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Elementary School Writing for MLLs: Interview With Joanna Wong

by Betsy Gilliland |

Joanna Wong, Associate Professor, College of Education, California State University, Monterey Bay, is an elementary school teacher educator who holds a PhD in education focused on language, literacy, and culture. Drawing on her previous work as a bilingual teacher in California public schools, she advocates for immigrant multilingual children and their families. Her recent research examines teacher education to prepare teachers to serve multilingual and culturally diverse learners, asset-based literacy instruction, and culturally sustaining writing pedagogy. She has just been elected to the Elementary Section Steering Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a professional organization focused on the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education.

Following, I’ve asked Dr. Wong some questions about elementary school writing for multilingual language learners (MLLs). In addition to discussing what young MLLs should learn about writing, she shares classroom strategies for teaching them as well as her favorite books for teachers of MLL writing. 

In what roles (or jobs) have you worked with young MLLs? 

I worked with K–5 multilingual learners for over 14 years in California as an educator within the Oakland Unified School District. There, I served as an elementary teacher, site-based instructional coach, and district literacy specialist. During that period, I cofounded a Spanish-English dual-language immersion elementary school where I served as the instructional coach. My dissertation research focused on elementary bilingual writers.

How did you get interested in teaching young MLLs? 

I would have to say multilingualism was the norm in my world growing up. I am a multilingual, second-generation Chinese American. My family is multilingual, speaking several Chinese languages (Taishanese, Cantonese, Mandarin). I was born and raised in Oakland, California where I lived in a working-class neighborhood and attended public schools with tremendous linguistic and ethnic diversity. I feel at home in multilingual spaces and value working with students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

In what ways are young MLLs different from older students (adolescent and college age) when it comes to learning to write in English? In what ways are they similar? 

That’s a good question. I have only taught writing to elementary age students and elementary teachers. With that in mind, the youngest multilingual students have to learn to hold a pencil and how to type using a keyboard. So there is the physical aspect of actually writing and building stamina. It is my hope that young MLLs are provided with many opportunities to illustrate their ideas and translanguage using their primary languages and new language to express themselves and communicate their ideas. The types of feedback, scaffolding, and support MLLs receive from teachers will impact how they develop agency as writers and positive writing identities in school. Young MLLs benefit from oral rehearsal of their writing ideas and sharing their writing throughout the writing process with peers and their teacher.

Both groups of writers are similar in that all MLL writers benefit from reading high-quality texts and using mentor texts as models of types of compositions they are learning to write. Choice and writing for authentic purposes are important for all writers. Both groups of writers benefit when their primary language skills are leveraged for writing in English, and feedback is specific and focused on helping learners communicate their ideas.

Because writing is challenging for many people, teachers who build trust with and among students and encourage risk-taking and creativity may be more successful cultivating writers and a writing community.

What do you think are the most important things elementary school age students should learn about writing in English?

Young learners using English will need to learn the alphabetic principle, word families (also known as rimes), sight words, vocabulary, and syntax. To foster a positive writing identity, young learners should learn that their ideas are important and that writing is one way to share their thoughts with a larger audience. They should learn that writing in English takes many forms and serves different purposes, and there are different registers in which they may express their thoughts. I hope they are taught and supported to draw on the many ways they use languages and their varieties to support their purposes for writing in school. I hope they learn how the structure of English is similar and/or different to their primary languages, and that teachers use this knowledge to support MLLs to write across their languages.

What strategies can teachers use to support MLLs as they develop their writing?

Multilingual learners benefit from routine and structure, and writing development requires ample time to practice. So it is really important that teachers first commit to teaching writing consistently every day.

Teachers support MLLs to develop as writers when they design meaningful writing units of study that offer structure through writing process instruction with strategy minilessons and student writing practice. Writing units should provide opportunities for students to author different types of texts that connect to real-world literacy practices, write for different audiences, and choose topics for their writing. Students are more motivated and encouraged to write when they choose their own topics. Choice also allows writers to draw on their funds of knowledge and interests.

Teachers should employ multilingual, multicultural mentor texts that may reflect some students’ experiences and offer other students new perspectives.

Young writers’ practices should include drawing, dictation, oral rehearsal, explicit instruction, modeling, and guided and interactive writing. Word study activities will reinforce spelling patterns and word structure. Invite students to use translanguaging where students draw on their full linguistic repertoire (e.g., Chinese/English, Spanish/English) to write. Some additional strategies to scaffold MLLs’ writing include strategic use of word banks, sentence frames, and anchor charts with visuals and examples to reinforce writing skills and strategies. (More ideas for teaching writing to young learners)

How teachers assess MLLs’ writing matters greatly. I hope that teachers will hold an asset-based perspective when looking at student work and begin by looking for gems. What is the message that the student is communicating? What strategies and skills is the student using or attempting to use? Then, identify areas for growth and instructional strategies to support. Leverage students’ strengths and existing skills for further development. Celebrate each learner’s growth and success.

What are your favorite books for teachers of MLL writing?

With the tremendous racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in K–12 classrooms across the United States, I would say the majority of U.S. K–12 teachers are teachers of MLL writing. A couple key texts that support teachers to examine their own raciolinguistic perspectives and literacy pedagogy to shift towards an asset-based, critical multilingual framework are Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad and Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy by April Baker-Bell. Both these texts historicize and affirm Black language and literacy practices in the United States while highlighting how racialized literacy instruction imposes a false notion of “Standard English” that perpetuates inequities in schooling and society for Black language users. To really teach multilingual learners, teachers must recognize and affirm the brilliance of all their students and how they use language in varied ways to express and explore ideas.

I also recommend Anne Haas Dyson’s books on primary writers. Her studies draw on sociocultural theories to examine how young Black learners develop as writers within the social worlds of their school communities.

From Ideas to Words: Writing Strategies for English Language Learners by Tasha Tropp Laman is a text I’ve used in my literacy methods course that presents strategies for supporting multilingual learners from a range of linguistic backgrounds in the primary grades. These strategies leverage students’ use of primary language and celebrate their writing progress. The appendices have several different tools, including a student interview protocol and approaches to assessing student writing with an asset-based perspective.

Katherine Davis Samway’s book When English Language Learners Write: Connecting Research to Practice, K-8 provides a literature review of early research on multilingual writing instruction, addresses reading and writing connections, and offers research-based instructional strategies.

In what ways do you think TESOL and NCTE members might collaborate or share ideas around teaching writing for MLLs?

During my doctoral studies, I studied writing, rhetoric, and composition with a focus on second language writing. This emphasis focused on university multilingual writers, while my primary research interest was in elementary writing opportunities and pedagogy for bilingual learners. I saw then how these academic communities were in parallel worlds pursuing some very similar questions to address core issues of multilingual writing development and pedagogy. A future collaboration starting with professional learning opportunities that bring some of these conversations into one space may be beneficial for educators in both NCTE and TESOL.

Is there anything else you think TESOL readers might want to know about working with young MLLs learning to write? 

From my current research project focused on teacher inquiry into culturally and linguistically sustaining writing pedagogy, a kindergarten teacher participant recently shared an epiphany that she had to stop trying to control her young learners’ writing. In doing so, she reflected that in the past she was very much focused on correctness and form in English, such as spacing, spelling, and sentence structure. While these are important, she learned that once she let go of trying to control how and what students wrote and really began to design writing lessons that centered on students’ interests and languages and included the use of translanguaging, they and she loved writing more.

At the end of the academic year, she reported on students’ writing development. She noted how impressed she was with how much they wrote, their intrinsic motivation to develop and revise their compositions, and their use of writing for personal purposes at home. She also recognized how much more they knew about their topics and that writing alone was an insufficient medium for them to express all their ideas. This led her to identify next steps to integrate multimodal publication opportunities so students could audio record their ideas in addition to writing and drawing.

Thank you so much for your thoughts, Joanna! Readers, if you are interested in learning more about NCTE, check out their website and the position paper on the role of English teachers in educating English language learners

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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