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5 Tips for Scaffolding Writing for Multilingual Learners of English

by Eric Gómez Burgos |

Back in the days when I worked as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher at school, writing was for sure the most difficult skill to develop with my students. In the Spanish-speaking context where I taught, it was complicated because young learners (5- to 7-year olds) were learning to read and write in their mother tongue, and English was a new subject for those who were in Grades 4 through 8.

As a teacher, I understand that teaching writing to multilingual learners of English (MLEs) involves being mindful of both the language skills and cultural backgrounds of my students. In developing student writing skills, I found a number of effective scaffolds that helped my learners complete their writing tasks successfully. Here are some tips for crafting supportive writing practices for MLEs.

1. Use Visual Supports

Incorporate pictures, charts, diagrams, graphic organizers, or examples to help illustrate key points and the task.

Use a picture of a traditional celebration, like Diwali in India or Lunar New Year in China, for an informative writing task where learners write a paragraph about that celebration. First, show learners a picture of the celebration; second, describe what happens; and third, highlight key aspects, such as “During Chinese New Year, families gather to have a big meal, give red envelopes for good luck, and watch dragon dances.”

Visual supports play a key role in writing as they cater to different learning styles; they make lessons more inclusive and engaging, and they stimulate interest and motivation among MLEs. These resources also help bridge language barriers, offering MLEs visual context that can inspire ideas, clarify tasks, and exemplify text structures or grammar points. Thus, visual supports foster a richer and more interactive learning environment.

2. Provide Writing Frames

Offer sentence starters or writing templates to help MLEs structure their writing.

Give learners sentence frames for a descriptive paragraph about a special holiday, including details about how it is celebrated, why it is important, and what people enjoy most about it:

The holiday I want to describe is __________.
It is important because __________.
During this holiday, we __________.

Writing frames help MLEs gain autonomy in their writing, fostering both fluency and accuracy in their use of English. Frames, such as a template that guides writing, offer a supportive framework that can help MLEs organize their thoughts and develop coherence.

3. Chunk Tasks

Break down the task into manageable steps to support MLEs.

Learners will write a paragraph about a family tradition. Divide the writing task into smaller parts, as follows: First, learners, describe the tradition; second, learners explain why it is meaningful; third, learners describe how the tradition begins; finally, learners describe how the tradition ends.

For writing tasks, chunking can be used to simplify the process of organizing thoughts, structuring arguments, and constructing detailed narratives. Chunking is valuable for MLEs because it breaks down complex information into smaller, sequential pieces or steps.

4. Provide Model Texts

Write examples yourself and think aloud to demonstrate the writing process to MLEs.

Giving the same descriptive writing task about a special holiday above (Scaffold 2), write an example yourself, and think aloud as you write:

The holiday I want to describe is Chinese New Year. It is important because it brings families together. During this holiday, we have a big meal, give red envelopes for good luck, and watch dragon dances.

Modeling text structure is an essential strategy for teaching writing to MLEs, as it demonstrates practical examples of how language is used in various contexts and how texts are organized. By observing a model text, learners see the organizational structures in action.

5. Use Peer Collaboration

Pair up learners for brainstorming or joint construction writing tasks.

Learners share information about local festivals or events they enjoy and then write a paragraph about a local festival or event.

Peer collaboration is also a beneficial strategy for MLEs as it provides an opportunity for them to benefit from sharing linguistic and cultural perspectives. Learners can discuss ideas, negotiate language use, and receive immediate feedback from peers.

Taken together, these scaffolds not only make the writing process less intimidating but also help in reinforcing language structures and vocabulary in context. Besides, by using culturally relevant examples, you validate the diverse backgrounds of MLEs, making the learning experience more engaging and relatable for them. These supports also give students a framework from which they can start building their own texts.

About the author

Eric Gómez Burgos

Eric Gómez Burgos is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Universidad San Sebastián (Puerto Montt, Chile) and a Humphrey Fellow in Peabody College at Vanderbilt University (2023-2024). He has experience in teaching EFL to students ranging in age from early childhood to the university level. His work in teacher education focuses on preparing EFL teachers in the areas of teaching English to young learners and field experiences at school. His research interests include teaching methods and teacher education in EFL settings.

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