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Using Writing Test Prompts to Develop Academic Writing with Dr. Kirsten Schaetzel

Today's Webinar presented by Dr. Kirsten Schaetzel provided excellent guidelines for using writing-test prompts to develop writing skills. Don't forget to mark your calendars to participate in this follow-up discussion!

To prepare for participating in this upcoming dialogue tomorrow and Thursday, you may access Dr. Schaetzel's Power Point presentation at Leecy


Susan Finn Miller's picture

Welcome, Kirsten Schaetzel!

Thank you for an excellent webinar today on "Using Writing Test Prompts to Teach Academic Writing." In my experience, teaching writing is one of the most challenging skills to teach, and you shared so many fantastic practical teaching ideas with us. We are looking forward to this follow up discussion. We are fortunate to have you with us!

Members, please tell us about your practices with teaching writing and feel free to pose any questions you have about teaching writing. LINCS is a great venue for networking with colleagues across the country.

Bio: 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.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs


Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

Good morning, LINCS community!

As a follow-up to yesterday's presentation, it would be helpful if teachers who have had students take one of the three high school equivalency test to inform us about what their students found easy and what they found challenging. In my experience, getting through the readings and analyzing them and writing a complete answer are the most challenging for our learners. But I would like to hear from you all. What have your students found challenging about the new tests? If you haven't had students take these tests yet, what do you think your students would find challenging? Thanks!

Leecy's picture
Hi, Kirsten. Thanks for the very helpful Webinar yesterday that shared so many valuable tips on how to use writing prompts to encourage students to become comfortable in addressing prompts that can be very challenging.
I don't currently have students working on passing high school equivalency tests. However, I have worked extensively in the past to prepare both ESL and native English speakers to pass different kinds of timed writing tests, including those that test the student's ability to write a well-developed essay before enrolling in college Freshman English credit courses. 
From my experience, timed tests stress students the most. They worry more about timing than about working through prompts. Often, although more related more to reading skills, students are also challenged by questions that require that they read a lot of text before responding to specific aspects of the passages. They have trouble finding main ideas and are stressed by long complex sentences that contain a lot of information. Finally, as we touched on yesterday, students are scared to death of finding prompts that discuss topics that are unfamiliar to them. 
Dealing with the latter, I found two techniques that sometimes helped students relax when treading unfamiliar territory:
(1) If you recognize the topic but don't know much about it, compare it to something that is familiar to you. "______" is like a tree. "______" reminds me of "_______" in  many ways. Once students establish the similarity, they can then describe the topic in terms that they understand.
(2) State your unfamiliarity right up front and define your own topic from that. For example, "I am not familiar with ___X______. I believe it means ___Y___. I will write about Y in the following essay." Depending on the examiners, many only want to know if students can develop a topic, so if they write about "Y" in acceptable ways, they can pass. 
I also wonder about the cognitive-skills that are often underdeveloped, as you mentioned in the Webinar, especially among lower-level writers. Would it help to have them both interpret and write math problems among their writing activities?
I look forward to what others contribute to this discussion. Leecy
Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

Hi Leecy,

Your ideas of how to help students write on questions in which they aren't sure of words in the prompt are excellent! Students need to be prepared for this. Teachers can actually first give them prompts where they understand all the words, and then give students one or two prompts in which they may not know all the words, so they can learn these strategies. This kind of practice will also help them become more familiar answering more difficult questions. Through this, they can gain confidence in their writing ability.

Confidence is so important when students, and all people, write. I have found that many students write better than they think they do, but hold themselves back because they don't have much confidence in their writing ability. The following two articles are about building your own writing confidence, but many of the suggestions they give can be built into classroom practices:

And your ideas, Leecy, of having students write their own math problems and then interpret them, are great! Math word problems are difficult because of both the math and the English. Writing a math problem gives students practice in both doing the math and in improving their academic English. Math word problems are short, so it is easy for teachers to help students focus on correct grammar and sentence structure in them. When students write and solve a math word problem, this really increases their confidence on two fronts: their writing and math abilities. 

