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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

How to Use Authentic Literature as a Model for Writing Memoirs
with ELL/ESL Students

Tobey Bassoff

One of my favorite series as a child was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the series, Gilbert tells Anne that to be successful as a writer she needs to write about what she knows. When faced with one of my toughest ESL classes yet, I remembered this advice and I found my way to the most successful writing project I have ever done with ESL students.

Each year, I host publishing parties in which families and community members help us celebrate students’ finished writing pieces. (See Including ESL Parents in the Classroom for more information on publishing parties). Usually, the first event is held two months after the school year begins, which is ample time to have two or three pieces published. However, when I began this school year, early writing assessments showed that the majority of students had no concept of capitalization, punctuation, or grammar rules in English. To make matters worse, they didn’t know the rules in their native language either. While many of the students were reading between first and third grade levels, they had little to no experience writing. After a moment of disbelief passed, I remembered Gilbert’s advice and sought to have the children write about what they knew best: themselves.

I knew that the students had to see models of good literature first, and then be taught how to use that literature as a springboard for their own writing. In Cynthia Rylant’s book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, a young girl recounts growing up with her grandparents in the mountains. Rylant’s book jumped out as an ideal model for students to create their own memoirs. I began by reading the book to them several times. Drawing on their knowledge of story maps and reading comprehension skills, I helped them unpack the meaning behind the story and the author’s purpose. I then introduced them to the idea of creating their own “When I was young in…” books. I made multiple copies of the books available for student use and the students and I designed a workshop routine for writing our books. The routine looked like this:

  1. Mini-Lesson by Ms. Bassoff
  2. Writing Time
  3. Sharing Time

During mini-lessons, I taught grammar concepts from the book. I also used the book to talk about organization and voice in writing. Our writing time included generating a list of our most significant childhood memories, preparing drafts, editing our work, and illustrating our books. Sharing time consisted of conferring with classmates to clarify our ideas, reading our books, and offering advice to each other about our ideas. Even I participated in the project!

The results were amazing. Students, from learning disabled to gifted, participated with an eagerness I’ve seldom seen in early writers. They begged me to stay in for recess to work on their stories, which they were especially excited to share with their parents and extended families. Rylant’s repetitive format offered them an approachable way to tell their own stories of growing up in Toluca, Mexico or Juarez, Mexico. Not only did I learn about the students and how challenging many of their lives were and are, but I also watched them gain basic writing skills in a short period of time.

I directed them to use resources like writing guides, dictionaries, and thesauruses, which further helped their language skills. The students came to love Rylant’s book and more than that they LOVED telling their own stories, which had meaning for them. As they studied the literature, they became wildly curious about the structure of other Rylant books. Questions that popped up included: “Are all books written this way?” “Why did Rylant choose to write the book this way?” “What are some other ways we could tell our stories?”

In addition to being a powerful learning experience for ESL learners, the activity was differentiated for the few students in my class that were advanced in writing and for the two students who had severe writing disabilities. Gifted students worked on strengthening their writing by using the concept of figurative language: personification, similes, and metaphors. I also encouraged them to use synonyms to refine their stories. For the two students who had writing disabilities, I had the students dictate their first few ideas. Then, I modeled how the sentence should look in terms of spacing and capital letters. Once they were comfortable with the pattern, they wrote their stories down sentence by sentence.

The publishing party was a huge success! Volunteers and teachers who had worked with some of the students in past years cried as they read what the students wrote. Many of them came up to me in utter disbelief at the gains the students made in such a short time. They also remarked on how excited the students were to share their work. In addition, many of the students dressed up for the party and several district administrators attended, including our superintendent.

Good old Gilbert was right, by writing about what we know, we are successful. The students learned his lesson, and so did I.

Questions or comments? E-mail Tobey.


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