specialist did give me some background in multi-sensory strategies for teaching encoding. So, I must plan a course of action that supports my students in developing as writers.

My Second Inquiry Question and My Plan

First, I have revised my inquiry question:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance their use of conventional spelling and punctuation in their writing?

Second, I have a few resources I would like to use with my students, including the spelling and word study curriculas Words by Marcia Henry and Language! by Sopris Voyager, as well as the secondary grammar text Grammar Explorer by Cengage.  I also want to explore expanding the 1:1 encoding techniques I learned as a student at the MGH Communication Sciences & Disorders Clinic for use in whole class classroom context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 12.40.50 PMI plan to conduct a better analysis of which syllable types they struggle to encode by assessing my students using the Moats Primary Spelling Inventory. Finally, for my research articles as well as my book review, I want to seek out resources on spelling and conventions instruction for ELLs.

Right now, the goal of teaching spelling and conventions to middle school ELLs seems tedious and daunting, but I know the students really need it. I am making a promise to myself to ensure that the work ahead is engaging, connected, and relevant to my students, as I know how much they need these spelling and conventions skills for their future. Readers of their job applications and college admissions letters will be extremely distracted by the form of their writing as it is now, and most will infer that incorrect conventions are a sign of weak ideas and arguments. If this problem is not fixed, it will have future consequences for the 15 children in my classroom.


What Teachers Really Need: More Collaborative Planning Time

While participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative jurying process at the Southern Regional Education Board Conference this past July, I was blown away by all of the thoughtful, creative, standards-based Science & Social Studies learning modules created by fellow teachers from all over the country. These modules were both content-rich and heavily focused on critical literacy. For example, an 11th grade Chemistry module titled “Nuclear Sustainability” asks students students research the chemistry of nuclear power, evaluate its sustainability,  and write either an editorial or public service announcement persuading their audience of their views.  I was elated to read through the overarching goal and daily tasks because it was exactly the sort of student work production the Writing is Thinking team is advocating for.  

After being awe-stricken by the rigor and quality of the modules, I immediately began trying to estimate how much time the modules would take to plan. It was clear that they took hours upon hours upon hours. I know that when I create a unit plan or lesson plans that are intended to be shared with others, it takes me FAR longer than when I simply plan in isolation for just me and my students.  As a teacher, I view planning time as my most precious commodity – and the bottom line is that there is not enough time for me to plan during my work day. I must take time in the early morning, during the evenings, and on weekends to plan. This is unsustainable, and often leads me feeling burned out by around November of the school year. Also, I’m always planning alone. Work products are always better when more than one brain is thinking about it. In order for our public education system to improve, teachers need adequate time embedded in our work day to be able to collaborate and create top-tier, standards-based lesson plans that can be shared with educators all over the country.

It’s been my experience that a school system’s response to meeting the needs for planning is creating central-office positions around curricular design. What I’ve seen come out of these positions is a massive scope & sequence that provides a checklist of the content that must be “covered” throughout the year. I haven’t found these to be very helpful because at its core, teaching is a creative profession. Creating plans and adjusting them based on student needs is the crux of our work. What we need is time. Time to be thoughtful about how to modify and make curriculum accessible for ELLs and Students with Special Needs. Time to work with our colleagues to make our  plans better. Time during our work day to write, edit, and revise our plans collaboratively. Time to ensure that we are incorporating writing across the curriculum (even in math and elective class!). Time to collectively analyze student work and develop hypotheses around why students may or may not have been successful. Time to adjust our practice when student work tells a particular story. We need more time together as adults to create a strong professional learning community.

It turns out there is a wealth of resources to support teacher meetings so that they are fruitful and productive. I had the pleasure of learning about these great tools this summer during a week-long seminar with education consultant Gene Thompson-Grove and the School Reform Initiative, where we were given the tools of protocols to help structure meetings so that they ensure real work gets done. Whether it’s getting feedback on curriculum, analyzing student work, or digging deeper into a dilemma a teacher is facing, there are protocols designed to structure these important conversations.  From this, I learned that authentic teacher-driven professional learning communities are a means for us to really improve adult learning and thus directly improve student learning.

Some people may be asking, but wait – don’t teachers get planning time? As a member of the Boston Teacher’s Union, I am currently allotted 48 minutes per day for planning. I feel lucky to even have it, as I know that many teachers across the nation do not. The reality is, I do not usually spend this time planning. On any given day, you will find me calling parents, making photocopies, catching up on emails, rearranging desks for student groupings for my next class, or attending IEP and other mandated meetings. This amount of time during the day is not enough to be the practitioners our students, families, and communities need us to be. We need more of it, and we need to collaborate during it.

This upcoming year, one of my professional goals is to create a community of adult learners amongst my teaching team. I want us  to spend time during the day, even if just 48 minutes, to have structured planning time so that we may co-create high-quality curriculum, reflect on our practice, and become better teachers together. Hopefully we will be able to collect enough evidence to prove that this time is valuable. I’m hoping to enlist  their help in creating some LDC modules targeted toward our ELL level 1 and 2 students.  I’ll be sure to keep blogging my progress…stay tuned!