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Writing Lab Supports High School ELLs

By Leanne Moore and Mats Haaland
Writing Lab Supports High School ELLs

Writing labs have become a common feature on university campuses across the United States and have even spread internationally to English-medium universities. While they have trickled down into U.S. high schools, they have yet to be prevalent in English-language international high schools. Even less common is the use of writing labs among a student population composed entirely of English language learners. Nansha College Preparatory Academy (NCPA) in southern China, has established one of the first writing labs to use secondary level English language learners (ELLs) as tutors to improve fellow language learners’ writing abilities. This has proven to be an effective scaffold in engaging ELLs in the writing process.
Establishing a writing lab in this context can be a productive intervention for students. NCPA is a boarding school that serves a student population of 100 percent English language learners whose first language is Cantonese or Mandarin. The school bases its curriculum on the U.S. Common Core standards and assesses students using a standards-based grading system. In this context, we sought to establish a writing lab that would support the school’s established teaching philosophy and provide another tool to support both students’ language acquisition and their content learning.
A writing lab exists to provide peer feedback to students on their writing at any stage in the writing process. Students meet with a tutor, a fellow student who has strong writing skills but who is also still developing English language and academic writing. In this way, tutors provide a bridge between the authority of the classroom teacher and the students’ own peers. Students who visit the writing lab can engage in active learning as they think critically about their own writing alongside the tutor. While writing lab tutors can provide astute feedback to help improve student writing, tutors are not the ones to give a final grade on the writing. Therefore, students have the freedom to evaluate the feedback and decide whether or not to incorporate it, allowing them to truly own their writing.
In order to train our writing lab tutors, we established an after school group meeting once a week to train eight tutors selected through personal interest and teacher recommendation. Training focused on how to give effective feedback to a peer, the difference between higher order concerns and lower-order concerns, and writing lab philosophy. The training sessions evolved to provide editing and feedback strategies and a space for students to discuss concerns about the tutoring process.
As the training sessions developed, we found many of their questions dealt with how to teach grammar. This is a common ELL concern, and certainly for good reason. Teachers understand that grammar can be a major roadblock to effective writing. However, second-language writing experts note that ELLs can benefit from the same writing strategies as are taught to native English-speaking writers (Zamel 1976), most especially including the use of a focus on higher-order concerns. Therefore, we directed our tutors to prioritize higher-order concerns during their sessions.
By conducting the training sessions in this way, we have given our tutors the metalanguage to talk about higher-order concerns and the ability to distinguish those from lower-order concerns. This is particularly useful for our tutors and students—all English language learners—in a school teaching the Common Core standards and dedicated to teaching language through content. If our students are primarily focused on grammar during their writing lab sessions, they miss the opportunity to continue to develop academic writing. By focusing on higher-order concerns, our students create more effective essays that communicate meaningful ideas. When students are ready, they can move to the editing stage to develop grammar accuracy. While there is a time and place for grammar, very often it becomes too easy for grammar to override the creation of meaning for ELLs. NCPA’s writing lab supports students in focusing on communication first and grammatical accuracy second.
In our observations of NCPA’s writing lab sessions, we have found that sessions tend to focus on students engaging in dialogue surrounding higher-order concerns. This is a step forward for our students, whose English language training before matriculating into NCPA had focused solely on acquiring grammatical competency. It is our hope that the writing lab will continue to be an additional scaffold and intervention toward successful student writing.
Zamel, Vivian. (1976). “Teaching Composition in the ESL Classroom: What We Can Learn from Research in the Teaching of English.” In P.K. Matsuda and T. Silva (Eds.), Landmark essays on ESL writing (pp. 27-36). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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