9 Cross-Curricular Writing Activities for ELLs


As summer wraps up, we find ourselves contemplating our instructional intentions for the coming school year.  My big focus this year: writing.

Of the four language-learning domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing), writing is typically the last to fully develop.   We can help our ELLs to develop confidence in this area by providing plenty of opportunities to practice writing skills and build writing stamina.  Here are nine fantastic ways to incorporate writing into any lesson, at any grade level, and across all levels of English mastery.  


Class murals are interactive anchor charts that encourage text analysis and cooperative talk. In advance, prepare the mural "wall". A long piece of butcher paper turned lengthwise (or several strips of butcher paper taped together) works well. Depending on the class size, the mural may be 5-20 feet long. Also, a variety of print materials related to a topic should also be available- books, magazines, picture cards, student dictionaries or websites. To create the mural, first draw out background knowledge from the entire group. Then, allow students sufficient time to explore resources independently, in pairs or in teams. When ready, students will synthesize information to create a landscape on the mural that includes pictures, words, quotes, etc. To encourage language development, all illustrations should be labeled. Post mural in a visible place. Learners may add to the mural throughout a unit of study as new information is revealed. When spelling or speaking a word related to the topic, students should be asked to refer to the mural as the primary anchor chart.



Journaling allows students a healthy expressive outlet while practicing critical writing skills. The feedback component is what makes this strategy an effective one. Each student has a dedicated notebook to be used for the purpose of journaling for the duration of the course or unit. Students may be asked to record free thoughts, respond to direct prompts or create short summaries of daily learning or wonderings. The facilitator has the responsibility to read and respond to students' entries, offering comments, insight, clarification, grammatical notes or additional prompts. A student, in return, may also reply to or comment on the teacher's feedback. Feedback journals act as a conversation piece between the student and instructional guide, foster trust and engagement, and serve as a record of students' writing progress.



Graffiti is a cooperative exercise in which all members of a group are invited share awareness about a topic. To begin, arrange students into small cooperative work groups (3 or 5 students work best).   Provide each student with a piece of butcher paper or poster-sized Post-It.  Assign each group a topic or prompt that is relevant to a current unit of study.  Within work groups, students will discuss and record thoughts/illustrations related to the prompt.  All students are encouraged to converse and write (different colored makers- one color for each student in the group- work well for this).  Use a timer to mark discussions and recording sessions.  After a set period of time, rotate the posters from one group to another in a circular fashion.  Each group will receive a poster that already contains student insight.  Within groups, students will share thoughts on what the previous group recorded before writing new thoughts.  This process continues until each poster returns to its "home" group.  Posters may be reserved as anchor charts or used to further class discussion. 



Partner dictation is a fast-paced, simple activity that engages students in all four language-learning domains. To prepare, select a brief passage on a focus topic. Print half the number of copies as students in the class. (Or, choose unique dictation passages and print separately). For the activity, begin by pairing students. Each pair of students stands on one side of the room. Dictation passages are posted in another part of the room (or outside of the room in a hallway or corridor). One student will act as the "runner" and the other as the "recorder". (Students will have a chance to change roles). The "runner" will quickly make trips to and from the printed dictation passage to read it and return to partner to relay the message. The recorder writes what he or she hears. Students work together to edit scripts as they are being written. The runner makes as many trips to the dictation sample as needed for the recorder to capture the whole passage. Roles reverse, with a new dictation passage.  Length and complexity of passages should reflect grade and language abilities present in the classroom and should be modified for pair groups as necessary.



One key challenge for ELLs around writing is stamina. It is important to remember that students need to build up to writing longer passages. This is especially true in the upper grades, where lengthy responses are expected. Quick writes are one strategy to aid students in building stamina and structure for writing. Quick writes are set apart from other types of writing in that they purposefully omit planning, organizing, editing and revising (at least in the initial stage). The purpose of a quick write is to have students record as much relevant information related to a topic as they can in a set period of time. The writing period is intentionally limited, often beginning with only 5 or 10 minutes and working up to 15, 20 or 25-minute intervals. In the beginning stages of practices, modifications may be necessary. Early emergent students may need to copy a specific passage or use sentence stems or cloze sentences for support. More advanced students may employ a text on the topic of writing, but will be responsible for paraphrasing important information. Eventually, students will learn to write freely without significant support. To introduce a quick write, first establish a topic and time limit and then model the practice for students. It is also helpful to practice writing one document as a whole class. Finally, students write on their worn. A word bank may be useful. Quick writes should be carried out on a consistent basis and should receive some type of feedback (either from a teacher or peer). If desired, a quick write may be expanded upon to create a fully fleshed out and edited writing piece.



(Kagan Activity)

Sage n 'Scribe is a Kagan activity that effectively engages learners in all four language domains. Students work in pairs for this exercise. Generally, pairs use the time to work together in completing comprehension questions related to a topic. To begin, the first student (Sage) will read the first question aloud. The sage will then verbally answer his or her own question. Meanwhile, the second partner (Scribe) records the first partner’s response. The scribe also coaches the sage and/or offers feedback, if necessary. Then, the sage also records his or her response. Finally, the partners switch roles and move on to another question.



(adapted Kagan strategy)

Think-Write-Pair-Share is a variation on the popular Think-Pair-Share Strategy. For Think-Pair-Share, students are asked to consider a question, given time to think about their response, and then are paired with a partner to share and discuss their reply. Adding the "write" portion deepens students thinking into the question and allows for students to explore an additional language domain. To complete the activity, facilitator poses a question to students related to a text or topic of study. Then, students are given time to process the question and think about their response. The next step calls for students to record their reply on a piece of paper or white board. When students do pair with a partner, they exchange papers. Each student reads his or her partner's contribution aloud. Within partner groups, students work together to discuss, amend, and edit responses. (Applicable texts, dictionaries, word walls or other supports may be used). Responses may be turned in, shared with other classmates, or incorporated into a graphic organizer or class anchor chart.



(based on a lesson by Jackie McAvoy)

This activity asks students to consider "comprehension" questions in order to compose a piece of writing. To complete, present students with a series of questions that are worded in the style of reading comprehension questions. Students are amused when you explain that you brought the questions to class but "lost" the reading passage. Using these questions as thinking points, they will work backward to create a composition. Working with a partner, they will first read all of the questions and write short answers to them. Then, they will use these responses to craft a full writing piece.  When finished, students can exchange stories with a peer.  Each learner should be able to answer the comprehension questions based on his or her partner’s writing.


Many English language learners can benefit from extra supports when writing. Mentor texts provide students with an exemplary piece of work to follow. They are especially helpful for intermediate and advanced students who are ready to move beyond sentence stems/cloze writing and are working toward independent writing. An appropriate mentor text should be on the same topic, length and writing style (or similar topic, length and writing style) as the piece that students will be expected to produce. Students should be guided, as a whole group or in smaller work groups, to deconstruct the mentor text. To do this, students will identify and explore key features of the text. First, have students identify the purpose of the text (narrative, expository, how-to, etc.). Next, students will explore the passage's organization (sentence structure, paragraph structure, etc.). Finally, students evaluate the "star features" of the text- meaning words, phrases, writing style, voice, figurative language or other items that make the mentor text interesting to read. Once students have had a sufficient time to digest and understand the components of the mentor text, they can use this passage to guide their independent writing.

Ready to dig deeper? These activities (and many others) were created by Refugee Classroom as part of the comprehensive EduSkills platform. Learn more at eduskills.us.

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