Redefining Productivity for ELLs in the Writing Workshop

There are two predominant ways in which my teaching practice has grown over the years. One, practices, ideas and attitudes I aspire to internalize, work hard at, and systematically learn. Two, practices, ideas and attitudes I have had to embrace despite much internal resistance because what I was doing did not serve my students. 

The recommendations in my previous post to provide multiple practice opportunities and confer over multiple days belong to the latter category. My aspiration to create a classroom as magical as the ones in the books I’d read by Writing Workshop teachers from the US were the basis of my resistance to acknowledge that ELLs in my class were being shortchanged.

I kept trying to get better at giving students more independent writing time and ensure I conferred with every student every day. Yet, my ELLs continued to struggle in both their language proficiency and productivity. They wrote the least number of pieces every year. 

It took a while for me to realize that there’s a difference between trying hard to get better at what doesn’t apply to my students versus learning to teach what my students needed to learn. The realization was accompanied by another epiphany: Atwell and Graves did not follow any rule book! They veered away from what was “supposed to be taught” towards what they discerned their students needed. They made radical, fundamental changes to how things were done. Ironically, I was being dogmatic about their ideas! 

I now aspire to pay attention to students – what they do, what they don’t do, what they cannot do, what they can learn next, what they need to learn next, and how – just like Atwell and Graves. 

This shift in attitude led me to define productivity for ELLs differently.

ELLs are doing the hard work of both learning the language and expressing complex and personal ideas at the same time. They don’t have the strong foundation of English speakers to cushion them when they struggle or help them take off when they have a great idea. It is hence obvious that the definition of productivity cannot be the same for ELLs and others in the Writing Workshop classroom. 

I redefined productivity to include the two major endeavors of ELLs: learning the language and producing written work. The hardest part of this change was to accept  that they would publish fewer pieces than others. But, once I accepted it, I was able to: 

  1. Help them accept the same without harsh self-judgment 
  2. Help them to see that comparison with a non-ELL’s productivity is not fair 
  3. Help the class accept and appreciate the same without judgment 
  4. Define their goals in the writing workshop classroom differently, to include focus on learning the language as well 
  5. Redefine Independent Writing Time to Independent Learning Time – a time when they’re either writing independently or learning and practicing aspects of the language that will make them better writers 
  6. Find resources they can use to learn from independently and in groups, and teach them to take ownership of their learning 
  7. Enable ELLs to see that they are making progress in both strands so they feel more successful in English, a definite shift from always feeling like they’re catching up or not good enough. 

What happens in Independent Learning Time?

  1. The student writes as she would in Independent Writing Time 
  2. The student confers with me – either about the piece she is working on or about an aspect of language she is trying to master 
  3. Students work in pairs or small groups with resources such as Cambridge Language in Use or English Sentence Structure to practice language use 
  4. Move on from writing to language learning or vice versa when they feel stuck and help is not immediately available 

This has helped with conferring over multiple days as well. Now, an ELL in my class is no longer stuck waiting for me to help them out, or waiting for the next day for a conference to be completed. 

Can all ELLs succeed in Independent Learning Time? 

I have written earlier about the different levels of English proficiency of ELLs in our class. While it is the easiest to group all ELLs together, their proficiency in the language must determine which pedagogy and curriculum will work for each of them. For an ELL with very low English proficiency, my suggestions might create cognitive overload and overwhelm. Only reasonably proficient ELLs* in my class have been able to handle the multiple threads running in parallel in the Writing Workshop: a poem they are stuck on, an essay they are writing, two grammar topics they are practicing and a book they are reading. For students who cannot handle this complexity, I recommend considering direct, explicit instruction in the language to fast track their learning of the language. 

*The ELLs in my middle school classroom who have thrived in the Writing Workshop classroom almost always: 

  • are fairly fluent in spoken English (with errors consistent with the influence of the home language) 
  • have a CEFR proficiency of B2 or higher 
  • have a vocabulary size of 8000 or higher 
  • can spell and read no lower than a year or two below grade level 
  • don’t have any additional learning difficulties or disabilities

Others have needed direct, explicit instruction in the language. 

What aspects of the Writing Workshop have you had to modify to serve your learners better? How do you define reasonable proficiency for your ELLs? 

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at

– Aishwarya

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  1. “But, once I accepted it, I was able to:

    Help them accept the same without harsh self-judgment ”

    That is the most beautiful transition on paper and in a teacher’s mind. Mine for sure!

    Beautiful Aishwarya!

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