What are some other ways people have increased students' confidence in their writing? 

Leecy's picture

Kirsten, the links you shared lead to wonderful sites that provide great advice. I notice that, especially in the first site, the language is pretty simple and straightforward. I suspect that their content would make very engaging reading for students, who, even at intermediate levels, could summarize and outline them. In fact, higher level students could simplify the language even more to be shared among more beginning writers. Thanks! Leecy

Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

Hi Leecy,

Having students read one or both of these webpages is a great idea! I especially like your thought to have students put these ideas for how to write into their own words. Not only will this help them understand the ideas better, but it's excellent practice at paraphrasing, a skill that is difficult for some students. Thanks! Kirsten

Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

In the webinar yesterday, I talked through a list of inferencing strategies that students can use to figure out a word's or concept's meaning. Since I didn't have these listed on a slide, here they are:

1. guess using world knowledge

2. guess using discourse context: look outside the sentence, forward and backward in the text

3. use the context/meaning of the sentence the word is in

4. use the word association/collocation: what other words normally go with this word?

5. use the part of speech: is the word a noun, verb, adjective, adverb?

6. use visual form: prefix or suffix

7. use phonological similarity: do you know another word that looks or sounds like this word?

8. is the word used in more than one place? Read each sentence in which it is used for clues to its meaning. (If the word is only used once, then probably it is not very important.)

These are not completely fail-safe, but they at least give students tools to try and figure out unknown words. These strategies can be practiced and taught during whole-class activities with new words. 

Are there other strategies that people use to help students figure out word meaning?

With a strategy or two in hand, students can keep their panic at bay and write better answers. 

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Thanks for this list of strategies for understanding words, Kirsten. Another strategy learners use is recognizing cognates, i.e., words that are similar in their primary language and English. Some members might be surprised to learn that there are, for instance, at least 20,000 cognates shared between Spanish and English, as well as other Romance languages.. Sometimes learners don't realize that they actually know English words already because the words have the same or very similar meanings in their language.  It can be helpful for teachers to point out cognates to students, so they can take advantage of the rich vocabulary they bring with them. Of course, we students of Spanish (or other languages) can learn lots of vocabulary this way, too!

As noted by Montelongo and colleagues (2011), "Because Latin was the language of Western scholarship, many of the cognates [in Spanish and English] are academic vocabulary words. Words such as analogía/analogy, classificar/classify, and democracia/ democracy are cognates. Unsurprising, cognates comprise a significant number of the boldface words in textbooks and make up the majority of words found in the glossaries of content area textbooks across the disciplines."

Reference: Montelongo, J. A., Montelongo, J. A., Hernandez, A., Hernandez, A, & Herter, R. (2011). Identifying Spanish-English cognates to scaffold instruction for Latino ELs. Reading Teaching, 65(2), 161-164.

Members, your thoughts and suggested techniques for supporting learners to deepen their understanding of words are welcome. What works for you?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

Yes, Susan, cognates are a wonderful way to help students figure out the meaning of a word! Prefixes and suffixes help too!

What's most important, though, is giving students many opportunities to work with words that they don't know. When they practice these strategies over and over, they will gain confidence in their ability to use them. They may sometimes guess a word's meaning wrong, but with lots of practice, the number of times they are right will outweigh the number of times they are wrong. That builds confidence. 

Julie Neff-Encinas's picture

This whole conversation is so similar to work I was involved with 20 years ago when working for school district with large numbers of Mexican American students whose dialect was identified by Maria Montano-Harmon to be "Chicano English"  (Montano-Harmon, UC Fullerton dissertation, 1996[?]).  It is a dialect that is recognized by its reliance on the intimate and casual registers (see The Five Clocks by Martin Joos 1962) and rarely uses written language at all.  We found so many students resistant to learning how to write in academic style in English until we taught them the concept of a dialect and how we were not jeopardizing their home dialect at all.  We wanted them to add a new dialect to their repertoire for dealing with specific situations.  They had to also learn how to use the consultative register for face to face interactions with authority figures, business people, health care workers, etc.  But making sure they didn't feel that their "normal way" of talking was under attack made the teaching far more successful.  Then we used all the kinds of strategies you refer to so they could expand their vocabularies, establish the value of metacognition and recognize the different discourse pattern. 

