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Bilingual Basics

Bilingual Basics News, Volume 6:1 (July 2004)

by User Not Found | 11/03/2011
In This Issue...

Bilingual Students' Writing as Instructional Inspiration
Considerations for the Teaching of Bilingual Writing
Writing With Deaf Students: A Short Review of Research
About This Member Community

Bilingual Students' Writing as Instructional Inspiration

By Maria R. Coady, University of Florida,

Research in the area of bilingual students' writing over the past 20 years has often focused on the ways in which two language children (TLCs)1 approach writing in English (Edelsky, 1982; Hudelson, 1989; Odlin, 1989). Generally what this body of literature reveals is that bilingual children apply what they know about first language (L1) rules and structure (including linguistic features such as phonology and syntax, as well as rhetorical structure of writing) to writing in English. Not surprising, the result of bilingual students' efforts has frequently bewildered educators who assess these students' work (in English) and who lack knowledge of second language (L2) and transitional literacy issues (Escamilla & Coady, 2001).

Nonetheless, English language learners' (ELLs) writing can provide us with insight into the ways in which we can support students' English language development and engage them in a personally meaningful curriculum. This has the potential to foster true learning in two ways. First, analysis of the linguistic features of writing in English can highlight areas of language that need further development or explicit instruction (as in standard English orthography). That is, rather than perceiving students' errors in writing conventional English as being problems, consider the application of L1 features to L2 writing as an opportunity or a resource that can be used to inform instruction (Ruíz, 1984). In addition, much of what students say in their writing can be used to inform educators about students' identities and life experiences. This information enables us to connect students' prior knowledge with new information and learning. It can also inform curricular decisions that make school interesting and meaningful in the lives of ELLs.

Taken in combination, I refer to these dimensions in ELLs' writing as transfer of self. This conceptual frame acknowledges that language (i.e., the knowledge and use of language), identity, and life experiences are at the heart of teaching ELLs. The insight gleaned from their writing can be used as a foundation to engage students in topics that are of importance in their lives and, at times, have the potential to address social injustices (Coady & Escamilla, in press). In this article, I use one student's writing sample to show how concepts of self, including negotiations of identity and life experiences, are revealed in students' writing. I further show how this knowledge, when tapped into by teachers, can be used as a resource for further learning and build expansive relationships. Due to space limitations I restrict exemplars to one writing sample collected as part of a broader investigation (Escamilla & Coady, 2001). For reference, elsewhere I have examined additional students' writing (Coady & Escamilla, in press; Escamilla & Coady, 2003). The larger investigation, from which these data are derived, sought to understand the ways in which Spanish-speaking students make transitions from Spanish (L1) to English literacy in an early-exit, transitional bilingual education program. It also investigated literacy assessment of students' work.

Transfer of Self: Identity and Life Experiences

Cummins (2001) has written extensively on the concept of negotiation of identities and the context in which bilingual students' identities are negotiated in the classroom. Briefly, relationships between students and caring adults (including teachers, educators, and parents) can be either coercive relations of power that view students' language and culture as a problem, or collaborative relationships in which students' language and culture are valued and considered to be resources for further learning. He writes that

the concept of negotiating identities recognizes the agency of culturally diverse students and communities in devaluation and in affirming their basic human rights, but it also focuses on the fact that identities develop in a social context. (Cummins, 2001, viii)

He expands upon this further, stating that

negotiating identities [is] fundamental to the academic success of culturally diverse students. When students' developing sense of self is affirmed and extended through their interactions with teachers, they are more likely to apply themselves to academic effort and participate actively in instruction .... By contrast, when students' language, culture and experience are ignored or excluded in classroom interactions, students are immediately starting from a disadvantage. Everything they have learned about life and the world up to this point is being dismissed as irrelevant to school learning; there are few points of connection to curriculum materials or instruction and so students are expected to learn in an experiential vacuum. (p. 2)

Cummins' application of the concept of negotiation of identities is not unlike Moll, Amanti, Neff, and González's (1992) anthropological work with Spanish-speaking students in the Southwest United States. In that work, Moll et al. investigated ways in which a teacher and anthropologist explored Mexican-American students' funds of knowledge. Funds of knowledge are household and community knowledge or areas of expertise. As educators participating in the study learned more about the lives of their students and what their funds of knowledge were, they were able to engage students in school by connecting the curriculum to those funds of knowledge. Students, in turn, participated in class in which they could act as classroom experts. One student in that study had experience as a transnational, regularly crossing borders and acting as a cultural and linguistic broker. When the teacher made the connection between the student's funds of knowledge and the curriculum, the student's academic performance and participation increased dramatically. The study revealed that when students' life experiences are used as resources in the classroom, they become engaged and personally invested in the curriculum.

