First Discussion in a Series on Teaching Academic Writing To English Learners

Warm welcome to our discussion on Teaching Academic Writing to English Learners!

Thank you to our guest facilitators, Rebeca Fernandez, Joy Kreeft Peyton and Kirsten Schaetzel, for presenting the first webinar in a series on this important topic last Friday. Those who are interested can access the PowerPoint from last Friday's webinar at this link. In their introductory webinar, the presenters outlined the importance of teaching academic writing, the results of a national survey of current practices on teaching academic writing in adult ESL (at this link you can access some details about the survey's findings), and some important principles and practices that can guide instruction.

During this week's discussion, the presenters are pleased to share more details about their survey as well as the practical implications that grow out of the survey for adult ESL programs and teachers. Our guests will have the opportunity to go even deeper into practical teaching strategies during the upcoming 3 webinars and follow up discussions to be held in April. Stay tuned for the dates for these webinars which will focus on the following topics:

  • Using writing as the basis for reading
  • Using graphic organizers to develop academic writing skills
  • Using writing test sample questions (from the GED®, HiSET, TASC) to develop academic writing skills 

We are grateful to have these distinguished guests leading a discussion this week. Thank you, Rebeca, Joy and Kirsten for joining us on LINCS this week to share your expertise on the important topic of teaching academic writing to English learners. We greatly appreciate your being with us, and we are looking forward to a great time of learning with you this week!

To get our discussion started, I'd like to pose a couple of questions. The three of you conducted a national survey to collect data on current practices related to the teaching of academic writing to adult English learners. (Members can access the article you published in the COABE Journal about your findings here.)

  1. Could you tell us what motivated your interest in this topic?

  2. Would you explain what academic writing is and why you believe it is so important?


Bios of the Presenters:

  • Dr. Rebeca Fernandez is an Assistant Professor at Davidson College. She has been in the field of language and literacy for 25 years. She began her career in bilingual education and taught adult ESL for many years. She currently works with multilinguals and teaches courses in the Rhetoric & Writing Studies and Educational Studies programs at Davidson College.
  • Dr. Joy Kreeft Peyton is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics. Her work includes implementing and studying approaches to writing that give learners opportunities to express themselves in environments that facilitate learning and success. She has worked on writing projects overseas and in the United States in K-12 and adult education settings.
  • Dr. Kirsten Schaetzel is the English Language Specialist at Emory University School of Law. She works with students, faculty, and staff on academic and cultural adaptation and expectations. She has taught academic writing to adult learners overseas and in the United States and worked with the CAELA intitative at the Center for Applied Linguistics.


Writing has been an interest for each of us for a long time. Joy’s work on dialogue journals is widely known, and Kirsten has written about and taught writing to English learners in the US and overseas. For me, the interest in writing was motivated by personal experience and my work as a practitioner and scholar. As with many of my students, English is my second language, and learning to write academically took a lot of time, effort, and direct feedback. Once I figured out what was expected of me as a writer in high school and college, it opened up many educational and career opportunities. We all felt that adult ESL could benefit in similar ways from greater emphasis on academic writing, but at first, we weren’t sure how best to approach the subject. We felt that assumptions about the primacy of reading traditionally undermined the focus on academic literacy in adult ESL. In my experience, the focus on writing often came at a price. Instructors who didn’t focus on extended writing could get through more life skills topics and prepare their students better for our standardized reading assessment. In that context, writing was taught primarily as a transactional or expressive skill, not as a way to analyze and respond to the ideas of others. When we moved to the college-and-career-readiness standards (CCRS), I wondered to what extent thinking about the purposes and importance of writing would shift and whether the new focus on academic literacy was going to be accompanied by systemic support for the teaching of writing.

Hi, Rebeca. I got so interested in what you wrote here that I had to join in ... I really love the current focus on starting with a set of reading texts that guide vocabulary learning and genre styles and lead to discussion and writing about the topic that the texts cover. It is so exciting to see the kinds of writing that grow out of that. I'm really interested so learn what others find motivating about focusing on academic writing. It will be so interesting to learn!


Although we often refer to academic writing in generic terms, I should say from the outset that the conventions of academic writing differ according to discipline. The academic writing required in a history course, for instance, may differ in some ways from that of a business course. That said, academic writing across disciplines shares some features that we can focus on in our teaching. As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein mention in They Say/I Say—The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, regardless of discipline, academic writing “require[s] writers to frame their own claims as a response to what others before them have said” (xviii).   In these responses, writers must be able to summarize what others have said and respond with their own ideas using supporting evidence and applying standard writing conventions. Simply put, academic writing is source-based and formal in tone.

I believe that--whether or not we agree that this should be the case--institutions often determine whether students are deserving of the opportunities they provide by their ability to write academically. As we saw from the 2009 study Promoting Gatekeeper Course Success Among Community College Students Needing Remediation--Findings and Recommendations from a Virginia Study, adult learners who cannot demonstrate the ability to write academically often linger and eventually drop out of college before they can even take a for-credit course.