Great stuff!

Leecy's picture

Julie, I love your reference to "Chicano English," which I certainly experienced as a college instructor in El Paso, TX. It is so important, in my view, to recognize "community/culturally-acceptable  language" (my term) as valid. Those in other parts of the US deal with Ebonics in similar ways. It is so important to first validate other types of commonly used English patterns and then help students adapt to "standard English" which is used in academic, workplace (sometimes), and broadcasting-type environments. We don't  ask them to change how they communicate in their environment but invite them to learn a "new" language that meets workplace and academic environments. In a way, it's like learning a foreign language. Why not? Thanks. Leecy

WendyQ's picture

That's a great list of strategies, Kirsten.  I just have a warning about those "guess" suggestions.  I've found that when students do guess, what they are likely to remember isn't necessarily the correct definition, but rather the one that is the funniest.  A strategy that I learned from Lesley College (Cambridge, Ma) professor Mary Beth Curtis is to directly teach the definition, but then ask students to use the word in sentences or discuss its meaning and usage.  This ensures the multiple exposures needed for retention.  I remember being discouraged after reading one research study showing that 12 repetitions were need for a word to be learned; the kind of strategy I outlined makes (mostly) sure they get it.


Here's a link to a video of this teaching strategy (featuring yours truly and my students): 

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello Wendy and all, Thanks, Wendy, for sharing the link to this video demonstrating your approach to recycling academic vocabulary in ways that are personally meaningful to learners. As you note, supporting learners to make personal connections to words will help them to acquire new vocabulary. I regularly create what I call "Vocabulary Workouts" that support learners to do exactly this in both conversation and in writing. I also often create conversation grids using the words we have been studying as a means to recycle the vocabulary and get students using the words with one another-- once again-- in conversation. For those who are not familiar with conversation grid, students interview classmates using the questions in the grid and write their peers' answers.

I'm also a big fan of having students make their own vocabulary flashcards, either on paper or online, e.g., using Quizlet.

See below for an example of a conversation grid from a recent class. The words in bold are the ones we had recently been studying.

Let us know your thoughts, members!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

What is your name?

(How do you spell it?)

How are you today? 

Who has the authority to make decisions in your family?

What individual has had a major influence in your life?

What language do the majority of people in your country speak?

What is one principle parents should teach their children?































Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello colleagues, I want to build on Wendy's comment about 1) the need to recycle vocabulary so students get the opportunity to encounter and use words numerous time, and 2) the importance of helping learners make personally meaningful connections to acquire academic vocabulary.

I shared how I'm integrating the academic words students are learning into conversation grid. Today, in my class with intermediate and advanced English learners, we used a conversation grid, with academic words drawn from the text we are reading about the Civil War, with the following questions:.

  • Q: How often do you consume ice cream? A: I consume ice cream about …
  • Q: How is the economy in your country doing right now? A: Right now, the economy in my country is …
  • Q: In the future, what job do you hope to get eventually? A: In the future, I hope to eventually get a job as a …
  • Q: When do you think it is okay for parents to grant permission to their children to stay up late? A: I think it’s okay for parents to grant permission to their children to stay up late when …

I decided to have the students use these questions to interview five students in about 15 minutes.Notice that I provided sentence starters for each question, which definitely helps students get started with their responses and illustrates how to respond in a complete sentence. With conversation grid, I usually I ask learners to write their partners' answers, which can take time, and, thus, they get less opportunity for speaking. The students indicated that they really liked getting a chance to practice more speaking, so I'm going to integrate this way of using conversation grid into my routine.

