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The ELL Writer: Moving Beyond Basics in the Secondary Classroom

reviewed by Elena Andrei & Natasha Heny - September 20, 2013

coverTitle: The ELL Writer: Moving Beyond Basics in the Secondary Classroom
Author(s): Christina Ortmeier-Hooper
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775417X, Pages: 216, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

With the Common Core State Standards’ heightened focus on writing in secondary classrooms, and the increase of cultural and linguistic diversity in U.S. schools, The ELL Writer by Christina Ortmeier-Hooper is a welcome resource for English language arts (ELA) and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers who want to understand the unique challenges of adolescent English language learners (ELLs) and to identify practices for teaching writing to this unique and complex population.

Ortmeier-Hooper introduces her book by sharing her journey as a teacher and her struggles to teach writing to ELLs. The intimate tone of the preface characterizes the book as a whole; Ortmeier-Hooper shares personal experiences and rich anecdotes relevant to both classroom teachers and researchers. The book features nine chapters, an introduction, and appendices. In addition to the nine chapters of the book, The ELL Writer has six “Meet-the-Students inter-chapters” (p. 13) depicting students from Ortmeier-Hooper’s research whose experiences are starting points for the discussions in the book.

The first two chapters assert the significance of the ELL writer as a topic for more in-depth discussion. Chapter One provides a critical tour of the numerous labels used to refer to ELLs as well as the wide range of circumstances encompassed by this label (e.g., international students, immigrant students, and US born students). Chapter Two provides an overview of the literature on second language (L2) writing, noting the limited literature on adolescent L2 writers in comparison with college L2 writing.

Chapters Three, Four, and Five and the inter-chapters offer in-depth discussion of specific obstacles faced by six adolescent ELL students and their teachers during in-school writing experiences. Chapter Three discusses issues of self-efficacy and identity related to students’ writing practices.  Ortmeier-Hooper supports her discussion with references about the potential benefits of first language/native language (L1) writing for voice and ideas development in L2 writing.

Chapter Four examines the writing process from the perspective of an adolescent L2 writer. The never-ending, start-over writing process Miguel experiences in class inspired the Chapter’s title: “Overcoming the Myth of Sisyphus.”  After detailing Miguel’s frustrating classroom writing experiences, Ortmeier-Hooper offers recommendations for improving writing process instruction for ELLs. She warns against “decontextualizing the writing process” (p. 62), explains the need for ELL students and their peers to participate in more classroom discussions about their writing, and provides suggestions for revision strategies.

Chapter Five introduces the concept of “survival genres” (p. 80), the most common writing genres in which secondary students are required to demonstrate proficiency, e.g., the five-paragraph essay. Ortmeier-Hooper expresses concern about the lack of opportunities for students to experience “advanced and high-status genres” (p. 87), asserting that “The result of teaching only ‘survival writing’ practices to ELL students is that they enter college classrooms underprepared for the range and depth of writing and thinking that will be asked of them” (p. 90). Additionally, the tracking of ELLs in lower level academic classes is a concern as there are limited opportunities for moving to higher academic tracks.

The book’s focus shifts in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight from discussing the obstacles ELL students face in their L2 writing practices to offering specific practices for supporting them. Chapter Six urges teachers to see ELL writers not through a deficit model lens in which they lack English knowledge, but through a lens of the resources and strengths ELL students bring to the classroom. Ortmeier-Hooper shares a classroom exercise that allows teachers to discover their students’ strengths and resources.

Chapter Seven details techniques for using the resources, competencies, and literacies ELLs bring to the classroom. Ortmeier-Hooper advocates for functional approaches to teaching writing and for sequenced assignments.  The strategies she details fall under the umbrella of “inclusive, inquiry-based, and rhetorically savvy instruction” (p. 116), an instruction that taps into all students’ strengths and resources, follows a writing process that allows for the use of critical thinking skills, and allows students to work with various genres and audiences.

Chapter Eight discusses teachers’ responses to ELL writers and their texts, specifically, feedback and evaluation. Both the students described in this book and the literature note a focus on grammar and vocabulary in teacher feedback. Ortmeier-Hooper suggests ways to provide relevant feedback by prioritizing its focus. She advocates a two-step feedback cycle, with a focus on the content and argument first and then on form and grammar and peer feedback.

Raising questions about current methods of evaluation and grading of L2 writers, Ortmeier-Hooper notes that most rubrics are not created with L2 writers in mind. Rubrics that allow errors that do not impede global meaning are appropriate: “Rubrics and scoring criteria designed with L2 writers in mind often acknowledge that minor or infrequent grammatical errors may still occur” (p. 151). Additionally, Ortmeier-Hooper suggests multiple assessments: “By assessing our ELL writers in more than one way, we discover different sides of their understanding and their development as writers. Our goal, in the end, is to have an accurate portrait of their mastery and progress” (p. 156).

Chapter Nine concludes the book, widening the discussion of adolescent ELL writers to include writing experiences outside the ELA classroom. Ortmeier-Hooper presents initiatives and ideas that promote and encourage writing at the school level. School-wide writing initiatives such as writing centers and Writing-Across-the-Curriculum can be beneficial not only for ELLs, but also for all students and teachers; and extracurricular activities such as school newspapers or clubs that celebrate types of writing other than academic writing can also be avenues for ELLs to express themselves.

The ELL Writer fills a much-needed gap in the available resources for secondary ESL and ELA teachers. The juxtaposition of the experiences of six ELL students with critical discussion, references, and implications derived from research creates practical and relevant contexts. Additionally, it extends the discussion surrounding ELL writers, their texts, and instruction beyond current practices. Well-versed and knowledgeable in the L2 writing field, Ortmeier-Hooper shares not only her expertise, but supplies additional resources for further reading on each topic in the book. Ortmeier-Hooper’s voice invites readers to share her experiences as a teacher, a researcher, and a writer. She describes the focal students and the obstacles they face from the perspective of a teacher, and the discussion and insights she provides indicate her expertise as a researcher.  The organization of the book is reader-friendly, with titles and subtitles, lists, and figures and ready-to-use resources.  The strengths of the book, its organization, overview of the second language writing practices and literature, additional resources, specific ready-to-implement strategies and materials to teach writing, and the engaging voice of the author, all recommend The ELL Writer as a go-to-resource for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 20, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17254, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 12:30:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Elena Andrei
    Coastal Carolina University
    E-mail Author
    ELENA ANDREI is an assistant professor of literacy education with emphasis on English Language Learners (ELLs) at Coastal Carolina University. Her previous work experiences include serving as an English as a foreign language (EFL) teacher in her native Romania and as an English as a second language (ESL) teacher in North Carolina. Her research interests include second language literacy, teacher education, and non-native English speaking teachers.
  • Natasha Heny
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    NATASHA HENY is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, where she in instructs the secondary English Education concentration and works with pre-service teachers and their clinical instructor mentors. She is also a co-director of the University’s Young Writers Workshop. Her research interests include adolescent literacy, specifically with students labeled as “at-risk,” and teacher-directed professional development.
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