We could make a case that many of the adult learners served in adult ESL programs will never have to write academically outside of school. This might be true for individuals in low-level positions within the service sector and construction, as we saw in the graphic from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. But for other service careers in areas such as healthcare and education and for management positions, digital communication and accountability systems have made writing a daily necessity. Although the particular writing may not be based on academic texts, as is typical in college-level courses, it is usually formal and must be appropriate to the task and audience, coherent, clear, and grammatically accurate in ways not unlike those expected of academic writing.

Hi Rebeca and all, I was so glad that you mentioned the book They Say/I Say, Rebeca. I recently came across this resource, and I was hoping it would come up during our discussion this week. I'm guessing this book may be new for most of our members, like it is for me.

Rebeca, could you say a bit more about this book and how and why you have found it to be helpful?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

I've been using They Say/I Say for several years now. Everyone I know who teaches first-year writing (and some high school teachers) uses it. I assign it to both native-English-speaking and multilingual students. 

It's a simple book with a very accessible central claim. The authors believe that academic writing--even creative writing--of all kinds is always framed in response to what others have said before them. I love the analogy they provide:

You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. … You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers, you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. … The hour grows late, you must depart.  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

                                                                                                - Kenneth Burke

The role of the writer, then, is to find a way to enter that conversation, to show that s/he has listened carefully and interpreted the words of others generously, and then, to respond with their view by adding something new. For Graff & Birkenstein, writers use what they call "writerly moves" in order to accomplish their specific rhetorical goals during these conversations. The book focuses on the moves they consider most essential and provides sentence frames/templates for each (see examples below):

Summarizing what someone else says

  • Words to show that the author is making a claim: argue, assert, believe, claim, emphasize, insist, observe, suggest
  • Words to show that the author agrees with someone else’s idea: acknowledge, admire, agree, corroborate, endorse, extol, praise, do not deny, verify
  • Words to show questioning or disagreement: complain, complicate, contend, contradict, deny, disavow, refute, challenge, question
  • Words to show that the author is making a recommendation: advocate, call for, demand, encourage, implore, plead, urge, warn  

Framing a quotation in your own words

  • X states, "_____"
  • In her book, _______, X maintains that "_______"

Explaining quotations

  • Basically, X is saying ____________.
  • In other words, X believes ____________.

Making the shift from a source’s view to the writer’s own view

  • My own view, however, is that _______________.
  • I believe, as X may not, that _________________.
  • X’s assertion that __________________ does not fit the facts.  Rather, the evidence shows that __________________. [In this sentence you’re using a claim to distinguish your ideas from source X, and then you’re letting the evidence establish your perspective.]

Offering evidence for that view

  • I agree with X that ________________ because  ________________ confirms it.
  • Recent studies about _______________ support X’s point that _____________.

Entertaining and answering counterarguments

  • Some readers may challenge the view that___________.
  • Biologists, of course, may dispute my claim that _____________.

Explaining why your claims matter

  • ______ matters because _________.
  • My discussion of ______________ is in fact addressing the larger matter of ____________.

Thank you, Rebecca, for this incredibly rich and helpful discussion of the They Say/I Say approach. You centered it so powerfully around an oral discussion that a person enters into, which is very helpful. When I read through this, I can see how beautiful this can be done in the context of reading a text or a group of texts on a specific topic (in a content area, since we are also interested in content-based instruction). A reading text, or a set of texts, at learners' levels, can be selected and worked with, vocabulary and structures in the texts can be noticed and used, and they say/I say can be used to lead into discussion, writing, and further reading.

I often extend Graff & Birkenstein's conversation analogy by assigning a writing project in which students have to develop their own (new) idea by putting two readings "in conversation." Since working with more than one text can be challenging for students, I prepare students with a conversation activity that involves quite a bit of planning and collaborative writing.

I begin by dividing the class into four groups and explaining each of their roles: 1) Text 1 panelists, 2) Text 2 panelists, 3) Discussion moderators, and 4) Audience. Then, I structure the discussion between Text 1 and Text 2 panelists like one of my favorite audio podcasts, IQ2US Debates (See below.)

1) The moderators plan how they will open up the conversation by providing a motivating context.

  • Have you ever wondered why...?
  • In a recent poll, Americans said that_________. 

2) Next, the moderators provide a gist summary of each author's position that the Text 1 and Text 2 groups represent.

  • John Smith, author of X, describes___ and argues that ________.
  • In her piece, X, Mary Jones, expert in ___,  emphasizes______ and contends that__________.

3) Third, the moderators ask the audience members to state their positions. Whichever of these is the majority opinion becomes "the motion" that each side will discuss.

  • The United States should_______________.
  • It is better to __________ than to _________.

4) The moderators then give each side an opportunity to make a statement (i.e., to summarize their position and supporting evidence), while the others listen attentively. After each statement, the moderators insert their voices, or commentary, before transitioning to the other side's statement. 

  • In other words, John Smith believes that______ because____.
  • Mary Smith, on the other hand, has a different take. ((Gives Text 2 group the floor))

5) Once each side has made their statement without interruption or distortion, the moderators guide them as they politely question each other's views.