Comments welcome!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoP

Leecy's picture

Thanks for sharing innovative and successful ways to help students practice new and relevant vocabulary, Susan. We don't often ask students to be creative in speaking, especially among new learners of English. Instead, we give them patterns to repeat, which also has good results and allows for safety, but a balance is ideal. In fact, we don't give native English speakers enough practice in using new vocabulary in conversation. I think that the grid model and other ideas that you shared could also be adapted to native speakers hoping to transition into college or workplace environments. Leecy

S Jones's picture

There is a neat book full of these kinds of examples -- _Building College Vocabulary Strategies_ by Pabis and Hamer.   I have it around to inspire me to make similar exercises w/ the words we're using.  I put some of the kinds of things we did w/ drawing on line w/ word parts here a million years ago    

Leecy's picture

Thanks for the great resource, Susan. I notice that you author several of those. Hat's off! Leecy

Kirsten Schaetzel's picture

Since teachers often teach academic writing at the advanced level of proficiency, I'd like to share two resources that can be used to introduce academic writing and language at lower proficiency levels. Most of the time, these resources will begin with students' oral language and then move to written language. 

1. Discover Debate, by Lubetsky, LeBeau, and Harrington. In this book, debates are structured for students at many different proficiency levels. Some of the language in the text may be too high for a beginning level, but even beginning levels can engage in oral debates on some of the topics this book introduces. It also introduces students to the structure of a "debate" and scaffolds their putting forth and supporting an opinion--just what a college writer needs to do in an academic essay. As students progress in their ability to debate, they can start to write down their arguments and support, beginning their journey toward an academic essay. 

2. The Language Experience Approach.  In this approach, learners do an activity together and, after finishing the activity, the teacher writes about it as the learners describe it. As learners feel more confident in their writing, writing about the activity can be done in student groups, pairs, and then, individually. This writing experience is also good for mixed-level classes because more proficient writers can be paired with less proficient writers. 

3. All parts of the process of responding to a test prompt: analyzing readings, brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, rewriting, editing, and proofreading. The important part of giving students practice with writing for exams is that they get lots of practice on each part of the process. That way, they become familiar with the process and are less likely to panic during the test. 

Do others have writing activities that they have used with particular levels of students? Please share!

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello, Thanks for suggesting these resources for working with lower level learners, Kirsten. I wanted to share a couple of videos that illustrate the Language Experience Approach (LEA) process as well as how teachers and learners can work with an LEA text.

Here's a video on LEA  produced by Bowe Valley College in Canada.

The New American Horizon's video on Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers illustrates how a class can work with the language in the LEA story.

It would be great to hear from teaches who are using LEA in their teaching.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Susan Finn Miller's picture

I want to express our appreciation to Kirsten Schaetzel for sharing her expertise with our LINCS community. Kirsten, the ideas you shared with us for supporting academic writing were extremely helpful and so very practical. So many learners want and need to perform on writing assessments, and teachers are keenly interested in ways to support learners to achieve their goals.

Helping students to analyze the reading selections they must write about is an essential component of using test prompts to teach writing. In addition, I appreciated your guidance on unpacking the writing prompt and teaching students the vocabulary they need as writers, e.g., introduce,  define,  give an example,  compare/contrast, describe,  argue, persuade, show a cause, conclude,  assert,  affirm, show an effect, assess,  evaluate, explain, etc.

Thank you so much for being with us, Kirsten!

Members, we can continue the conversation about using test prompts to develop academic writing in this thread created by Leecy Wise.

And here's a reminder for the final webinar and discussion in our series on teaching academic writing. Please join us!

  • Webinar: Friday, December 7 at 1:00 ET Writing as a Basis for Reading with Dr. Rebeca Fernandez
  • Follow up discussion December 10 & 11)

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition and Teaching & Learning CoPs

Leecy's picture

Let me add my own bow in your directions, Susan and Kirsten, for expanding so beautifully on the topic. I learned a lot! Thanks! Leecy