Moll et al.'s (1992) work provides one way in which educators can identify students' areas or funds of knowledge (i.e., through anthropological research that investigates the home and communities of the students that educators teach). In this article I propose another: Students' writing can also be used as a source from which students' identities and life experiences may be connected to further learning in the classroom.

Students' Writing as Instructional Inspiration

The writing sample below was collected as part of a broader study that investigated English language writing development and assessment of fourth- and fifth-grade Spanish-speaking students. The writing prompt given was, "If I Could be Someone Else for a Day." Students were given 30 minutes to write. Below is Raúl's writing sample in Spanish, followed by the English translation.

Raúl's Writing Sample (Spanish)

Raul writing sample.

[I would want to be a responsible person to change my character, to do all the work and homework that is assigned to me. Also, I would want to be another, more intelligent, to be able to do all the math and science. I would want to change my imagination and imagine things for myself and be able to change the future outlook. Also I would want to be a great scientist or a great president. Also Michel Jackson. Or a great basketball player. Also I want to have more imagination and be able to handle the problems that come my way in the present and resolve them well. I would want to put more effort into math, study and study in order to know more things in the future. And learn about life more and more. Also someone very important in the world and have a house, make a lot of food and plant fields and eat and eat.]

When I first read Raúl's writing sample, I was struck by the direct expression and use of the word imagination. Surely, certain writing prompts can elicit students' use of imagination, and this writing prompt appeared to do that. Raúl specifically referenced imaging or imagination three times in his short piece by imagining the future and solving important problems. In his writing, Raúl appears to value education and leadership. He states that he wants to be someone important who has knowledge of math and science. Raúl also wants to be intelligent, and study and learn a lot. This suggests the importance that he (and his home and community) places on education. Moreover, Raúl makes several references to leaders, including "ser un gran president" (being a great president) and solving problems with good resolutions. He does not desire simply being president; he wants to be a great president. It is also noteworthy that Raúl imagines and negotiates multiple ideologies, including a multicultural identity. He envisions himself as Michael Jackson. In the predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American community and school (in which 85% of the students were Mexican or of Mexican descent), Raúl's "person for a day" is not limited to a White or Hispanic racial or cultural background.

When I discussed this piece with some of my students, we began to think about the content of Raúl's writing at a deeper level. Raúl states that he wants to be "responsable" (responsible) and "más inteligente" (more intelligent). These words signaled to us that he did not consider himself to be either intelligent or responsible, or perhaps that somewhere in his experiences Raúl had been told or understood that he was not responsible or bright. In fact, as we reread Raúl's writing sample, we imagined that Raúl was told that he was incompetent or that he lacked what it takes to be successful in school (e.g., responsible, studious). We were discouraged by this insight rather than uplifted by his creative use of imagination. Raúl says that he wants to "cambiar mi imaginación" (literally, change my imagination), but seems to indicate that he wants to change his vision of the future.

As an educator I thought about several ways that Raúl's work could be tied to the classroom and further learning. First, Raúl might investigate different educators and leaders in the community. This would include people from multiple ideological backgrounds. Some of the questions we could ask are: What makes a good leader? What makes a great leader? How do leaders and educators handle important social problems? We could discuss what responsible leadership might include and how leaders use their vision to shape the future. Also, Raúl undoubtedly has funds of knowledge as a bilingual/bicultural student. It is uncertain if some of his other funds of knowledge, or areas of expertise, are being acknowledged and used to engage him in school. What we do know is that he has the desire to do well in school, to study, and to excel in certain subjects, such as math and science. We also see that he wants to take care of himself by planting food in fields and being able to eat. This collage of images is an important starting point for engagement and topics of further investigation for Raúl and his classmates.


Raúl's writing is one example of how educators can engage and respond to the social realities of their students' lives. Addressing the content level of students' writing, rather than simply assessing language "errors" in standard English will enable us to use students' writing to examine concerns that students have and the social realities in which they live. Working with bilingual students in ways that value their L1 and their life experiences will enable them to make connections that engage them further. These are the elements of engagement that have the potential to challenge existing assumptions regarding the language and literacy for ELLs.