  • John Smith, what do you think of Mary Jones' claim that __________?
  • Ms. Jones, Mr. Smith mentions that__________. How do you respond?

6) As each side addresses the other's questions, the audience writes down persuasive statements made by each side.

7) As the discussion draws to a close, the teacher asks the audience to vote on each position. Then, the teacher calls out individual students to give their specific reasons, which she writes down on the board. All of this becomes scaffolding for structuring a thesis-driven argumentative essay on the same readings.

I can imagine better, more scaffolded ways to prepare students for this activity, depending on the level. For instance, in a previous lesson, they can listen to parts of a debate (they're quite long) with the teacher while following the transcript excerpts ( The teacher can stop at each of the transition points (introduction, presenting the motion, the side arguing for the motion, the side arguing against the motion, etc.) and, with students, derive templates for the rhetorical moves used by speakers. 

Rebeca, this is wonderful. Now we have an extremely practical example of They Say/I Say in an oral discussion and in a discussion of reading texts. And soon we will have all of this described in your book chapter! I believe that we can find ways to use these approaches at all levels of instruction, adjusting them significantly by level.

I am dazzled by this resource!!  Those are EXACTLY the kinds of frames that I know help students achieve the level of accuracy of discourse and text reference and formality that is wanted in academic writing.   I found that it was extremely frustrating to students to be given an EXAMPLE and then asked to write something similar, and then to be asked to use a variety of expressions for a particular rhetorical purpose when they had NO IDEA of that language or those structures.  These kinds of frames also preclude having to wade through hours of grammar instruction with the vague hope that students will somehow understand how to apply that learning to their writing.   

Rebecca, I was interested to learn that you are a second-language writer.  Can you share with us more about  your process in learning to write--WELL!   It would be enlightening to learn about what helped you, what frustrated you, how much feedback you got etc.   

Thank you so much,  Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 


Hello, friends and colleagues. It is wonderful to be online with you! We have a couple of questions for you:

What has been your experience with teaching academic writing? Do you believe it is important in your instruction?

Thank you!! I really look forward to learning what this journey has been like for you.

I echo Joy's question, "What has been your experience with teaching academic writing? Do you believe it is important in your instruction?" I hope many jump in to share.

I'll start. I taught academic writing for many years at El Paso Community College's credit ESL program. We were charged with moving students starting from beginning literacy levels into Freshman English in two years. (They lost Pell grants unless they moved into regular college-credit courses after that.) To those whose goals were or turned out to be complete certificates or degrees, academic writing was essential, critical, in fact.

In those two years covering four levels of Reading, Writing, Converstation, and Grammar (yikes!) courses, some of us matched assignments to the workplace goals of intermediate  students, especially in technical areas (i.e. HVAC, Electronics, Construction), which interested many students. Why? It was a great match! In my case, I worked side by side with the "tech guys" and their division chair, all of whom were very anxious to enroll ESL students in their programs since we had a 17,000 ESL student enrollment in courses! I provided extensive training to those tech instructors on how to work with our ESL population, asking them to give writing assignments to students, with our help. I even took one of their Principles of Technology text, rewrote it (w/ permission), and taught it to a group of ESL women students under the auspices of our Women in Technology grant. 

Rebeca, you said, "Once I figured out what was expected of me as a writer in high school and college, it opened up many educational and career opportunities." Once ESL or ABE students understand what is expected by first enjoying the writing process in areas of their interest, they take giant steps on their own to get academic-writing help and continue to thrive. 

I'm so glad that we are sharing this discussion with ABE/ASE instructors of native speakers as well since many of the challenges and best practices extend to both populations in my long experience!  Leecy

You raise an important point, Leecy. What is expected in academic writing varies, depending on the program and courses. This point is particularly important because most native-speakers and English-as-a-second-language students at community colleges transition to occupational/vocational programs, not college-transfer programs with traditional core requirements.

I would venture to say that the writing tasks your assigned for the HVAC, electronics, and construction courses were not what we traditionally associate with argumentative writing. Perhaps you had students describe how something worked or identify a workplace safety issue. Yet we might still say that students were learning aspects of academic writing and essential workplace communication skills.

I taught a few career transition courses in which students wrote about workplace hazards and ways to prevent them. As with any other academic writing task, students had to describe the situation (the summary), identify the problem (the central claim/thesis), and provide reasons supported with evidence from workplace documents and examples. To take them a step further and teach them that writing varies according to audience, purpose, and context, I would often switch out the audience. They had to learn that, for instance, citing an occupational manual to justify a procedure was probably not the most appropriate way to communicate to a customer. Without varying the tasks and explicitly working out appropriate ways to carry them out, they might have simply complied and improved their English, but I'm not sure how much they would have learned about workplace communication in general. 

The take-away? We can incorporate academic writing in non-traditional courses by assigning writing tasks that not only reinforce course content, but also give students opportunities to contribute their own ideas and communicate them to real audiences. 

Does that resonate with your experience?

