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The Writing Workshop: A Perfect Setting for Learning English (ESL)

The Writing Workshop:-

The writing workshop is based on practices that are, at the base, among the most effective in education, whatever the needs. We can ask the following questions:


-How does the writing workshop support students in language learning, particularly newcomer students or students in minority or immersion contexts?


-How can we adapt our teaching so that it is even more supportive without distorting the writing workshop?




The writing workshop offers many advantages for students learning a second language, including :



  • Routine in structure: When students have a similar schedule and structure each day, they can focus on what they need to learn. The writing period always happens in the same way. Lessons change, but the structure remains the same, which is reassuring for students and promotes understanding and automation of what is expected.


  • Repetitive language: Repeating the same words and expressions in each lesson and from one lesson to the next, making connections with strategies learned in previous lessons, using the same language on anchor boards and during individual interviews, for example, promotes comprehension and reduces the amount of new vocabulary to be integrated each day.


  • Practice time and authentic context: In the writing workshop, students have plenty of time to practice oral and written language. They write and have opportunities to express themselves every day on topics that are important to them. As with any skill to be developed, contextualized and authentic practice time is a critical factor in success.


  • Explicit instruction: Short, focused instruction through demonstration or thinking aloud avoids cognitive overload.


  • Differentiation: The writing workshop promotes differentiation and support for individual needs. For a non-English-speaking student, individual or small group time can be used to develop language as well as writing skills, with one even serving the other.


  • The importance of the visual: In lessons and strategy repertoires created with anchor boards as well as in students’ texts, the use of visual elements promotes comprehension, retention, and transfer of learning, while giving additional support to language learners.


  • Peer learning: Working with a partner who is omnipresent in the writing workshop is conducive to language acquisition. Students write and listen, but also have many opportunities to talk and exchange ideas. For non-Englich-speaking students, trios are sometimes more beneficial than tandems. In an additional language learning situation, «ideally, one member of the team speaks the new student’s first language, but knows Englich better than he or she does, and the third is a francophone who is a language model» (Calkins, 2013). Students who are learning or developing a language need to practice speaking before moving on to writing, and the partner is ideal for this work. Of course, self-help skills and strategies for this learning are also explicitly taught.


  • Reflection: on one’s own learning allows the student to have an understandable, concrete and achievable goal.


A comprehensive literacy program


We know that the cornerstone of an effective and comprehensive literacy program is a balance between the three fundamental components: oral, reading, and writing. Balanced instruction means ensuring that students’ needs in these three areas are in harmony with the support available to them. The writing workshop fits this vision perfectly.


All good teaching starts with a good knowledge of the students. In a second-language learning situation, it is essential to know not only the students’ level of proficiency in English, but also that of their mother tongue in order to make the best pedagogical decisions. The writing workshop, like the reading workshop, offers an ideal framework for teaching and learning English to all students, but especially to beginners.


The importance of language development


Certain principles associated with second-language learning can guide us:



    Authentic purpose


The best way to learn a language is to communicate for an authentic purpose. When you have a real intention, learning takes place in context and more naturally: 90% of language is acquired over time and interactions. The writing workshop can provide this context for students as it allows them to express themselves, both orally and in writing, on topics that affect them and are of personal interest to them. Communication strategies are part of the writing workshop. It is important to have a strong structure in place to create a classroom community that encourages teamwork and participation in conversations to develop «social language».



    Being able to say what we want to write


In general, we can write down what we are able to say. Writing about small moments, for example, requires students to be able to tell stories in the past tense. The teacher should provide opportunities at each time of day for focused and spontaneous conversations. In these conversations, we want students to be able to tell their stories. It goes without saying that we want students to «speak in all genres. »At times they will describe or explain things, at other times they will express opinions, and at other times they will recount moments. With the writing workshop, the teacher can plan short moments each day when a few students express themselves on a subject of their choice in a theme related to the literary genre being worked on in writing and/or reading. This gives the students extra time to practise speaking before moving on to writing, and each student becomes a role model for the others. As is often suggested to second-language teachers, the importance of inviting students to express themselves in clear and complete sentences takes on its full meaning here. Moreover, by incorporating interactive, shared, group writing activities into our timetable, we add a written medium, a language model, and a shared reflection in relation to the type of text worked on, the strategies taught, and the conventions of the language.



    Writing as a vehicle for learning the language


Yes, we learn the language to write, but writing itself is a vehicle for teaching the language at every point in the process. Chances are that when students are planning or writing they will ask you how to say a particular word in English. This is a great opportunity to teach vocabulary or sentence structures. When they are revising, you will encourage them to write certain structures in standard English, another opportunity to reinforce these structures that are sometimes difficult to master. Also, vocabulary related to certain popular writing topics (hockey, going to the movies, going to bed at a friend’s house, going on vacation at the seaside, etc.) can be taught using large thematic dictionaries put together with the students in the class. Offering a general, overarching theme from which students can draw personal writing topics (theme of winter activities, for example) makes it possible to target specific and common vocabulary, as well as to build a bank of words related to a type of text (for example, for a narrative module, time markers [one day, then, etc.], ways of speaking [yelling, screaming, whispering], emotions, etc.). These are solutions that support both language development and writing skills.


Possible adaptations


In addition to making the workshop part of an effective literacy program and ensuring language development, it is important to keep in mind certain accommodations to support students in a more sustained way:




    Adapt the language used in the unit


The writing modules are written in a standard language. It is possible to present the concepts in your own language, a language that will be more «understandable» to your students. Immersion teachers have mastered the «understandable message». They understand very well that when students begin to learn the language, they will need to use gestures, objects and visual tools, examples and counter-examples, slow down their pace and simplify what they say to ensure that students understand the message. All of these good practices will support the teaching of each part of the workshop.



    Adapting Resources


Model books


The sample books offered may be too difficult to understand for students who have been exposed to the English language for very little time. Feel free to replace them with other books that illustrate the same literary processes. Alternatively, you may use your own texts or student texts for demonstrations in the lessons. It will also be beneficial to «bathe» students in the literary genre being worked on by presenting model texts before a new literary genre is introduced and throughout the unit, from which we can model comprehension strategies, work on vocabulary, and pay attention to the structure of the text, particularly through interactive reading activities.


The tools


Don’t hesitate to offer our older students «grown-up» versions of the tools usually reserved for younger students: sheets with fewer lines, a place for sketches, the right to label illustrations, the opportunity to practice the text orally before writing it. These are good supports for learning the language. Also, since the skills and strategies taught in the 2nd and 3rd cycles are also taught in the first cycle, some of the checklists from the first cycle can be used to work with the older students. We can also decide to work with modules from previous levels to adapt the lessons to the needs of our students.


    Adapting the Sequence of Lessons


Adding lessons


You may notice that all students could benefit from additional instruction to the proposed lessons. You may then be able to revisit some of the lessons from a module from the previous year. The teacher can use some lessons from modules from previous levels, an entire module from the previous level or even from two previous levels, or create modules or lessons to meet the needs of their students.


Sometimes it can be tempting to repeat lessons from a module when our students do not seem to have grasped the concept after teaching it. Doing this too often may increase the time spent in the unit without improving student achievement. Remember that we are not aiming for mastery of the concept taught after a lesson. Concepts recur in each part of a unit as well as in subsequent units in the same and subsequent years.


Some teachers find that it can be beneficial for students if, once a week, the mini-lesson focuses on a language-related concept (language conventions, language structures, vocabulary). The teacher will choose the concept based on observations she makes in her students’ texts.


Adapting the mini-lesson


Sometimes you have to cut into the lessons. To make the right choices, you need to focus on the essentials that you want to demonstrate to students. We need to talk less. Not easy for teachers! We have to read the teaching point and go to the essential in our demonstration. We talk less to let the students talk more. We use drama, visuals, gestures rather than lengthening our sentences. We can add time to work in tandem, time to try a second time with support in guided practice.

Differentiated teaching


Students learning a language benefit from individual interviews (rehearsal and opportunity for further practice, with support) and small group teaching. During small group instruction, activities to develop academic vocabulary, pronouns, verb tenses can be encouraged. Concepts that cannot be easily learned by peers are chosen.



    Adapting expectations


we can promote language learning by reducing the anxiety that can be associated with the difficulties inherent in learning a language: by welcoming approximations, by understanding the stages of language acquisition, by allowing students to use their first language when they begin in order to remain engaged, keeping in mind that language is acquired through practice.


A newcomer who has never had contact with English may begin by labelling drawings from his or her sketch, as is common in kindergarten and grade one, and then gradually move on to the sentence, and then adding details. The student learning an additional language could perhaps take some time to write in his or her own language, a few minutes at the beginning of each workshop, so that he or she can develop as an author without language being a barrier. However, the student must also write in English, depending on his or her level of language proficiency.

All in all…


Students learn best step by step, in small bites. This means NOT just focusing on the outcome. If you offer a lot, a lot, a lot of support, you decrease autonomy. You can see a good result, but there will be no transfer of learning, and everything will have to start all over again. It is better to go at the student’s pace, one thing at a time, to take one small step further, with a little support, then another small step, with a little support.


The goal is not immediate mastery: students should be able to try the strategies several times, over several days. It is necessary to repeat, repeat, repeat. If we feel that the content is too difficult for our students, the solution is not to slow down, to explain more, to dissect more, to always increase the support and to provide even more tools… it is rather necessary to increase the rhythm, to go to the essential. This requires being able to regulate one’s own teaching.


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