Does the Collins Writing Program work with English learners?

Erick Herrmann, Featured Blogger

By Erick Herrmann, Consultant, Collins Education Associates

I have worked with schools around the country for the past 15 years, helping teachers with the special challenge of building literacy with English learners (ELs). The Collins Writing Program strategies help provide answers for teachers who are trying to truly make writing across the curriculum a reality with all students, including their ELs. The following is a brief response to some of the most frequently asked questions about ELs and the Collins Writing Program.

Can students at all proficiency levels, even beginners, use the Collins Writing Program?

Absolutely! Because of the Collins Writing Program’s flexibility, all students, including English learners, can be asked to write on a daily basis to get their ideas on paper. One of the program’s key features is its specificity. Type One and Two assignments  have a goal or a target built into the question, such as “Describe three mistakes in this solution.” Type Three and Four assignments  have focus correction areas (FCAs). All FCAs can be adjusted to help ELs reach an achievable goal without constant failure in the new language.

Modifications can be offered to students based on their proficiency level, including the expectation of the amount of writing to be done. In addition, specific scaffolding strategies can be used, such as the word splash strategy, the use of sentence frames, sentence starters, and signal words. Depending on the students’ needs, we can make adjustments that get them involved in writing now. There is no reason to wait!

Do English learners need to speak English well before they begin writing with the Collins Writing Program?

No! Reading, writing, speaking, and listening should develop simultaneously with school-aged English learners. It is extremely important that students be introduced to text in English and begin writing in English as they are learning to speak.

Oral language proficiency plays a key component in the ability to write; if students are able to say something in English, they will be able to write it as well. If we wait until students achieve oral language proficiency, they will fall too far behind in their reading and writing abilities and may never catch up to their peers.

Many of my students have a low proficiency level in English. How do I encourage them to write Type One, Type Two, and Type Three writing assignments?

Naturally, beginning-level EL students will have a more challenging time with specific writing assignments because of their lack of English language skills, structures, and vocabulary. But some of the strategies mentioned above—such as providing key terms in the form of a word splash or using sentence frames—are terrific ways to get students writing. Sketching is also a useful technique for beginning-level students. This involves them in “thinking on paper” and gives them an opportunity to add specific words and phrases to their illustrations. The terms they add could be related to the content area that they are being taught or ones that are included on a word wall. Students can also participate by writing in their native language, which encourages writing fluency.

How can I modify focus correction areas for English learners in my classroom?

Focus correction areas (FCAs) can be tailored to students’ specific language proficiency levels. When selecting FCAs, consider using one or two that are common to all students in the class, such as those related to content expectations or key vocabulary that the entire class is learning. Adjust the third FCA to address a specific convention or grammatical structure the EL student needs to focus on. Differentiating FCAs for English learners provides them with specific criteria to work on in their writing without having to concern themselves with perfection.

Is it appropriate to have English learners work as peer editors and engage in Type Four writing projects?

Since Type Four writing includes peer editing, it is understandable that some teachers are concerned about the involvement of their English learners. ELs in particular may have a difficult time identifying errors in a peer’s writing when they struggle with their own writing.

But being an effective peer editor is a challenge for all students. If the focus correction areas have been appropriately tailored to the English learners in the classroom, and if the students have been explicitly taught the skills, had ample opportunities to practice the skills, and have had the opportunity to correct errors in their own writing, there is no reason they cannot also serve as peer editors. In fact, it may be helpful to pair up an English learner at one proficiency level with another English learner who is already proficient in English or who has a slightly higher proficiency level. Former and current English learners may be more sensitive to each other’s writing as they have a similar experience learning English.

Keep in mind that while the main goal of peer editing is to improve the compositions being reviewed, there are other benefits to this interaction. Giving and accepting helpful suggestions about a piece of writing is an important academic, social, and professional skill. So, whether students interact with an English learner or a native speaker, they are engaged in a give-and-take about language and writing that is extremely beneficial to them.

Can the Collins Writing Program be used in bilingual programs?

Yes! Students learning any new language should be learning and practicing reading, writing, speaking, and listening simultaneously. The Collins Writing Program gives teachers the ability to integrate writing IN ANY LANGUAGE. Depending on the bilingual program model, instruction in each language may be emphasized to varying degrees.

Research is clear, though, that writing skills transfer between languages. Writing in either language will benefit students and their writing in the other language. Once students understand how to use the Five Types of Writing, the Collins Writing Program can easily be incorporated into any language being taught in the classroom.