As we end this first day, I'll add last thoughts. Yes, Rebeca, the writing tasks that I  "assigned for the HVAC, electronics, and construction courses were not what we traditionally associate with argumentative writing." Far from it! However, I'll just throw out that in my view, writing is writing by any other name, and we learn to write by writing. As I believe you inferred, there absolutely has to be a bridge, however, going from what students can do to what they will do better, and we are that bridge that helps make the connection. Start where they are, writing definitions, descriptions, and processes in content areas where they are happy, and then dip their toes into argument. "What do you think of that process? Does it work? Could it be better? What about that definition? Can everything be defined? On and on." Your take-away certainly does resonate with my experience. 

Maybe, hopefully, the transition won't be as painful as it is now if we integrate instruction earlier and collaboratively. You are so right that currently,  "adult learners who cannot demonstrate the ability to write academically often linger and eventually drop out of college before they can even take a for-credit course." I might even suggest "usually" instead of often. The Accuplacer has a heavy boot in my Four Corners region of Colorado, for example. Emerging pros usually fall into the developmental "purgatory" out of which most do not make it into heavenly certificate and degree courses. :) Leecy

Your strategy of starting "where they are" (a.k.a. building from prior knowledge) makes a lot of sense.  Writing-to-learn approaches, used for writing in the disciplines and content areas, are premised on the idea that writing allows us to clarify our thinking. WTL activities may involve "writing definitions, descriptions, and processes in content areas" (essentially, summarizing and synthesizing information), as well as reflecting on ways the writer connects to the content, what she is confused about, or her thinking about a topic. WTL can include short and extended writing tasks, including note-taking, short-answer responses, analytical essays, summary writing, and journaling. These activities can also support learning by reducing student anxiety about difficult content and helping them learn new vocabulary.

I would suggest adding a bit of multimodality to your WTL activities, meaning that you could assign projects that ask students to represent content using various formats for different purposes. You might, for instance, have them do an infographic about a process, or prepare a PowerPoint Presentation to explain a concept, or lead an online Q&A on the topic. Doing so will give students an opportunity to vary the rhetorical situation and develop their digital writing skills. In this way, you will ensure that, even if you never get to the traditional argumentative essay, you are still extending students beyond the limits of the content they are learning into transferrable skills.

Rebeca's and Leecy's discussion yesterday renewed my interest in and excitement about what we learned from adult ESL teachers when we did the survey of academic writing in adult education programs across the United States.

One thing that we saw over and over is how teachers are negotiating between two dynamic and powerful contexts: 1) the national context -- with new standards and assessments and accountability systems and 2) their local context -- the learners in their classes, their (often various) levels, interests, goals and needs; the resources they have available; the amount of time they have to work with these learners; and the preparation they have to do this. It is a complex and interesting dynamic, which was smoother for some whom we heard from than for others.

A second interesting dynamic (which came out strongly in the follow-up interviews) is the ways that academic writing can be built into their contexts, the activities they are already doing, and the materials and approaches they are using -- the kinds of things that you have been talking about, Rebeca and Leecy. Sometimes they saw those possibilities, and sometimes they didn't. We could see how powerful the formation of learning communities is, like this one (and Webinars, workshops, and courses), where teachers and program administrators can talk together about questions like: Where do we/I need to go? Where am I? What am I doing now that's helpful and can be developed and built on? Where do I want and need to go next? We can expand our thinking about these questions when we are in interaction with other professionals, like those in this discussion list, who have often delved into areas and approaches that we haven't.

A couple of questions for you: What survey findings stood out for you? Did anything that we learned resonate with you? Did it raise any new questions for you? I would love to hear your experiences and learnings!

Hello everyone, I wanted to share a link to an additional article published by Joy and Kirsten, "Teaching writing to adult English language learners: Lessons from the field,"  that focused on the findings of the follow up interviews.

Looking forward to today's discussion!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Joy, you talked about "how teachers are negotiating between two dynamic and powerful contexts." Your survey lists 4 different types of programs surveyed: K-12, CCs, CBOs (Community-Based), and Other. I wonder if you found that teachers in some of those types of programs were better prepared than others. You describe, above, the National Context, "with new standards and assessments and accountability systems." That context would apply only to federally-funded programs, usually in K-12, and CCs. Did you find or do you suspect that teachers in federally-funded programs that must meet those federal requirements were better prepared than those in CBO's or "Other" programs to help students write academically?

In past discussions, we identified federally-funded programs as "formal," and other programs as "nonformal," without a hyphen. The differences in approaches are likely to be significant, don't you think? What do others think who work in nonformal programs? Leecy

Leecy, these are very good questions! We would need to go back to the survey data and look at that, to see if teachers in some programs are better prepared than others. I believe that if we look, we will find that teachers in K-12 and Community College Courses are better prepared, because the employment qualifications are more rigid. Also, as you say, accountability systems are more strongly in place there. And yes, the distinction between "formal" and "nonformal" programs is relevant, with significant differences. 

Yes, we would love to hear from those of you who work in "nonformal" programs -- not K-12 and not community college. Does what Leecy and I are saying here match your experience? Do you have thoughts about changes you would like to see regarding teacher qualifications and preparation and professional development that is available?

