Writing for Bilingual and Multilingual Students

Writing can be difficult for any students, but it poses some particular challenges for bilingual and multilingual students who are still aqcuiring the language they need to express themselves in English, as well as possibly in one or more other languages. If your bilingual and multilingual students are anything like mine, just saying the word "writing" may cause them to suddenly urgently need to take long trips to the bathroom . Fortunately, there are ways to help students work through some of the difficulties writing presents in a more helpful way, increasing their comfort, competence, and confidence where writing in English is concerned.

One of the first things you can do is decide what you are hoping students’ writing will look like. Be very specific here. As Brené Brown (2018) points out, “Clear is kind. Unclear is Unkind.” If, for instance, you want your students to write an essay, you need to be able to define the various components of the essay. How many paragraphs need to be in this essay? How many sentences need to be in a paragraph? What sort of information do you expect these sentences or paragraphs to contain? What will be the purpose of the essay? Will it be arguing, comparing and contrasting, describing, or doing something else? Which of those structures will connect the sentences and paragraphs to each other?

Write all of this information down, then pause. This information will guide your next few steps, helping you choose examples that are in line with your intended outcomes and create a rubric or checklist for grading. However, whichever structure you have decided to use will need to be explained in detail to the students before their writing project begins and before they will be able to understand the assignment expectations. So, if you have decided to have students write a compare and contrast essay, for instance, students will need direct instructions about what it means to compare and contrast something and practice comparing and contrasting before they begin writing.

As my fifth-grade bilingual students reminded me just last week, teachers use words like compare and contrast a lot, but never stop to explain them which makes it really frustrating to try to figure out what to do. Defining “compare” and “contrast” was helpful for my students. Giving them some examples of each was more helpful. Asking them to then provide examples really started to boost their confidence as they realized they had the language to do this and just needed some help with the structure. Before starting a compare and contrast writing assignment, we will look at some examples of writings that use the compare and contrast structure, making sure to highlight things that indicate to us that the authors are comparing and contrasting different things. Then together we will write some short compare and contrast pieces, talking through the different steps and thought processes that go into putting our language knowledge into this writing structure.

While this will take a few days the first time you have an assignment using this structure, helping students learn the structure deeply will allow you to reuse it throughout the school year. Each use will likely require a brief refresher, which will be easier if you have made some anchor charts or other reference materials for students, but by the end of the year your students will be significantly better at using those structures both orally and in writing. They will also be better prepared to discuss the finer details of other writings that use the structures they have learned.

Once your students understand the writing structure they will be producing, then you can introduce them to the assignment requirements. Explain these details to the students, put them on an anchor chart, and give copies to students in the form of checklists and/or rubrics. Provide examples of work that meets the requirements and work that does not meet the requirements, explaining why the work did or did not meet the requirement. Give students opportunities to ask questions and have them sort examples and non-examples in small groups.

Then give them the guidelines and the structure helpers created together and encourage them to write. When they are finished, have them compare their writings to the assignment requirements either in the form of a rubric or checklist. Provide them with specific feedback about what they did well, how they used the structure appropriately and effectively, and areas that could use some work, explaining specifically how to improve. Give them more opportunities to improve their assignments as well as to practice these skills again in the near future. You will be surprised by how quickly the comfort, competence, and confidence of your bilingual students will grow as you provide opportunities for them to get to know and use the various structures they will encounter in their reading and will need to be able to use in their writing.


References

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Random House.

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