Based on Raúl's writing sample presented here, I wish to underscore the point that language and literacy are socially situated. Students continually negotiate and make sense of themselves and the world in which they live; they express this in their words and in writing. In effect, students transfer who they are and what they experience to their writing. Writing, then, is not merely an exercise and demonstration of progressive stages of English language acquisition; it is an expression of students' lives and identity, and its purpose is communication, inquiry, and investigation of self.


1 Kathy Escamilla (Escamilla, K., Andrade, A., Basurto, A. & Ruiz, O., 1996) explores this acronym as an alternative to more pejorative terms (e.g., limited English proficient, or LEP) associated with bilingual students.


Coady, M., & Escamilla, K. (in press). Audible voices, visible tongues: Using Spanish-speaking students' writing to explore social realities and inequities. Language Arts.

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education Press.

Edelsky, C. (1982). Writing in a bilingual program: The relation of L1 and L2 texts. TESOL Quarterly, 16, 211-228.

Escamilla, K., Andrade, A., Basurto, A. & Ruiz, O. (1996). Instrumento de

observación de los logros de la lecto-escritura inicial. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Escamilla, K., & Coady, M. (2001). Assessing the writing of Spanish-speaking students: Issues and suggestions. In S. R. Hurley & J. V. Tinajero (Eds.), Literacy assessment of Spanish-speaking students (pp. 43-58). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Escamilla, K., & Coady, M. (2003). Beyond skills and strategies: Assisting Spanish speaking students in their transition to English literacy. Paper presented at the National Association for Bilingual Education, New Orleans, LA.

Hudelson, S. (1989). Write on: Children writing in ESL. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & González, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Odlin, T. (1989). Language transfer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruíz, R. (1984). Orientations in language planning.Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 8(2), 15-34.

Considerations for the Teaching of Bilingual Writing

By Fabiola Ehlers-Zavala, Illinois State University,

Helping children become successful writers in two languages is at the core of strong forms of bilingual education (e.g., two-way immersion programs) whose aims are bilingualism and biliteracy. However, helping children become biliterate in the U.S. context is not an easy task because we are inevitably faced with, at least, three basic questions: What approach should bilingual teachers adopt in the development of students' bilingual writing skills? What variety of English and Spanish (or any other language combination) needs to receive explicit attention in the schools in light of the great cultural diversity of children attending bilingual programs in U.S. public schools? And to what extent are teachers expected to embrace the home language(s) of the children enrolled in bilingual programs, not only to celebrate diversity but also to empower them with the privileged forms of language expected in academic contexts? In this article, I address these questions and propose alternatives and directions for further research.

What Approach Should Bilingual Teachers Adopt in the Development of Students' Bilingual Writing Skills?

As bilingual teachers get ready to approach writing instruction in their classrooms, they are likely to do so from a process-oriented perspective. The reason for this lies in that, unquestionably, process theories have played a major role not only in first language (L1) writing development, but also in second language (L2) writing. Hyland (2003) stated that this orientation has remained as "the dominant pedagogical orthodoxy for over 30 years" (p. 17), and bilingual classrooms are not the exception to this. Nevertheless, Hyland also pointed out that this prevalent orthodoxy has also been scrutinized by socially oriented views of writing, which call for a socially situated approach to writing instruction. Indeed, he argued that "because process approaches have little to say about the ways meanings are socially constructed, they fail to consider the forces outside the individual which help guide purposes, establish relationships, and ultimately shape writing" (p. 17).

While believing that process pedagogies in the teaching of L1 and L2 writing do represent a step in the right direction, those of us who are bilingual and biliterate can also attest to the shortcomings of process theories in that, by definition, the focus of attention is the composing process and not the product--although it could be argued that the expectation is that enhancing the learners' writing processes will inevitably lead to better writing products, and to a large extent it does in comparison to earlier approaches which devoted little attention, if any, to the composing process. Yet the learners' ability to come across as truly biliterate is judged in the tangible: their products, not their processes. Thus, attention to the product is essential, and in order to understand the product, one must necessarily understand the linguistic features that make up those products. That is, bilingual teachers need to help their learners become well versed in the various text types and genres that exist in the target languages, especially if advanced literacy (the kind that is expected in the academic context) is the goal of their programs. And, as I will state later in this article, bilingual teachers need to help learners understand the socially dynamic nature of the writing act.

