Scaffolding Writing for ELLs

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You prepared a great writing activity. You explained it, you modeled it, and yet…Your ELLs are just looking at you, confused. This is the worst feeling! This has happened to me many times when I was in a rush, or had planned a writing activity only to realize as I was giving directions, that maybe I hadn’t thought exactly all the way through. Making sure that your writing activity comes off without a hitch does require a bit of planning but there are some surefire strategies to make sure that all of your English Language Learners have the ability to pick up their pens or open their computers and start writing, right away. You need some strategies for scaffolding writing for ELLs.


Writing scaffolds for ELLs means knowing where your students are as writers and readers. This information could come from their state testing. In many states, this is their WIDA score. WIDA is very helpful because they provide the “Can Do Descriptors” for ELLs at every grade level and statements about what students should be able to do in each domain, at each level. Knowing your students’ levels is particularly important if you are working with a content area teacher.

Scaffolding for students who are newcomers

A student who is a level 1 in writing and “entering” in the Can Do Descriptors, or any newcomer ELL isn’t going to be able to produce a large about of connected text. Ask for short sentences, lists, bullet points, or simple “yes” or “no” answers. Writing is a very complex process, and more so in a non-native language. Content area teachers will need to understand this and make accommodations accordingly. The ELL instruction will also need to ask students to produce very little text. Use sentence frames, word banks, and modeling to help students get started.

Scaffolding for students who are “entering” or “emerging”

Students are not able to produce much independent writing at this level. Scaffolding writing for ELLs at the secondary level means heavily modifying prompts and output expectations. Before starting the prompt, explain it. Go over the question, clarify, and do comprehension checks with the students. Allow them to use a dictionary to check words they are unsure of in their native language.

Then, brainstorm and model. If the prompt is specific to a discipline or subject area, brainstorm the terms needed together as a class. I like to do this either on an anchor chart piece of paper (you can also do it on the board as long as it is going to stay posted during the assignment). Come up with vocabulary and phrases that might be useful for answering the questions and write them down for students to use as a reference while they try to produce their own writing.

Model answering the question yourself. Demonstrate how you would start answering the question and physically do the writing in front of students so they can see you go through the process. I like to literally project a Google Doc or Word Document and show them how I would start to construct a response. I use the anchor chart with the terms we brainstormed as a model. This process is beneficial for students at all levels, but also helps set the expectations for your lower students of exactly what writing “looks like”.

Consider creating sentence frames for the response or creating a visual to represent the question with one or two-word answer choices. You can use word banks with simple words that match with illustrates. You can also simplify the language of the question so that it can be answered with a simple statement. Bold words in the question and break down large amounts of text into bullets, or multiple paragraphs. Students tend to get overwhelmed when faced with a large amount of text on a page when they feel it is above their language level.

I also like to sometimes have students respond in their native language if they are literate. Depending on the assignment I may have them translate, or I may not (it depends if you are expecting to have the assignment turned in and graded or not. By writing in their native language they are practicing literacy skills and getting used to the process of writing. You would gradually reduce the amount of time they spend writing in their native language over time. But again, this can be a good way to get students to start writing.

What about Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE?) or Preliterate Students?

For preliterate or SLIFE students, you can also have them draw the answer to questions. It might seem a bit “young” for secondary students, but some students do really enjoy drawing. After they can look at up words or phrases associated with what they have drawn using an online translator, they can copy those onto their pictures. They can speak into the translator app and it should produce a translation that they can copy and then label the parts of their picture.

Knowing your students’ language level is critical to providing appropriate scaffolding and support. Students have to work their way up the ladder to successful, secondary-level writing, but they will need support to get there. Modeling writing, explaining writing prompts, scaffolding the writing itself, and setting realistic expectations for student writing outcomes based on their level is critical to setting up your ELLs for writing success.

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