Thinking back to move our English language learners forward with writing

Module 5 concludes our course Teaching students from a refugee background (c) State of NSW (Dept 0f Education) 2016. Looking at the module outline I have been pondering why it bears the simple title, Teaching Writing – but more of that later.  

To be able to write well is definitely ‘hard work’. Stephen King says that, the scariest moment is always just before you start. John O’Hara is of the opinion that becoming a reader is the essence of becoming a writer and Doris Lessing insists that you only learn to be a better writer by actually writing. Our goal as teachers of English Language (EL) learners is to scaffold our lessons through activities that involve substantive conversations and immersion in rich texts so that our students are not afraid to put pen to paper.

How can we as teachers help our students to progress from being able to write and copy simple texts at level 1 of the ESL Scales through to communicating effectively to fulfil the literacy and learning requirements of most written tasks across the school curriculum (Level 7) if we cannot do so ourselves?  (ESL Scales ©2004 NSW Department of Education and Training) What do we know about moving our students from writing that is more spoken-like to that which is written-like? We as teachers need to be confident in our own knowledge of the skills and understandings that are required of proficient writers.

Funnily enough, half the people at Fairfield P.S. in this course, Teaching students from a refugee background  had also participated in the Grammar and Teaching courses offered by PETAA with Joanne Rossbridge, and capably discussed the grammatical features of given texts going into far more depth than our facilitator’s, Cindy Valdez-Adams, cheat notes actually required. Several years ago teaching ‘Grammar’ went out of fashion because it was often taught poorly in a dry and decontextualised way. This has resulted in many teachers today not being ‘language aware’. As schools we need to have conversations around teaching grammar so that all our teachers are able to assist our students and especially our EL learners to access curriculum through the specific language demands of different subject areas and to express their learning in writing.


EAL/D teachers in NSW have several tools to assess, plan and plot the learning of their students’ literacy. These are the NSW Dept of Education’s ESL Scales, the ACARA EAL/D Learning Progression, the NSW (K-10) English Syllabus and the NSW Dept of Education Literacy Continuum.  If you like, NAPLAN results can also thrown into this mix. While the specifically designed tools for EL learners are helpful for assessing the students’ knowledge base and to work out gaps in their learning the others are not. Learning frameworks built around the literacy development of English speakers do not take into account the fact that because of their varying and various experiences and knowledge EL learners’ development in learning to speak, read and write is bound to be different.

Whilst the scales, progressions and continuums are useful for assessing learning they cannot take into account the traumatic experiences of our refugee students and the impact this has on them as they settle into life and education in a foreign culture. Pam Luizzi and Janet Saker wrote a PETAA PEN paper 162, Planning the Learning Environment for Refugee Background Students to help mainstream classroom teachers to plan literacy programs for these students that accommodated for their needs. The main messages from this article were about how schools can play a major role in helping these families adjust and settle into life in Australia, the challenges faced by students from refugee backgrounds in ‘learning English’ and ‘learning through English’ and practical ways teachers can help these students to access the curriculum through explicit scaffolded literacy lessons.

Schools often provide one of the first connections that refugees have to services in Australia. (Luizzi & Saker, PEN 162, 2008) Apart from being welcoming, accepting and providing a safe place for the students, schools also put the families in touch with specialist agencies for assisting trauma survivors.(Information about these agencies can be found at Luizzi and Saker say in their article that the way that schools operate in Australia will need to be explained to those families who have had no access to formal education and they offer suggestions for creating a positive learning environment so that students are not disengaged through feeling uncomfortable and ill at ease. So, as well as the teachers needing to know their students in order to understand their learning needs, the student and their families need to know the values, customs and expectation of Australian schools.

There is so much groundwork that needs to happen as part of Teaching Writing (title of module 5), before our newly arrived EL learners actually begin to express themselves in English through the written word. PETAA PEN Paper 162 outlines the needs and processes from assessment of knowledge and explicitly explained teaching plans, through to how to fill the content learning gaps, teach speaking and listening and design reading and writing activities and culminates in how to overcome difficulties with handwriting. My personal take-away thoughts and ideas from this professional reading for improving my teaching of EL learners, were:

  • make the purpose of learning explicit
  • don’t introduce too many concepts at a time
  • find out what the students know and build on this
  • remember that it’s important that strong oral and written skills develop side by side
  • make sure that the ‘mechanics’ of reading and writing are learnt simultaneously with the purposes and uses of literacy in the students’ new country.
  • ask myself, ‘Do the students have the cultural knowledge or prior experiences to access texts?’
  • help the students understand that there are differences between speaking and writing, in particular because written texts need to ‘stand alone’.
  • restrict the number of focuses to be demonstrated and discussed for each writing topic and session
  • rehearse orally before writing
  • use the student’s writing for reading activities
  • don’t let the development of their (the EL learner’s) handwriting impede the development of their understandings about writing in English

At the end of the PEN paper there was a table of useful strategies and their descriptions for giving the students practice in literacy skills. What are your take-aways? Click on the link and see for yourself.


