Thursday, November 19, 2015

They Think Therefore They Write

I recently viewed a Periscope broadcast of Sarah Brown Wessling (@sarahwessling) conferring with one of her high school English students about a writing piece. Although I wasn't able to view it in its entirety, there was one statement she made that profoundly resonated with me - "good writing comes from good thinking."

One of the most difficult language skills for an ELL to master is writing, and it's often what keeps them from exiting LEP (Limited English Proficient) status.  In January 2014, in an effort to help my learners overcome this roadblock (and inspired by the movie Freedom Writers), I ventured on a quest to get my ELLs to write more often.  And so I asked my high schoolers to create a blog and start writing daily. It started as free writing exercise (as in the movie) and I made very few corrections if any. The following fall, my middle schoolers followed suit. Due to scheduling issues, my middle schoolers blog about once a week, but my high schoolers continue to write daily. By the end of last year, I observed significant growth in most students' writing skills. Yet, I would argue that while it may seem that writing practice is what contributed to their gains, it's the thinking that occurs before they write that has generated momentum.  They think. Therefore they write.

And this is the same for all of us.  I thought long and hard about Sarah's comment before writing this post.  But how do I get students to think so they will write? As we go through the five steps of the writing process - (1) prewriting, (2) drafting, (3) revising, (4) editing and (5) publishing - I emphasize the prewriting stage.  It is in that prewriting stage that we brainstorm and organize ideas in order to write, i.e. we think.  While most students may express their displeasure over writing, it's the thinking process that stumps them. Once those wheels start turning, they are on a roll.

Thankfully there are some great and resources on the web to help us get started, and best of all, they are FREE for the most part.  Here are a few of my favorites.
  • 100 Word Challenge (@100wc) and Night ZooKeeper (@nightzookeeper
    • A weekly 100-word creative writing challenge targeted at students under 16. A weekly prompt is posted on the website every Sunday. I use it with my middle schoolers (grades 7-8) since last year.  Students are challenged to write their stories but are also encouraged to comment on other entries, thereby enabling global connections.  Most of the participating schools are in England, so the connections are indeed global.  Last year, students followed the prompts from and wrote on their individual blogs.  Now that they have teamed up with the Night Zookeeper, they write directly on their site. Frankly, I think the interface is a tad bit infantile for middle school but I have yet to hear students echoing my comments, and they appear to be drawn to it.  They provide a prompt as well as a short word bank and a counter to keep them from going too far under or over the 100 words.  Overall, it's very cool and engaging.  If you teach elementary or middle grades, I encourage you to check it out. 
  • Listen  Current (@listencurrent)
    • This site is about current events and is targeted at middle and high school science, social studies and English language arts.  However, I have only used it with my high school ELLs.  The topics are relevant to teens and thought provoking, perfect for blogging or any other form of writing.  While they emphasize the listening skill (hence the name), their lesson plans provide opportunities for reading, vocabulary enhancements, and academic conversations.  It's not designed for ELLs - and it has been quite a stretch for my bunch - but they do offer ELL supports with the premium subscription.  I highly recommend it for any secondary subject area.
  • Write About
    • A digital writing community offering visual writing ideas to spark creativity. This site can be used individually as well as privately in collaboration with other classes within the school or across the globe. Writings can also be made publicly available to any registered user. I would caution you, however. The selection is so extensive and incredibly interesting that I suggest that you create a group and narrow down student choices a bit for time management's sake.  It's targeted at grades K-12, but prompts are appropriately categorized in grade clusters.  I also highly recommend it.
  • Brainy Quote
    • If you are into quotes, you may have already visited this website.  I use motivational quotes to teach idioms, vocabulary and certainly to motivate and inspire my ELLs.  At one point, I used quotes simply as a warm-up.  Once they started blogging, they blog after the warm-up.  I use these mostly with my high schoolers, but I would say they are appropriate for upper elementary grades and above. Read one of my students' blog posts here.
There are numerous other sites that offer writing prompts; however, those are my favorites because they enable me to incorporate listening, reading, speaking (class discussions) and most importantly, thinking, making their writing practice much more productive.  At a minimum, we discuss as a class or in partners and exchange ideas about the topics.

Many of my beginner ELLs use translation as a scaffold. They gather their thoughts in their native language and use a translator as they compose. As they gather their thoughts,  the translation tool helps them in their thinking process and assists in transferring those thoughts into English. Again, good writing starts with good thinking.

One can often hear me tell my learners that their blogging practice is not as much about writing in English, but about thinking in English.  As they practice their writing, they are thinking.  Even if they start thinking in the mother tongue, they eventually think in English as they draft, revise and edit their work.  In addition to writing practice, blogging serves as an exit ticket, formative assessment, a reflective piece.  However, what I find most valuable is that is a window into their mind.  While their blogs help me gauge their areas of weakness in their English language skills, it also provides a glimpse into their world.  It tells me about their interests, priorities, family dynamics and most importantly, how they think.  Reading their blogs helps me personalize learning, most notably by shedding some light into their language needs, yet it's what I read between the lines that enable me to truly capture their hearts and minds.

If you have a favorite resource for writing prompts, kindly share them in the comments section, or reach out to me via Twitter or email. I'm always seeking more ideas.



  1. I used to teach in a school were I used blogging with Title I writing students. They loved it and I saw their writing grow tremendously! I love it!

  2. I came across this blog and spent the past 30 minutes skimming your posts. I like what I see!

    This is not a shameless plug... I read this post, and genuinely thought you might be interested in the creative writing process I used in my advanced EFL after school class in South Korea. Check it out if you have a minute:

  3. I appreciate your comments! I'll check it out and perhaps will be in touch. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  4. I really liked how you said that your students are thinking in English. You are 100% correct. When teachers find vias to compel students to think instead of just "do" they teach and educate the future. Great post!


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