What Variety of English and Spanish (or Any Other Language Combination) Needs to Receive Explicit Attention in the Schools in Light of the Great Cultural Diversity of Children Attending Bilingual Programs in U.S. Public Schools?

The complexity of the U.S. demographic configuration challenges bilingual teachers to consider the question of what form of the target languages to teach and embrace in the teaching process. For some, this situation is not a matter of choice but a matter of degree. For instance, Silva-Corvalán (2001) talked about a continuum that ranges from a standard variety to one that is not: "La complejidad de las comunidades bilingues o multilingues explica la existencia de lo que podemos llamar uncontinuo bilingue, que va desde una variedad estándar o no reducida a una emblemática y viceversa en la otra lengua, dependiendo del mayor o menor conocimiento que el bilingue tenga de las dos lenguas" ["The complexity of the bilingual or multilingual communities provides evidence to talk about the bilingual continuum, which ranges from a standard variety or non-reduced to an emblematic one and viceversa, depending on the bilingual's knowledge of the two languages"] (p. 270). In fact, many Hispanic children attending bilingual programs in the United States have only been exposed to nonstandard varieties of Spanish at home and may find it difficult at first to engage in writing practices that call for the standard variety. The same principle holds true for native speakers of English enrolled in bilingual education programs.

In the bilingual writing classroom, the approximation of meaning bilingual writers attempt in each of their two languages as they compose texts needs to be understood in the social context where these writers are situated. For example, bilingual children (e.g., Mexican-American children) in the United States who engage in the production of narrative texts may end up composing texts whose rhetorical structure is the same in either language, and "the characteristics of their narratives may be different from those of speakers from different Spanish-speaking cultural backgrounds, even in the United States" (McCabe, Bliss, & Mahecha, 2003, p. 78). They may bring with themselves the interpersonal registers to which they have been exposed during their socialization process (Colombi, 2003). It should not be surprising to uncover that these learners may not necessarily engage in discourse differentiation, and they may be unaware of the specific characteristic of various genres across languages. The reasons for this may be varied. One explanation may be that not enough is being done to adequately prepare bilingual teachers to carry out this task effectively. Another reason may be that children may be transferring their rhetorical knowledge of English (the society's dominant language) to Spanish. Yet another reason may be that children are being exposed to the variations in a language that may result from the fact that languages are in contact, and the lack of discourse differentiation may not be a problem when the target audience engages in the same practices.

The challenge for bilingual teachers then lies in their ability to convey to their students the idea that, in fact, diverse varieties of a language exist, and in doing so bilingual teachers should be able to help all learners understand that texts are socially situated, and that, at times, discourse differentiation may not just be an option, but a necessity. Therefore, in terms of a bilingual pedagogy for the writing classroom, attention must be given not only to the audience for whom texts are intended, but also to the producers of those texts and the forces influencing the writing act in either language. In other words, writers need to understand where they stand in relation to their audience to identify the most effective rhetorical and stylistic ways to convey a message.

Consequently, bilingual teachers ought to consider approaching the teaching of writing in the two languages from a multidialect and multicultural perspective that takes into account the various home and community discourses their learners have experienced (McCabe, Bliss, & Mahecha, 2003). Such an approach would entail helping learners understand their backgrounds as well as the need to identify the conventions of the various discourse communities for whom their texts are intended to succeed in the written communicative act.

To What Extent are Teachers Expected to Embrace the Home Language(s) of the Children Enrolled in Bilingual Programs, Not Only to Celebrate Diversity, but Also to Empower Them With the Privileged Language Forms Expected in Academic Contexts?

Because I have just suggested that bilingual teachers adopt a multidialect and multicultural approach to the teaching of writing in bilingual contexts, it follows that teachers ought to embrace the home language(s) of their learners. This is important for a variety of reasons. First, in doing so, bilingual teachers will be welcoming, valuing, and respecting the background of their students. Second, teachers may be able to work from a baseline (which will vary from learner to learner) that takes into account the prior knowledge students bring into the teaching situation to move them along the continuum towards advanced literacy. Third, teachers may find that, in embracing the discursive practices children bring into the process, they will be in a better position to authentically assess learners and to adjust instruction as needed.


In the end, the ability to effectively write in one or more languages requires that writers be strategic, skilled, and knowledgeable of the linguistic system(s) and their use in various discourse communities and situational contexts. Although it is true that there exists the possibility that some of the strategic competencies a good writer may have already acquired in the L1 can transfer to the L2, and vice versa, this is not enough to fully master the act of composing in two languages. This is especially true in regards to rhetoric and style. Thus, bilingual writers must be explicitly taught these rhetorical and stylistic differences of various genres across languages so that they can make appropriate choices as they compose texts in the respective languages. Unfortunately, the need for further research in this particular area still remains. There is some evidence to address the case of international students who come to the United States to further their studies and are faced with the challenge of becoming effective writers in their L2 (typically English). Nevertheless, there is still little research to address the case of children becoming bilingual and biliterate when exposed to two languages simultaneously, as is the case in two-way immersion programs in the United States. The research that addresses the case of at-risk bilingual children is limited at best (Reid, 2004).


Colombi, M. C. (2003). Un enfoque funcional para la enseñanza del ensayo expositivo [A functional approach to the teaching of the expository essay]. In A. Roca & M. C. Colombi (Eds.), Mi lengua. Spanish as a heritage language in the U.S.Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Hyland, K. (2003). Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12, 17-29.

McCabe, A., Bliss, L. S., & Mahecha, N. (2003). Patterns of narrative discourse. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Reid, J. (2004, April). Preparing teachers of second language writing. Paper presented at the 38th Annual TESOL Convention, Long Beach, CA.

Silva-Corvalán, C. (2001). Sociolinguística y pragmática del español [Spanish sociolinguitics and pragmatics]. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Writing With Deaf Students: A Short Review of Research

By John A. Albertini, Rochester Institute of Technology,

Language Learning and Writing

As with hearing children, literacy development in deaf children depends on the development of interactive language skills.1Deaf children who know sign language show superior gains in literacy (Strong & Prinz, 1997). Yet relatively few deaf children come to school with solid knowledge of a sign language. Experience in the home may range from oral communication only, to some home-sign/gesture, to signed English, to American Sign Language (ASL), to other spoken languages and other signed languages. Deaf children's linguistic and conversational skills also vary depending on the degree of hearing loss and age of identification. Whatever their backgrounds, most deaf children share a common characteristic: They are not mapping the written form of a language onto a linguistic system that they already know and understand. Instead, they are mapping a written system onto a reduced set of understandings of the language.

A well-developed linguistic system requires knowledge of the rules of conversation and discourse as well as those of vocabulary and syntax. In one third-grade classroom at a residential school, a newcomer to sign language struggled to write his own last name, and lack of interaction skills and basic ASL fluency impeded his ability to get help (see Ramsey & Padden, 1998). He did not know the rudimentary rules of discourse in a signing community: when to watch conversation, how to get the conversational floor for a turn, nor how to get the teacher's attention. This case points to the overlapping development of language and literacy. To learn literacy in the classroom, a deaf child must understand basic patterns of language and discourse.

Characteristics of Deaf Students' Writing

On average, 17- to 18-year-old deaf students write on a par with hearing students who are 9 to 10 years old (Paul, 2001). Studies of intersentential cohesive devices (e.g., pronouns and transition words) report a difference in lexical variety or elaboration of content. Deaf children either used fewer cohesive markers (De Villiers, 1991) or fewer different lexical devices to signal cohesion (Maxwell & Falick, 1992). Where they used the same amount of markers, they elaborated content less than hearing peers (Yoshinago-Itano, Snyder, & Mayberry, 1996). Deaf children's vocabulary tends to be restricted. That is, they tend to use one lexical item per referent rather than several (e.g., rabbit only, versus rabbit, bunny, hare, and bunny rabbit in the same text) (see Paul, 2001; and Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002, for more detailed discussion). In the areas of spelling and punctuation, however, deaf students perform more similarly to their hearing peers. Thus, studies of continuous text, such as the analyses of sentences before the 1970s, show considerable delay in deaf students' use of vocabulary and grammatical markers when compared to hearing peers.

The writing samples of older deaf students in many ways resemble those of hearing students learning English as a second language (ESL) (Langston & Maxwell, 1988). Because of this, some have compared the learning of English and literacy by deaf students to that of hearing ESL students. Berent (1983, 1996) looked at deaf college students and hearing ESL college students' understanding of subject control and relative clauses. Subject control refers to the fact that, in spite of appearances, the infinitive phrases (e.g., to leave) in the following sentences have different subjects.

John told Bill to leave.

John promised Bill to leave.