In ‘Final Task 1’ of  of Module 5 , ‘Teaching Writing’ of Teaching students from a refugee background (c) State of NSW (Dept 0f Education) 2016 we were asked to reflect on our overall understanding of the course using the process outlined by Pauline Gibbons in Chapter 8,Planning for a High-Challenge, High-Support Classroom‘, English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking (Heinemann, Portsmouth,2009). 


Dear facilitators, Cindy Valdez- Adams (@TESOLoz) and Alice Clarke ( @AClarke28), here is my reflection:

How might these steps assist you in differentiating learning for refugee students? 

Step 1 is about the importance of knowing what our EL learners know and not making any assumptions, because acquiring new knowledge is dependent upon prior knowledge .

Our EL learners from refugee backgrounds may have disrupted schooling or might never have been to school before and academic concepts could be completely foreign to them. Its possible that they do not have the experience of these concepts from our curriculum frameworks or the vocabulary for them in any of their languages. We also need to know if they are literate in their ‘mother tongue’. The PETAA paper 162 suggested that we could find out what they already know by brainstorming, visually representing their understandings and talking or writing about the focus topics in their first language with their families or bilingual aides.

The NSW Dept of Education’s ESL Scales have been the EAL/D teachers’ faithful companion for many years. In recent times we also have the ACARA EAL/D Learning Progression. With these learning frameworks we can assess the EL students’ levels of English oracy and literacy as we observe and interact with them in our daily classroom tasks. We need to know their language learning strengths and needs in order to tailor our ‘scaffolding’ to give the EL learners exactly the right amount of support for their learning to be attainable yet still interesting and challenging.

Step 2 is where we select the syllabus content and outcomes for the unit of work we are working with. Our EAL/D students still have to be exposed to the same  curriculum as their English speaking peers, butPETAA PEN Paper 162 suggests that we do not introduce too many concepts at a time. The content and outcomes we choose will depend upon what the students already know as new knowledge needs to build on previous knowledge.

Step 3 asks us to identify the language that needs to be taught to the EL learners so that they can access the syllabus content and outcomes we have chosen for our unit. Pauline Gibbons (English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking (Heinemann, Portsmouth,2009). p. 159-160 says, Decide the most critical and relevant language to focus on, taking into account any notes you made in Step 1 about learners’ language needs. Consider what student language needs to be sensibly and realistically addressed in this unit of work. … The decisions about what language you will focus on will enable you to define specific language objectives for the unit to accompany the content objectives. 

Step 3 also tells us to take into account the cultural and background knowledge of our EL learners. This means that we, as teachers need to be culturally  and socially sensitive so that the texts, media or activities planned for use will not offend or upset our traumatised students. Often our planned units of work will need to incorporate ‘hands-on’ or shared learning experiences for our EL learners with gaps in their cultural understandings of Australia and its idiosyncrasies, so that the students are all on the ‘same page’ and can use the language as they learn it.

Step 4 says Design a culminating assessment task that will assess achievement of syllabus and language outcomes. For me, every learning interaction is an opportunity for observation and assessment. As EAL/D teachers we are constantly observing and assessing to know where to take our EL learners next along the language continuum. At the school where I teach, we are also expected to display and discuss explicit learning intentions and success criteria so that all our students including our EL learners know what they are to learn and why and can have ownership of their own learning. Some units of work may have several ‘culminating’ tasks for each small stage of learning. The final product is often a group presentation which involves writing, illustrating and speaking. It is the product of much substantive conversation, research, hands-on learning, experimentation, reading, illustrating and writing which happens along the learning journey during the unit of work. Assessment is done in consultation with the students’ peers and the teacher against the criteria of the explicit learning goals. This helps to create a positive learning environment for all students including the EL learners because the expectations are open, consistent, clear, positive and explicit. (PETAA Pen paper 162 p. 3)

Step 5 involves looking backwards to where the EL learners are at, looking forwards to where we want them to be and then designing scaffolded learning activities that will bring them to Step 4. This is called ‘backward mapping’ where we as teachers closely analyse our EL learners’ specific learning goals in language and content areas, share them with our students and then choose carefully sequenced teaching and learning strategies and tasks to help our students to achieve them. Pauline Gibbons defines scaffolding as the temporary, future-oriented, targeted help that supports learners in developing new knowledge, skills and understandings that are transferable to new contexts.(English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking (Heinemann, Portsmouth,2009). p. 153  

To ‘design in’ scaffolding means planning lesson sequences with controlled, guided and then independent support. Our EAL/D students need carefully sequenced opportunities to build their field knowledge and develop their oral language. Pauline Gibbons suggests that we make information comprehensible for EL learners by giving similar information in a variety of ways … (English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking (Heinemann, Portsmouth,2009). p. 156   She calls this  message abundancy.  Some of her suggestions include:

  • participating in an initial shared experience and using concrete examples of key concepts
  • hearing everyday language alongside academic language
  • displaying key words and information
  • representing key information in different ways e.g. graphs, maps, pictures, diagrams
  • using appropriate pre-reading activities before reading more complex texts
  • discussing familiar and concrete examples before moving to the abstract
  • presenting information multi-modally e.g. videos, movies, the internet
  • using rich texts

As well as the ‘input’ of the controlled support our students need carefully designed, well-sequenced guided activities to practise their language through speaking and writing.  In module 5 of Teaching students from a refugee background (c) State of NSW (Dept 0f Education) 2016, we discussed strategies like:

  • providing graphic outlines that could first be discussed , explained and then written about.
  • using sentence makers, so that EAL/D students could find words that they recognised put them into sentences, read, copy and then illustrate them.
  • providing sentence stems that could be talked about, built upon and then written to begin sentences using sight words and knowledge of grapho-phonic relationships.
  • discussing best choice of words using collaborative cloze passages. There are many ideas for these in PETAA Paper 174 where Paul Dufficy looks at how we might adapt cloze technique (reverse, cluster, synonym, read-around and prediction) in order to re-cycle vocabulary and grammar for deeper understanding.
  • matching topic sentences with the remaining bodies of their paragraphs to teach structure and cohesion.
  • matching parts of sentences to see how playing with syntax affects meaning.
  • sequencing and reconstructing sentences and paragraphs to teach the importance of word and sentence order when making meaning.
  • building noun groups using adjectives in their correct place and order, phrases and embedded clauses.
  • changing verbs to nouns and using them in sentences.(nominalisation)
  • teaching, using and playing games with the metalanguage used to discuss the language features of different genres of writing
  • giving students opportunities e.g prepared speeches, to use the ‘literate’ spoken language prior to writing
  • planning guided speaking and writing activities that move students along the mode continuum from basic interpersonal communication skills (informal, contextualised spoken language) to cognitive academic language proficiency (formal, decontextualised written language).


Step 6 is where we assess the EAL/D students’ learning using their work in the culminating task/s and measuring it against the syllabus and language outcomes. If we have explained and shared the learning and success criteria for each task prior to each learning activity with the students and reflected against these criteria at the end of each lesson then the students should be able to discuss their personal learning goals and take ownership of their learning. The EAL/D progression and the literacy continuum can be expressed in simple language for the EL learners to understand and discuss.

Step 7 is the teaching of the unit where we assess as we teach and provide feedback to the EAL/D students to encourage them and help them to monitor their own learning. Our lesson plans need to be flexible. As we teach we use what Pauline Gibbons calls interactional scaffolding which is never planned because it depends on the interactions that spontaneously occur in every lesson. In scaffolded reactions, teachers:

  • listen to learners’ intended meanings
  • build on learners’ prior experiences
  • recap what students have said at regular intervals to remind students of key points
  • appropriate student responses and recast them into more technical or academic wording
  • engage in longer exchanges with students …and so provide opportunities for students to say more or rethink how they have expressed something.
  • allow learners more time to respond e.g by asking them for further explanation of their ideas
  • allow adequate wait time in a variety of ways

(English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking (Heinemann, Portsmouth,2009). p. 158 P.Gibbons

After Teaching – Evaluate your unit of work

This is the time to have a long hard look at my lesson plans and see whether they have achieved the intended syllabus and language outcomes for my EL learners. I have to look at the evidence. What did my learners know before they started this unit of work and what learning and understandings did they demonstrate at the end? Which teaching and learning activities did the students respond well to and which ones needed refining? Was the scaffolding adequate and appropriate and were the students given enough practise at using the focussed language?

How different is this from what you have done in the past?

Having completed the TELL course and the PETAA Grammar and Teaching course I have already been exposed to the concepts of scaffolding, controlled, guided and independent support and the strategies involved in EAL/D pedagogy. Planning learning experiences with both a content and language focus is not new for me.

However, I do need to spend more time on Steps 4 and 5 where I look more closely at the language that needs to be practised and deliberately plan more ‘designed scaffolding’. I must slow down the pace of my lessons and have greater ‘message abundancy’.

This course has widened my eyes to the needs of our students from refugee backgrounds. It has helped me to appreciate the difficulties they face when entering our society and our education system. It has encouraged me to view them with renewed respect and helped me to recognise their strengths which can be used to encourage them to be confident and independent speakers, readers and writers of English.

Why was module 5 called Teaching Writing? Maybe because this was the mode to follow after Speaking and Listening and Reading. But it could also have been called this because being able to write well involves our whole being, our culture, our stories and every language skill we possess to communicate meaningfully with other human beings who we may never actually meet. It could be said that powerful writing is the culmination of all the language skills that we wish to impart to our EL learners.

3 thoughts on “Thinking back to move our English language learners forward with writing

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