Joy and Leecy, I believe that our survey showed instructors at community colleges to have the highest levels of educational attainment and specialized training in ESL, TESOL, K-12, or other related fields. In North Carolina, many of the non-formal programs are staffed by volunteers who could be as young as high school, if I'm not mistaken. In my experience with community volunteers, they are dedicated teachers but may be pressed for time for professional development, even when it is made available.

Nevertheless, I don't know what we would do without them and the many organizations that step up to provide services of all kinds to our immigrant population, especially in our complicated political climate. With the shift to CCRS, I get the impression that these non-formal/community-based programs have been disproportionately attending to the needs of low-literacy students who do not advance through the educational functioning levels as quickly as students with stronger education backgrounds. I would love to see more training materials such as those provided through New American Horizons, which don't take a lot of time to go through and can be used to build local communities of practice.

Hello Rebeca and all, I agree completely, that the many volunteers that give of their time and talent to work with immigrants and refugees are greatly needed. I also want to plug the New American Horizons video series, which was reviewed for the LINCS collection. I've used these videos a lot with teachers, and they always enjoy seeing a real adult ESL class in action and having the chance to discuss the video and their own teaching practices with one another.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

I am interested in the discussion on the preparation of teachers to teach writing.  When you say that community college ESL teachers "have the highest levels of educational attainment and specialized training in ESL," does that include training in teaching academic writing?   I have taught in two master's programs for TESOL degrees and in neither was there a course directed at teaching writing.   Can anyone in this discussion give an example of a course that they took or teach/taught that addressed this issue directly?   I think the repeated requests here for specific techniques and methods and materials speaks to the need for much more attention on this particular aspect of teaching. 

I was glad to see Rebecca Fernandez name the issue that many students linger so long in the pre-academic courses that they finally drop out and give up on their degree.  This is an issue near and dear to my heart, as many of you know.  I felt very fortunate when I taught academic writing in a community college setting that I had had 22 years' experience teaching writing in a university program.  I felt equipped to do my job-- which is, I found, VERY challenging for a whole long list of reasons.  

I love the examples given over and over here of ways that academic THINKING and organizing can be worked into content courses or any course with readings, etc.  And I am very hopeful that as the CCRS are more deeply understood and incorporated, there will be more rigor in adult ESOL settings around writing and using texts for text-based answers, etc. Supporting claims was one of the tasks my students in university classes AND community college classes found the most difficult.    As Rebecca noted, even for those who would seem not to need training in academic writing, there in fact may be a need (I think of a woman I worked with who faced losing her long-time job as a CNA because she had a new supervisor who demanded written notes on patients. This woman, who had significant problems writing, had gotten by using check lists and just words here and there)-- and just as math helps one's thinking processes, I believe learning to give text/fact based answers to questions is helpful in many ways for our students, whose English deficits so often put them at a disadvantage out in the world.  

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 

Hi Robin,

I too was surprised that several of the survey participants in adult ESL programs housed at community colleges had taken TESOL training courses specifically on writing. I received my TESOL certification through a very reputable applied linguistics program yet was never required to take (nor did I think they offered) a course specifically on writing. When I started in adult ESL, most of what I knew about second language writing pedagogy had come from the mentoring I had received while working as a teaching assistant for the university's ESL service courses. Even now, what I know about writing has also been the result of incredible mentoring, as well as years of reading and doing research on the topic. 

Adult ESL programs that are serious about professional development in the teaching of writing should consider convening experienced writing teachers within their programs, as well as from the academic ESL/IEP programs, their college's English department, and the developmental English program. During their meetings, these teachers can critique each other's lessons and syllabi, discuss student work samples, share seminal research or key practices in their respective fields, and come up with sets of coordinated learning outcomes that are appropriate to the range of skills and abilities of their specific student population. I suggest cross-disciplinary work for many reasons. First of all, at some point, all of those teachers will have had the same students. Whether or not they work with the same students, fields like English as a Second Language, rhetoric and composition, applied linguistics, and writing studies are having similar conversations--only with slightly different nomenclature--that would benefit greatly from this sort of interaction. For instance, the Graff & Birkenstein book I recommended earlier was not written for ESL students, yet I find it invaluable in my work with multilingual writers. Also, finding a way to talk about writing (i.e., developing a shared metalanguage) in similar ways could go a long way in helping students understand, think about, and act on the writing feedback they receive. 

Of course, we know that time and funds for such an activity are lacking. I know of one adult ESL program at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina that received grant funding a few years back to be able to pay part-time teachers to participate in weekly planning and professional development meetings. But I am of anyone who has been able to secure funds for collaboration across programs. 


Hello Robin and all, Your example of the CNA who was required to write patient notes reminded me of an experience I had teaching low level supervisors in a foundry a few years ago. These workers had had limited formal schooling, but they very much needed reading and writing skills on the job. Most importantly, they were required to write up accident reports, which--believe me!-- happened often at this workplace. Fact-based writing was critical in these instances to ensure workers' injuries were handled justly.

