Beth Skelton, Educational Consultant

Beth has over 30 years of experience as a language educator and holds a master’s degree in multicultural teacher education. She has worked with early childhood, elementary, middle, high school, and adult language learners in rural, urban, suburban, and international school settings. She is the co-author of Long-Term Success for Experienced Multilinguals, a best-selling book published by Corwin, and Putting it Together, materials for teaching adult English learners using a story-based curriculum. She is an active board member of Colorado TESOL. Beth currently provides professional development, coaching, and consulting with schools around the world focused on providing equitable education for multilingual learners. 


An English language development teacher sighed and handed me an essay from one of his experienced multilingual learners, saying, “This just doesn’t sound right, but where do I start? There’s just so much to work on–grammar, word choice, and organization!” He had marked many errors on the student’s papers in the hopes that they would start writing with more academic and less social language. Looking at all the red markings, though, he was at a loss of where to start with explicit instruction.

Secondary English language development teachers have the important job of cultivating the conditions for multilingual learners to grow in their academic listening, speaking, reading, and writing. However, when it comes to supporting multilingual learners at more advanced stages of language proficiency, it can be difficult to determine where to start.

As Tan Huynh and I wrote in our recent book, experienced multilinguals, students who have been learning in an English-medium school for five or more years, make up the vast majority of multilingual learners in secondary schools around the world (Huynh & Skelton, 2023). These students can understand instructions and communicate their ideas in class discussions but often struggle to comprehend complex texts or write coherent essays. They need explicit instruction to move along the continuum from spoken social language to written academic language.

In this article, I outline a protocol any English language development teacher or co-teaching team can follow to analyze student work and determine the next instructional steps. Analyzing student work for this purpose is different than grading student work. The goal of looking closely at student work is to provide insights into the next steps for instruction at the word, sentence, and discourse dimension of their writing, rather than simply marking the papers for errors.

I recently used the following protocol to review drafts of a persuasive essay and teach writing skills to improve the students’ work. The experienced multilingual students in the International Baccalaureate Language B English class had researched and written about an environmental project of their choice. I honed in on the written work of two students who represented the writing abilities of several others in the class. In this way, I could address the needs of many students in the class.

Step 1: Identify Assets

Rather than getting distracted by misspelled words, mistakes in grammar, or punctuation errors, I first look for students’ strengths. By stepping back from the need to find and fix errors, I identify a different starting point for supporting multilingual learners. Looking first for what is right in their writing, allows me to build on their strengths.

Whenever I’m looking for what the students have already mastered, I pay close attention to how they

  • organize their writing as a coherent whole text
  • write coherent, complex sentences
  • use domain-specific and general academic words and phrases appropriately

When I first reviewed the students’ drafts of their persuasive essays as a whole text, I noticed they had already acquired the genre-specific structure of argument writing. They knew how to introduce their claim and provide solid evidence and reasoning for each point. Their writing revealed that they could write paragraphs and had learned the basics of punctuation and capitalization.

Another area of strength was their use of academic words and phrases. The students researched their environmental issues (e.g. deforestation, plastic pollution, etc.) and used words and phrases specific to their topics appropriately. I also noticed they used several transition words and academic phrases to introduce evidence and reasoning (e.g. according to, this suggest, in addition, etc.) I was pleased with their ability to incorporate these precise words and appropriate expressions in their arguments.

Step 2: Prioritize what concept to teach

After acknowledging the students’ strengths in their writing, I look for one area for linguistic growth. Sometimes it’s difficult to choose just one aspect for growth, but I try to select a skill that will make the most significant impact on their writing. Focusing on the dimensions of vocabulary, sentence structure, and discourse patterns helps me narrow down the options (WIDA Consortium, 2020). The following questions help me prioritize what to teach:

  • Which vocabulary words should be taught for this text?
  • Which sentence structures would improve the writing for this purpose?
  • Which transition words or cohesive devices would help show the flow of ideas?
  • Which text features would match the purpose of the text?

The draft essays revealed students’ attempts to write complex sentences. However, I found myself reading and re-reading many of their longer sentences. I struggled to clearly understand what they were trying to communicate in these complex sentences. For example, the introductory sentence of one essay read: “Our students will embrace the Asian tropical island with tourism to see the beautiful diverse flora and fauna by also providing help to this vulnerable forest that has been damaged by deforestation, which is a major global issue that impacts climate change.” As this sentence demonstrates, when students attempted to construct complex sentences, their writing lost meaning and became convoluted.

Other samples also suggested that many students in the class would benefit from explicit instruction at the sentence dimension. These experienced multilingual learners wrote clear, concise basic sentences. However, their complex sentences were difficult to understand.

Step 3: Plan Explicit Instruction and Structured Practice

After determining which area to focus on, I plan instruction to teach and practice that skill.

For the multilingual learners in the English B class, I planned instruction and practice with writing complex sentences. I created some writing activities that explicitly taught that element in the context of their own work. Rather than giving students worksheets with random examples, I used examples from their persuasive essays and the context of the environmental unit.

During the lesson, I had students deconstruct complex sentences by identifying who the sentence was about; the actions; and all the information telling what, how, and why. Then I taught sentence structures that helped them answer those questions more clearly. They practiced writing sentences about themselves and their projects with these sentence structures on whiteboards and shared their ideas orally. They learned not only how to write clearer sentences but also deepened their understanding of the unit on sustainability.

At the end of the lesson, I wanted the student’s perspective of the lesson and asked them to write a reflection. One student wrote that they “learned writing skills to answer who, what, how, why.” In other words, they learned how to write sentences to address specific linguistic functions. On the assessment a week later, the students effectively used the structures we had practiced in their argument essays.

Next Steps/ Application:

Experienced multilinguals have spent years learning in English and developing their listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Expanding their skills beyond social language to academic registers requires careful and explicit instruction. They benefit little from all the red marks that identify what they did not get “right”. Instead, they need to know what they are doing effectively and understand what to do to improve. When trying to figure out where to start to improve multilingual learners’ writing, try this structured protocol that starts with analyzing student work and matching instruction to the skills they need to meet the language demands of the writing task.

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