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Helping English Learners to Write: Meeting Common Core Standards, Grades 6-12

reviewed by Michael Wei & Yalun Zhou - September 22, 2015

coverTitle: Helping English Learners to Write: Meeting Common Core Standards, Grades 6-12
Author(s): Carol Booth Olson, Robin C. Scarcella & Tina Matuchniak
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756334, Pages: 192, Year: 2015
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Helping English Learners to Write: Meeting Common Core Standards, Grades 6-12 is a theory-oriented, evidence-proven guidebook for secondary school teachers of English learners (ELs). Steve Graham praised authors Carol Booth Olson, Robin C. Scarcella, and Tina Matuchniak, writing that they are at the very forefront of scientifically testing and validating instructional practices for improving the writing and reading of adolescents who are English learners (p. x). Informed by years of practice and working with hundreds of master teachers across California, the authors recommend a rich array of research-based practices (p. xi) to secondary teachers of ELs (new arrivals and those who have lived in the U.S. for many years). Their purpose is to provide knowledge, pedagogical tools, and curricular resources needed to help reduce the constraints faced by ELs as they engage in academic writing and to prepare them to meet the Common Core State Standards (p. 24).


Helping English Learners to Write is an ideal professional development and instructional resource, as well as curriculum writing and development reference, for pre-service and in-service teachers. Keeping in mind the rigorous demands of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the constraints faced by ELs, the specific strategies, activities, and instructional procedures recommended in this book will appeal to classroom teachers, graduate students, literacy specialists, researchers, and interested members of the general public.

Readers can use this book to:


Become better informed about best practices for teaching writing to ELs,


Plan and set goals for instruction,


Supplement existing English language arts or English language development curricula with research-based strategies, activities, and lessons,


Develop a community of learners,


Create safe classroom spaces where students are encouraged to participate, even with less than perfect English,


Design and implement culturally responsive instruction, building on students strengths, and


Help ELs meet the Common Core State Standards (p. xiii)


Helping English Learners to Write is divided into five chapters. Each begins with an overview followed by a research review, and then an analysis of characteristics, constraints, and daunting challenges of adolescent ELs when they strive to meet the academic writing requirements of CCSS while acquiring English language. At the end of each chapter is a bulleted summary of the key points of the topic. The chapters are structured such that the key elements of each chapter are highlighted, including: (a) research synthesis on writing instruction for ELs; (b) CCSS demands and challenges posed to ELs; (c) best practices for teaching writing to ELs, accompanied with easy-to-adapt charts and activities; as well as (d) sample instructional procedures and proven effects of using the recommended strategies.


In Chapter One, "English Learners: Who Are They and What Do They Need to Meet the Common Core Standards for Writing?" the authors provide an overview of English learners in terms of student diversity, the challenges they face, and what they need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in secondary school. After examining the constraints ELs must overcome to succeed (cognitive, linguistic, communicative, contextual, textual, affective, and cultural), the authors share master classroom teachers instructional considerations. According to the authors, teachers lack professional training in teaching ELs. There is a need for a high-quality methods book to teach reading and writing to non-native speakers of English.


Chapter Two, "Best Practices for Teaching Writing to English Learners," reviews current research on writing instruction for ELs and identifies some commonly accepted best practices for teaching writing to ELs (e.g., culturally relevant instruction, strategy instruction, and scaffold instruction). Each of these best practices supplements effective strategies and activities for practitioners to use in classrooms. The authors claim that ELs benefit from explicit instruction in academic English, opportunities to practice and develop this complex register of language, and formative assessment to monitor progress and craft ongoing instruction (p. 62). The remaining chapters are tightly aligned with the CCSS demands for writing and college and career readiness of all students (e.g., monolingual English students and EL students). Coupled with CCSS are language demands and challenges these standards pose to EL students to succeed.

Although it is not presented as the focus of CCSS, Chapter Three, "Narrative Writing and CCSS", makes a strong rationale for prioritizing narrative writing instruction for EL students. The authors present narrative writing first in order to: (a) build on ELs existing knowledge of genres and text structures, previous knowledge, and linguistic resources; (b) motivate them; (c) provide a strong basis for their development of other types of writing; and (d) contribute to their reading development and understanding of literature (p. 64). The chapter starts with CCSS anchor standards for writing and language demands of narrative writing as well as challenges of this genre for English learners. Teachers new to writing instruction will find the elements of narrative writing and helpful example activities. Veteran teachers will find that the writing prompts demonstrate thought-provoking discussions.


Chapter Four, "Informative/ Explanatory Texts and CCSS," introduces research-informed strategies in teaching reading and writing of informational texts to EL students. Carefully designed and detailed illustrations of strategies and activities to teach this genre provide scholars and practitioners exemplary models of strategy instruction, scaffolding, school-home-community connections, as well as in-depth instruction in the organizational features of informational text. Expert lessons illustrated in this chapter indicate that ELs can develop the sophisticated, abstract language necessary to give readers an accurate, objective, complete, and concise view of a piece of writing through explicit instruction in and practice with writing informative/explanatory texts (p. 119).


Chapter Five, Argumentative Writing and CCSS, introduces the various types of argumentative writing that secondary school students usually engage in, as well as the elements of this genre. Both macro-concerns of this genre (e.g., using evidence and commentary, as well as acknowledging and refuting counterarguments) and micro-concerns (e.g., how to properly integrate quotations and use action verbs and grammatical devices to present argumentations) are illustrated with interesting activities that help EL students improve both their academic reading and writing skills. I particularly appreciate the Color Coding for Revision activity that teaches secondary EL students strategies to identify the parts of their essays that need to be revised.


In summary, Helping English Learners to Write, is an excellent book to improve English learners academic writing. My advice echoes Grahams: Ingest, consider, and employ the strategies described here. Your students will become better writers if you do (p. x). Most of the instructional practices showcased in this book are intended for ELs in English language arts classrooms who are expanding to advanced levels of English proficiency in Grades 6-12. However, as an instructor at the collegiate level, I also, find value in this book when preparing lessons for first year international students whose native language is not English. As a result, Helping English Learners to Write has broad applicability to a wide range of English teachers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 22, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18120, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:12:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Michael Wei
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL WEI, PhD, is Associate Professor and Program Director of TESOL program at University of Missouri, Kansas City. His research interests include learning English to near native-like proficiency, reading/writing English as a second or foreign language, learning environments, early second language development, and second language acquisition. His recent publications are related to English teacher-student interpersonal relationships and the role of culture in academic English writing.
  • Yalun Zhou
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    E-mail Author
    YALUN ZHOU, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Dept. of Communication and Media, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her research interests are Applied Linguistics and Teaching/Learning English/Chinese as a second language. Her recent publications include the role of culture in academic English writing and emerging technology uses in Chinese language education.
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