There is no doubt that writing is not only needed in academic settings.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Hello everyone, The content in this discussion has been wonderfully rich. Thank you to Rebeca and Joy for their contributions thus far. I'm looking forward to hearing from Kirsten regarding the follow questions.

  • Academic writing is difficult for most people, including teachers! What are some specific examples of academic writing that can be done with adult English learners, and what might it look like in an adult ESL class?  At what level should academic writing begin?  
  • There are many English learners who are studying for a high school equivalency diploma. What do their teachers need to know about supporting English learners in academic writing? Are these English learners’ needs different from others who grew up speaking English?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Hello Susan and Everyone,

I've been closely following the past two days of discussions and "liked" everything said. Thank you for the two questions you pose today, Susan. I'll start with the second one about writing exams because I've been doing a lot of thinking about the essay exams our students have to write and how we can help them prepare. I'll say at the start that I think preparation for academic writing, and writing exams should begin when students first come into our classes at whatever level of English proficiency they have. Preparing students for academic writing is, in my view, part of helping to socialize them to academic thinking processes in the United States. To do this, I have found "Habits of Mind" helpful in focusing my teaching. "Habits of Mind" havev been around awhile and are put forward recently by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. They are put forward with native English speaking students and ESL students in mind because both groups need to be socialized into academic thinking and writing processes. They are:

• Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.

• Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.

• Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.

• Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.

• Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.

• Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.

• Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.

• Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

They have organized these into a Framework. (and I know you may be thinking, not another Friamework, but read a little more, please . . .) "The Framework explains how teachers can foster these habits of mind through writing, reading, and critical analysis experiences." These experiences aim to develop students’

• Rhetorical knowledge – the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts;

• Critical thinking – the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research;

• Writing processes – multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research;

• Knowledge of conventions – the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing; and

• Ability to compose in multiple environments – from traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies.

You can see their document at: 

Since all the high school equivalency tests (GED, TASC, and HiSET) include read-to-write tasks, we need to begin to help students learn academic writing skills from the earliest possible moment. These tasks ask students to read a prompt, read two articles which take opposite sides of an issue, analyze the arguments in  the two articles, and then write an essay stating their opinion and using information from the articles to support it. 

Now, in thinking about these Habits of Mind and writing high school equivalency and other exams, the processes students need to learn to write an essay exam answer can be divided into those listed in the table below, which I developed to try and clarify my own thinking and teaching. The left column describes the actions students have to do (and be taught) to complete an essay answer. The middle column lists the Habits of Mind students need to be able to complete these actions (and these Habits of Mind can be developed starting from beginning levels of English proficiency). The right hand column lists class activities that teachers can do to develop these Habits of Mind and acts for academic writing 


Student Actions to Analyze and Answer Prompt 

Sub-skills and Habits of Mind Inherent in Action

Class Activities that Build These Habits of Mind

  1. Analyze the prompt to see writing actions.
  2. In both articles, analyze the arguments for and against using gaming for training in the workplace


Pick out verbs that show writing actions (Metacognition)

Identify arguments (Engagement)

Decide pro and con arguments for using gaming as training in the workplace (Openness; Flexibility)

Identify paragraph structure (topic sentence + support)

Say opinions and arguments; then write them

Use a graphic organizer to list pro and con arguments

  1. Decide which position is better supported
  2. Examine the arguments/support of both articles and list which arguments/support are strong and which are weak

Identify support for each argument (Engagement)

Decipher where support is from (Curiosity; Openness)

Decide if this is strong or weak support (Openness; Metacognition)

Use a graphic organizer to list arguments and their support

Determine what makes support strong

Discuss and label which support is strong and which is weak

  1. Plan/outline your answer

List your argument/opinion (Engagement)

List the support for it and say why it is strong (Openness; Metacognition)

List the support against it and state why this support is weak (Openness; Metacognition)

Use the graphic organizer created to move the information to an outline

Teach sentence structure patterns for presenting arguments

Teach language items for labeling strong and weak arguments

What do you think? Is this helpful or simply adding to the confusion? What activities do you do with your students that might reflect these actions? Can you think of other activities or how you might do some of these activities with your students? I'd love to hear some examples before throwing in my two cents worth!

Susan, I would like to extend the two good questions posed for discussion today to include instructors of native speakers of English in our ABE/ASE populations. Kristin's helpful response and table apply to all in many ways. 

Kristin, your reference to Habits of Mind reminds me of studies from the 50's about making and breaking habits. How long does it take to turn something into a habit? The simple answer is, a long time, some say between 30-60 days. Making and breaking a habit are two sides of the same coin. In order to start thinking critically, one needs to stop relying on first impressions. Students must build confidence a step at a time. Maybe some habits are easier to acquire depending on the student. Some students are naturally creative, for example, and might need practice taking responsibility and becoming persistent. What do you think?

I really appreciate the three columns you shared, Kristin, with differentiated examples of how to build good habits of mind. How about it, instructors reading this? How do you plan to build instructional habits of mind that provide good models for students to follow? What challenges do you face in prepping students to face the challenge of responding to reading prompts in ways that please the academic minds of those who want direct, well-organized, and well-supported writing? 