Berent's finding of similar hierarchies of difficulty for both groups supports the comparison of deaf students' writing to that of ESL students and points to the potential usefulness of ESL methods with deaf students.

Singleton, Rivers, Morgan, and Wiles (2001); Singleton and Supalla (1998); and Schley (1994, 1996) have found effects of ASL proficiency in their comparisons of deaf students and hearing ESL students. Singleton and Supalla (1998) and Singleton et al. (2001) found that hearing students (both ESL and monolingual English students) produced longer texts than did deaf learners who were moderately or highly proficient in ASL. However, the deaf students used the same number of t-units (a t-unit is a proposition consisting of an independent clause and associated dependent clauses; Hunt, 1965). The students who were more proficient ASL learners used more unique words than did either low proficiency ASL learnersor ESL learners. Thus, the deaf students who had some facility in ASL had a richer vocabulary base and were less repetitive and formulaic in their writing. Schley (1994) found that students who had more ASL experience and input (either from home or from a bilingual/bicultural school for a number of years) scored higher on two measures of English literacy (SAT-HI and written samples).

Hearing and deaf children differ in their early spelling attempts. Hearing children invent spellings based on sound/symbol relationships. Mayer and Moskos (1998) found that young deaf children used print-based, speech-based, and sign-based strategies in their early spelling. Deaf children also may focus on morpho-graphemic relationships (Padden, 1993). For example, they sometimes substitute letters in a word that are visually similar (e.g., tall letters, letters with a tail) or double letters that hearing children would never double (e.g., "grren" rather than "green"). These are print-based morpho-graphemic errors. Sign-based errors occur when the formation of a word's sign equivalent interferes with its spelling (e.g., writing the word "cat" with an "f", because an "f" handshape is used in the ASL sign for cat). Although deaf children can and do invent some spellings related to phonological/symbol miscues, they often focus on the visual aspects of words (see Ruiz, 1995).

Sentence-level grammatical and semantic anomalies persist in the writing of many deaf adolescents and adults, and these characteristics continue to influence the perception of their overall writing skill (Moores & Sweet, 1990; Yoshinaga-Itano, Snyder, & Mayberry, 1996). However, a focus on discourse organization uncovers similarities between hearing and deaf writers. Analyses of written stories and personal narratives, for example, showed that texts written by adolescent and college-age deaf writers were well structured when judged according to standard rubrics of text organization and when compared to texts written by hearing peers. This was true even though sentence-level grammatical characteristics of the texts differed markedly (Albertini, 1990; Marschark, Mouradian, & Halas, 1994). Key to the production of these texts was the writers' command of topic (e.g., personal narrative and fantasy). Choice of genre may also affect the quality of writing. Comparisons of dialogue journal entries with classroom compositions and personal letters with formal essays indicate that the less formal (and perhaps more familiar) genre may elicit better discourse structure and an overall higher level of performance (Albertini & Meath-Lang, 1986; Musselman & Szanto, 1998).

Because of the persistence of grammatical errors in the writing of deaf students, educators have attended to sentence-level structure, even in process-oriented programs. One relevant study investigated the use of a writing rubric as a means of combining the strengths of product and process approaches (Schirmer, Bailey, & Fitzgerald, 1999). The rubric, a grid specifying objectives and levels of performance, was used to teach and assess the writing of four students in Grade 5, and six students in Grade 7, throughout an entire school year. An expectation that use of the rubric would lead to grammatical as well as organizational improvement was not met. Students improved on traits related to content and organization but not on those related to vocabulary, structure, and mechanics.

Bilingualism and Writing

Since the late 1980s and the beginning of bilingual education programs in schools for the deaf, several studies have examined the influence of ASL on English literacy development. Whereas studies with older students show a positive relationship between ASL proficiency and English literacy (Strong & Prinz, 1997), the results of studies with younger students are not as clear (Schley, 1994; Singleton et al., 1997; Singleton et al., 2001; Singleton & Supalla, 1998). Schley (1994) found a modest positive association between ASL proficiency and English literacy in elementary-aged deaf children at an ASL/English bilingual school; however, in another study, Singleton and Supalla (1998) found no clear relationship between the two. Thus, research conducted to date indicates positive effects of ASL proficiency on English literacy by middle school and high school but not before.

