Finding Their Voices: Four Ways to Support Bilingual Writers

by Christina Ponzio

When he was a sixth grader in intermediate ESL, Gabir* would only write about soccer.  Just as the topic remained the same–-a short story about a game-winning shot or a news article about famous Argentinian soccer player, Messi–-so did his language use.  Writing conference after conference, I was challenged to help Gabir push his writing, and with each composition, he would ask me how to spell the same words, forming familiar sentence patterns.

Even though I had helped many English learners, or emergent bilinguals, find their voices in writing, I knew Gabir’s struggle went beyond needing to learn a new language.  He had experienced great hardship after leaving Iraq two years earlier: losing both parents, residing in a Syrian refugee camp, and enduring months of interrupted schooling. The eager look in Gabir’s brown eyes often hid these experiences; in class, he was an enthusiastic reader and diligent learner.  Despite his willingness to learn, he lacked confidence in writing, which he carried with him across academic and social contexts.  By the end of sixth grade, I felt like I had failed him.  

Ponzio _Gabir

Three years later, I was given a second chance.

Gabir was still in ESL when I had him again as a ninth grader.  His oral language skills were nearly fluent, reflected by his Level 5-6 scores on WIDA ACCESS, the standardized assessment for emergent bilinguals in Michigan. However, Gabir lacked the literacy skills in his first language to transfer to his English language development, a concept known as linguistic interdependence (p. 27). As a result, Gabir had plateaued in his writing, remaining at the intermediate level (Level 3) since sixth grade.  Fortunately by then, I better understood a fundamental question in teaching emergent bilinguals: How do you ensure emergent bilinguals may reach the same rigorous standards in writing as native-speaking peers?

Balancing Cognitive and Linguistic Demands

Jim Cummins’s work helped me more effectively envision how to support, or scaffold, emergent bilinguals’ language and academic development. Certainly, core curriculum shouldn’t be watered down or overly simplified.  Instead, we must ensure emergent bilinguals can access the same challenging curriculum as their native speaking peers by explicitly and systematically teaching the vocabulary, grammatical concepts, and text structures needed across disciplines.  

Today, I am better equipped with a more focused language lens to guide all steps of instruction. For instance, when I teach argumentative writing, I start by introducing new academic language in a low-stakes context. I ask students to act out new vocabulary (e.g., claim, evidence, appeal) and then use the terms to discuss claims and evidence in popular commercials. Next, I teach new grammar concepts, such as how to incorporate quotations. Students apply their new vocabulary and grammar knowledge to analyze writers’ moves in news articles or editorials.  They use graphic organizers to collect claims and quotes for evidence from the reading, which they discuss in partners. Collaboratively and then individually, they outline their own editorials, using sentence frames and accessible texts I provide to cite quotes for evidence to develop their writing.  By the end of the week, students are ready to compose an editorial on topics of their choice.  

4 Tips to Support Emergent Bilingual Writers

These four go-to tips guide my writing instruction for emergent bilinguals:

  1. Studying the Writing Craft: Apprenticing emergent bilinguals into the craft of writing is crucial, especially since writing in their native backgrounds may not match the rhetorical approaches and writing processes familiar in American schools.  Gabir flourished through genre study, where he explored the characteristics of different text types and purposes.  Through writing workshop, he analyzed other writers’ texts and met with me to discuss new moves he found to use in his writing.  For instance, Gabir learned how to start with a question to hook the reader in his introduction, integrate transition words to present evidence, and use imperatives/conditionals to rally his readers to action.
  2. Fueling Writing through Dialogue: Emergent bilinguals benefit from multiple opportunities to rehearse new language skills in discussion before writing. Before writing an advice column, Gabir’s class explored common teen problems through a Four Squares discussion, acted out scenarios for vocabulary charades, brainstormed common problems on Padlet to open a whole class discussion, and gave advice to each other in an Inside-Outside Circle.  By the time they needed to pick a topic, Gabir was primed to apply his new language skills in writing.
  3. Visual/Linguistic Supports: Inviting emergent bilinguals to explore ideas through pictures or with word banks, sentence frames, or stems can free their voices from the constraints of their language development levels. (See the image below.)  As Gabir used these supports, he experimented with new vocabulary or grammar and internalized how English works.  He relied on them less as he developed his own writing voice. Ponzio_VisualSupport
  4. Integrating Native Language: Emergent bilinguals can express themselves more effectively using their full linguistic repertoire.  While it may not be possible to assess writing in their native language(s), not inviting emergent bilinguals’ to use their native language(s) strips them of critical resources.  Consider how emergent bilinguals can translanguage, or move between their native language(s) and English in different stages of writing.  Allow them to brainstorm with a peer who shares the same native language and then to write their ideas in English. Invite them to write personal narratives in their native language(s) and then ask them to narrate their stories in English with pictures using VoiceThread.  And don’t underestimate the value of Google Translate to build shared understanding during writing conferences.

Observing Gabir’s growth as a writer has shown me that the key to supporting bilingual writers is to balance the demands of writing while learning English using differentiated practices to learn the language and give them a way into the craft. By October, Gabir moved from writing short paragraphs about soccer to writing a book review that incorporated a blend of compound and complex sentences.  In February, he wrote a full-page editorial about why teens should have allowances.  And by May, he developed a 500-word literary analysis using academic vocabulary to compare the poetic style of a rap song and his own poem.

More importantly, as he grew in writing, Gabir became more confident inside and outside of my classroom.  For refugee youth like him–-who have felt disempowered by having their homes, families and even their languages threatened–-finding their voices is more important than achieving high grades in English.  It can help them assert their identities and places as immigrants.  It allows them to talk back to the cultures of power that try to silence them  And it encourages them to write into existence their dreams for the future in the United States.

*All names are pseudonyms.

Christina Ponzio is a doctoral student in Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She studies language and literacy for adolescent emergent bilinguals as well as teacher preparation and development.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


5 thoughts on “Finding Their Voices: Four Ways to Support Bilingual Writers

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