NOTE: I hosted a brilliant student from South Africa for one year who wanted a HS degree from the US. She already had one from SA and was a terrific writer. She came back from her first week of English classes totally befuddled. "What's all of this stuff about thesis statements and topic sentences? I've never heard of those!"

Hi Leecy,

I agree with what you are saying. It DOES take a long time to build a habit. (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg was recently a best-seller.) Since habits take a long time to form is why we need to start academic writing (thinking patterns and processes and the act of writing) early! The more time we can give our students to acquire and learn these forms and ways of doing, the better off they will be in essay exams and writing academically and professionally. 

In response to a question in our Webinar, I gave an example of how we do this for children who attend school in the US. From kindergarten, and probably preschool nowadays, we ask them to bring in a favorite toy and talk about it or to talk about a favorite activity ("show-n-tell"). When they state what their favorite toy is, then we ask them "Why do you like it so much?" and they have to give reasons. That statement announcing the toy and the reasons following their statement is basically the basis for an expository/informational paragraph. So, these children have been giving opinions and supporting them for many years before they get to secondary school where they can transfer this way of thinking into their academic writing.

With adult leaners, it is important to have them state and support opinions from the moment they enter our classrooms. With ESL learners, many of them come from countries where students' opinions are never heard and are not valued. So these students may have never formed and stated an opinion in an educational setting in their lives. If we can give them patterned practice in stating opinions and supporting them, they can then transfer these to their academic and professional writing. For example, we can ask them what is best to eat or drink when someone has a fever or a cold; we can ask them which television series or show they enjoy watching; and we can ask them whether a pet (dog or cat) should sleep in the same bed with its owner. These are only a few ideas that many people today have opinions about. By bringing ideas such as these into our classrooms, having students talk about them first, and later write about them, we can help ESL learners become acquainted with putting forth an opinion and supporting it. 

These kinds of questions and answers do not need to take a lot of time. They can be done at the beginning of class, as students are arriving, or for a few minutes at the end of class. We can also make ourselves form a habit of having students state opinions and give reasons throughout class, with whatever activity we are doing. This might just be one small difference in our teaching, but it can make a difference in how learners acquire one of the basic characteristics of academic writing.

Someone has asked about the writing section on the TOEFL. It is actually very similar to the writing sections of the high school equivalency exams except that instead of two reading  passages, it has one reading passage and a listening passage. Students need to form an opinion and use information  from the reading and listening passages to support their opinion. 

To prepare students for this, and for college classes in  which students listen to lectures and do course readings, teachers can include some of the following classroom activities and assignments:

1. have students listen to lectures and take notes

2. have students give lectures/short talks and the other students take notes (this needs very careful instructions, for example, include two main points and an example to support each point)

3. listen to a piece and write a summary of it (individually or in pairs)

4. analyze readings: label arguments and support; outline the  ideas in an article (whole class, small group, pairs, individually); examine paragraph structure; summarize an article; paraphrase some sentences from an article; talk about readings (what is the author saying? and what is the author doing?)

5. write a paragraph that combines one idea from something the students heard and one idea from something they read (graduallyl work up to combining several ideas from each)

These are a few ideas that can be modified to class level. What is important to remember is that these activities give students practice in acquiring all academic writing while preparing them for a TOEFL or high school equivalency exam. 

Hello colleagues, Many of you are aware that last Friday's webinar was an introduction to a series of LINCS events with these three experts on the topic of Teaching Academic Writing to English Learners. During the introductory webinar, there were a number of excellent questions posed by participants that we didn't have time to get to. Our guests will respond to some of the questions today. The rest of the questions will be addressed during the follow up events.

Kirsten will address these questions today. Thank you, Kirsten!

  1. I have encountered students who intended to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) but our program was far from targeting the TOEFL writing. So should we remedy that? Thank you.
  2. What resources can you provide for offering two opposing positions on a topic?

And Joy has agreed to address the following questions. Thank you, Joy!

  1. In the 3 follow-up Webinars, will you be going over the literature again.  Like some others, I am looking for specific instruction other than a discussion on how to help students develop and organize their writing beyond the sentence level.
  2. Where can we find SPECIFIC examples of HOW teachers are applying this?  I think most of us know and agree with the theories mentioned here, but we seek practical ideas and suggestions to help us PRACTICE them on a daily basis.
  3. Have you found any correlation between writing and other skills (reading, speaking, listening)?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs



The following resources are useful for helping students present their opinions on topics and write about them:

Discover Debate is a book that gives students with beginning  levels of English proficiency structures and topics to talk about. 

Newsela is a free website that gives opposite pieces on many different controversial topics. To see the articles, you have to join, but joining is free:  also has readings on two sides of an issue: 

Last March, the New York Times published an article, "Our 100 Most Popular Student Questions for Debate and Persuasive Writing"

These are all helpful resources. I have also found that asking students to find topics and readings gives them some basic researching skills. 

If others have resources they would like to add, that would be great!