Studies of writing process and modality suggest variation in the use of signing across age and situation. Williams (1999) found that deaf preschool students were beginning to use writing along with ASL, Pidgin Sign English (PSE), facial expression, gesture, and pantomime as a means of communicating experience. Her analysis indicated that children were using writing to depict experience rather than to record. Mayer and Akamatsu (2000) questioned the utility of ASL and a signed form of English for older students at the point of composing. Whereas both provide comprehensible input, Mayer and Akamatsu concluded that the signed form of English better served as the bridge between inner speech and written text.

Mayer (1999) examined the writing processes of two 13-year-old deaf writers. Both students mouthed their words (one while writing, the other while rereading her writing). Although both were skilled users of ASL, they did not sign to themselves while writing and were surprised to be asked about it. Mayer concluded that both writers were depending on an inner version of English at the point of composing. In a related study, 7 out of 20 deaf college students, all proficient signers, wrote of perceiving an inner voice when asked to comment on the metaphor of voice in writing (Albertini, Meath-Lang, & Harris, 1994). They described the experience as either hearing their own voice as they wrote or sensing a voice telling them what to do. Although some of the students extended the metaphor to signing as an expression of one's voice, none reported experiencing inner signing as they wrote.

These findings notwithstanding, some deaf students report composing in sign. Accordingly, five college students were allowed mediation to produce examination essays (Biser, Rubel, & Toscano, 1998). Interpreters voiced the students' signed responses to the essay topic into a tape recorder. Using both the first (themselves on videotape) and second (transcribed) drafts, two of the students wrote passing essays. Mediation appeared to have facilitated the composing process for these students, although not for the others. Further investigation is needed to determine the effects of mediation on the overall fluency and coherence of written texts.


With an increase in the number of deaf students entering postsecondary institutions in the United States, indirect multiple-choice tests (e.g., The Written English Expression Placement Test, 1985) are frequently used for placement in reading and writing courses. Use of these tests raises concerns of fairness and accuracy, since the recognition of writing conventions and correct usage are typical areas of difficulty for deaf writers. In addition, the tests involve significant amounts of reading, a potential confound, especially for deaf students.

To judge the relative validity of using available indirect assessments with deaf and hard-of-hearing college students, Berent et al. (1996) conducted an analysis of the ability of two widely used indirect measures of writing (The Written English Expression Placement Test and The New Jersey High School Proficiency Test: Writing Section) to predict scores on a third, direct assessment of writing (The Test of Written English, normally administered in association with the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL). Their analyses indicated that indirect tests were poor predictors of competency as determined by performance on the direct test.

A concern regarding the use of direct assessments is agreement among raters, or interrater reliability. To achieve reliable scoring, raters need to agree on characteristics and criteria. Thus, scoring procedures and training are used to control "the disparate impact of personal experience, variation, and expectation" (Huot, 1990, p. 257). In one holistic rating procedure used to place deaf college students in developmental writing courses, acceptable interrater reliability was achieved by having readers assign equal weight to organization, content, language, and vocabulary (Albertini et al., 1986). In 1992, the state of Kansas began using a six-trait analytical scale to assess student writing, and one study suggests that it may be reliably used with deaf students (Heefner & Shaw, 1996). Although the use of longitudinal methods of assessment, such as portfolios and teacher logs, are frequently recommended (e.g., Isaacson, 1996), research to support the use of these methods with deaf students has yet to appear.


Several conclusions may be drawn from recent studies in the teaching and assessment of writing with deaf students. Available research indicates that both ASL and signed forms of English contribute to the development of English literacy and that this contribution becomes evident by the middle and high school years. Second, aspects of form (that is, grammar) are resistant to change, and anomalies of form (or grammatical errors) often mask strengths in organization and content. Analyses of organization, content, and effect of genre revealed similarities in the writing of deaf and hearing students. For deaf students, the use of more familiar genres, those that emphasize communication, self-expression, or imagination, will be beneficial. Finally, the research suggests that the compartmentalization of skills in teaching and testing writing with deaf students is less effective than more comprehensive, balanced, and functional approaches.


1 The information in this article is taken from Albertini, J., & Schley, S. (2003). Writing: Characteristics, instruction, and assessment. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language and education (pp. 123-135). New York: Oxford University Press


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ESL in Bilingual Education combines the fields of ESL and bilingual education. Its goals are to develop awareness of therole of ESL in bilingual education, to foster communication among those involved in ESL in bilingual education, to encourage research in bilingual education, and to work closely with other TESOL interest sections and other professional groups concerned with bilingual education.

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