Teaching Nonfiction Writing to Beginning English Learners

It is essential that  English learners (ELs) are  taught to write from the time they first learn English. I have always been convinced that English learners write more comprehensively if they begin with nonfiction reading and writing and their writing is scaffolded. The emphasis of the Common Core Standards for nonfiction reading and writing supports this view. I don’t want to give the impression, however, that beginning ELs will be able to participate in grade-level writing using Common Core Standards.

When students first begin to write in English, I suggest the use of sentence frames to provide ELs with structure and organization. As they develop oral language and vocabulary, I recommend that teachers use graphic organizers such as story maps, T-charts, and Venn diagrams to help scaffold writing and provide students with language chunks that can be used in their text. It is important to develop nonfiction vocabulary orally and then expand and chart it. Teachers should also model correct sentence structure (Haynes & Zacarian, 2010).

I like to use process writing from Lucy Calkins. Over the years I’ve modified writing process steps for ELs. The topics used during this lesson should be taken from ELs’ content area instruction. I recommend the following steps :

Give Prewriting Plenty of Time

Prewriting encompasses everything you want to do before students begin to write. This step is crucial for ELs at the beginning stages of language acquisition and should not be rushed.  As a follow-up to nonfiction reading, teachers can brainstorm and chart facts about the content-area topic in sentence form.  Expand the students’ ideas from single-word or -phrase responses to sentences.  Have students read the facts from the  chart orally. This will strengthen the link between oral and written language.

This is the time to build vocabulary. Chart a running list of content vocabulary words and phrases. Review and practice the vocabulary every day. Speak and write facts in full sentences. Use graphic organizers to help students arrange ideas. ELs will usually find it difficult to go from phrases to comprehensible sentences, so complete the organizer with sentences, not phrases.

When It’s Time to Write

When ELs  first learn to write, they may only be able to label pictures, drawings, or diagrams. As they develop English language proficiency, I suggest that the teacher model how to use  sentence frames and word banks.

As ELs become more proficient in writing, teach them  to use story maps, t-charts and Venn diagrams. Complete the organizer with the ELs and then give them a copy. This gives a beginning writer the language and structure that he or she needs. Show clearly what should be covered in the writing and how it should be organized. I would also provide ELs with a list of vocabulary that you want them to use in their writing.

How to Help ELs Edit

Don’t expect students who are not fluent in English to self-edit as they will not usually find their own mistakes. They may be shy if they are asked to share their work with a native speaker. Teachers will have to be more hands-on with the editing of nonnative speakers and conference with them on a regular basis to discuss their works-in-progress. You may want to group beginning ELs with more fluent ELs.

Give pairs a specific item to check. For example, “Check the ‘s’ at the end of a verb if you are talking about one other person.” Teachers should teach a mini-lesson about the item that they want edited.

Provide  ELs With Specific Comments for Revision

ELs will not remember what to revise unless changes are clearly marked on their papers. Instead of writing “Add more information here,” write more specifically, such as “Describe the  habitat here.” If students are a part of the editing process, the revisions will be more meaningful to them.

Publishing Is an Important Step

It is important to help students develop a sense of audience by encouraging them to share their writing with classmates and family. This is the time to introduce your students to blogging. Look for a platform that provides your students with a safe and secure classroom blogging community. This can also give the ELs in your class a way to share their work with family members who live in another country.

Websites and Apps to Support Writing

I’d like to add some resources that teachers can use to support the writing of ELs. Here are some websites and apps that teachers can use to scaffold EL writing.

  • WIDA CAN DO Descriptors for Writing. Page 9 in the CAN DO describes what writing tasks ELs in grades Pre-K–5 should be able to do at various levels of English language acquisition. This is an excellent resource, even if your state does not use  WIDA.
  • Kidspiration Maps. I have been using Inspiration products for many years. This app allows students to make graphic organizers or mind maps before they write. There is a free version so that you can try it out before you buy it. Grades 2–5.
  • Write About This. This is a visual writing prompt app and creation platform to be used in a classroom. Grades 2–5.
  • Storybird is a platform where students can read, write, and share information. Students start with an images so that they can unlock the story. Grades 1–5.
  • Edcreations is an interactive White Board app. Grades P–5.
  • Karen Nemeth’s blog on choosing apps for early childhood education.


Haynes, J., & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English language learners across the content areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.






About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to Teaching Nonfiction Writing to Beginning English Learners

  1. Karen Nemeth says:

    This is a great blog post! It provides clear, concise descriptions of steps teachers can take to support writing. OK. But the great thing about this post is it is just a useful for non-ESL teachers as for ESL teachers. We have to share this beyond the TESOL community! I would like to add some advice for preschool teachers. You might not be using some of these formal tools like sentence frames or word banks, but you can get things started along the same path described above by helping children make marks to identify things that are meaningful to them in activities and in their environment. Preschools often start by showing children who to sign their name for attendance each day, or to write the first letter of their favorite food for snack time or the game they want to play during center time.

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      Thanks Karen for this important information about how preschool teachers can start the writing process.

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