Thank you for sharing these questions with us, Susan. I want to respond now to the three questions you posted today, which were asked during the Webinar.

In response to 1, 2, and 3 here. Also another question that was asked, "Do you have samples you can share with us right now? writing activity samples") Yes, I absolutely agree with all of you. We are looking for specific strategies for instruction, not more theory and research. If you read through the discussion during these 3 days, I think you will agree with me that some very specific strategies were described. Do you agree? Also, I promise that in the next set of Webinars, in April, we will focus on specific strategies, describe them, and provide opportunities to discuss them:

-- Using writing as basis for reading and the other language skills (question 3 above)

-- Using graphic organizers to develop academic writing skills

-- Using writing test sample questions (from the GED and HiSET) to develop academic writing

  1. In the 3 follow-up Webinars, will you be going over the literature again.  Like some others, I am looking for specific instruction other than a discussion on how to help students develop and organize their writing beyond the sentence level.
  2. Where can we find SPECIFIC examples of HOW teachers are applying this?  I think most of us know and agree with the theories mentioned here, but we seek practical ideas and suggestions to help us PRACTICE them on a daily basis.
  3. Have you found any correlation between writing and other skills (reading, speaking, listening)?

Do these sound like helpful topics and approaches you would like to know more about?

Thanks for the summary, Joy. Yes, I would like more resources and your suggestions on how to provide writing instruction at all levels that will appeal to how other cultures think. I'm a real fan of Edward Hall's description of cultural characteristics. His high-context population thinks and writes very differently than we expect in our dominant academic environments. The differences drive instructors to either throw up their hands in desperation or, hopefully, help students transition into a new way of thinking. That was mentioned in the Webinar, and I hope it's taken a step further. Leecy


HI all-- this is a very interesting discussion about teaching academic writing to ELLs.  I wanted to add to Leecy's comments about culture issues in writing, which I find to be a tremendous factor in how readily ELLs take to our models of academic writing.  Several times on this list I have referred to the work of Helen Fox. Her book "Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing" was published in 1994 and is available on google scholar.   I find this to be of the utmost importance in understanding somewhat better and in accepting what the cultural differences are not just in writing but in ways of thinking, reasoning, supporting ideas (and the NEED to support ideas) and analyzing papers and academic work in general.  One issue that is very often raised in teaching academic writing to persons from other cultures is what WE call plagiarism-- using excerpts from others' writing without citation.   I struggled with this issue mightily with my students for years at the university where I taught ESL writing.    

The list posted in this discussion about "habits of mind" had me running to Fox's work.  Her book (I think her dissertation) is the result of many years of working with foreign students in writing centers at at least two large universities and helping them try to fulfill academic writing assignments the way they were assigned.  It is a glorious piece of qualitative research, with voices of many, many of her students quoted in the chapters.   As an instructor who taught academic writing for 22 years in a university intensive English program, and 4 more years in community college ESL pre-academic classes, I was both relieved and humbled to read Helen's work about how strong the cultural influences are and how reluctant many--especially the more educated-- are to give them up and adopt American ways of doing things.    Helen does not focus on organization patterns in different cultures so much (as Kaplan did a LONG time ago, but still a relevant piece, I believe), but rather on how students had to discover with her what it was in their culturally-determined training that caused them to have difficulties in doing assignments for their college courses.  

And that said, I would love to hear more from others who have taught academic writing in higher ed to ELLs.  We had fantastic textbooks, many of which I still use when I have the occasion to tutor a student headed for college.  These textbooks have all a teacher needs for helping students write different rhetorical patterns and learn the grammar necessary to use those patterns.   I won't cite any here since mine are probably woefully out of date, but the big ESL publishers all have excellent choices for writing instruction.   

And one more thing: inspired by this discussion, I am in the process of posting 5 separate entries on my blog about Teaching Academic Writing to Adult ELLs. Two are up already-- the blog is at  

Thank you to all,  Robin  



Thanks for the invitation and thanks to all of you who contributed so mightily to helping us dialogue more deeply about this critical area of instruction and learning among our students. Can't wait for more! Leecy

I want to express our appreciation to Rebeca Fernandez, Joy Kreeft Peyton and Kirsten Schaetzel for sharing so much valuable information with us during last week's webinar and this week's discussion on the topic of teaching academic writing to English learners (ELs). This discussions had been chock full of practical teaching ideas, but we know you have a lot more to share with us about how to approach teaching academic writing with ELs.

We look forward to each of you presenting another webinar and follow up discussion in April on the following topics:

  • Rebeca Fernandez: Writing as the Basis for Reading and So Much More!
  • Joy Kreeft Peyton: Using Graphic Organizers to Develop Academic Writing Skills
  • Kirsten Schaetzel: Using Writing Test Sample Questions (e.g., GED®,HiSET, TASC) to Develop Academic Writing Skills

We expect to send out a date saver soon, so stay tuned!

If members have further questions or comments for our guests, you are invited to post them here.

Thanks again, Rebeca, Joy and Kirsten, for sharing your expertise with all of us!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs