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Quick Writes for ELLs

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I’m a huge proponent of the “do now” or the “activator” before beginning any lesson. Quick writes fulfills this purpose excellently. It truly is important to get students settled into the mindset of learning before beginning the lesson. For ELLs, I find that activators are even more important since they give the language learner space to turn on their English-speaking brain and think about the language they might need for the upcoming lesson. It provides them with the much-needed processing time to think about language and how to use it. This processing time is often lacking because it’s so hard to keep in mind as a teacher.

Quick writes are also something easy for you, the teacher. I remember spending hours racking my brain trying to think of the perfect warm-up activity for specific lessons because I wanted to do something creative and/or fun. Of course, I still use those kinds of activities, but I don’t pressure myself into creating them all the time. I find knowing that I have the quick write strategy to fall back on takes a lot of pressure off.

So, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and think of the perfect activity to get students warmed up and ready for learning each day, I often like to use the quick write. Quick writes are versatile enough to use with any lesson, easy to customize and, if you don’t have a lot of prep time, you can often come up with them on the spot. These are particularly great for ELLs as they allow students to spend time writing and using language independently. One of the best parts is that they are easy to differentiate for students of different levels. Therefore, if you have a class with students at many different language levels using quick writes is a great strategy.


You can differentiate them by changing the prompt for specific students. Perhaps give one prompt that asks for more depth and specific vocabulary to higher-level students and a prompt that asks for basic information and is more Basic Interpersonal Communication (BICs) for lower-level students. You can also easily provide visuals and sentence frames with any quick write that students can use or not depending on their level.

How about a freebie?

I have created some quick writes specifically for ELLs that you can use as activators for any lesson. I’m linking a free pack of 12 different quick writes here. You’ll find that each prompt has two versions: one for a more advanced language level, and immediately following it, and the same prompt scaffolded for a lower language level. You can get them by signing up for my email list and getting access to my Freebie Library. They are provided as a Google Slides, so just force a copy.

Things to consider when implementing quick writes:

  1. Medium for the response. Decide if you are going to ask students to respond digitally or on paper. I prefer paper because I personally think it is easier to respond to things when I’m physically writing and I can see that each student is moving their pencil, on paper, and is free of distractions that are present on a computer. The linked quick writes are provided in Google Docs as I started using this particular set during remote teaching during the pandemic.
  2. Set clear expectations. You should go over exactly what quick write time looks like with the students. I usually even make a chart as suggested in Teach Like a Champion. I hang the chat with the expectations somewhere in the room and refer to it frequently in the first few days of doing these quick writes, and later as needed. I highly recommend this strategy for every class. I’ve done it with students from fifth grade to twelfth. Setting clear expectations helps keep everyone on track. You can read more about this strategy in Teach Like a Champion, but essentially you ask students to brainstorm with you what it will look like when the class is doing the quick write. Discuss the amount of time they will spend writing, where they will write, and what they should NOT be doing e.g. going to the bathroom, talking to friends, using the computer, etc. I like to be very, very specific that this is writing time, so they need to spend the time actually writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty, it just needs to be their best attempt at getting some words on the page. I will even allow newcomers to respond in their native language if needed at first or do a mix of English and their native language. It’s important for kids to get comfortable with the physical act of writing.
  3. Set a timer. This is important. Writing is a process that takes stamina. Don’t start off telling students they are going to be writing on a prompt for 15 minutes. That might seem like a million years to them. As these are quick writes I like 10 minutes of continuous writing as the goal. Depending on my group of learners I may start with less time than that. With newcomers, I’ve sometimes started with two minutes. Build up until you get where you want to be. For these activator quick writes I like 10 minutes, but do what feels good for you and your group of students.
  4. Think about grading. I don’t ever edit or mark errors on the quick writes that my students produce. Grading writing based on language errors has its place in teaching, but, in general, the process makes students more self-conscious. They spend more time worrying about if what they are writing is correct, than trying to actually write. I don’t grade these quick writes. I just mark them for completion, or sometimes I don’t mark anything at all. That will depend on your school’s expectations and your grading needs.
  5. Share out. This is also super important and really elevates this activity. I ask students to share their thoughts with the group after we are finished writing. I usually give them space to decide when they feel comfortable sharing, but I think it’s important to create a classroom community where kids feel comfortable speaking with their peers, so that’s the goal. This also gives speaking practice and allows me to highlight and add to the language and vocabulary they have used in their quick writes that they might need for the lesson. Sometimes I’ll make an anchor chart with the vocabulary for the lesson and hang it up so students can use it as we progress through the other lesson activities.

Remember: the goal of the quick write is to get kids writing. Students’ writing cannot improve if they don’t write. This can often be terrifying for students, but more so for ELLs, who are often very concerned with being correct and don’t like to take chances. This is a great strategy to help students move through these fears and progress as writers. Though directed more towards elementary, I have found the work of Amy Buckner and Ralph Fletcher enormously helpful for getting my ELLs writing. I posted about some of the writer’s notebook work I’ve done with my students in this post about Aimee Buckner’s writer’s notebook.

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