Supporting Independence in ELL Writers Benefits All Writers

Fostering independence, simple strategies, and thoughtful planning – these are the big ideas from the work of Meredith Alvaro (  Meredith is a national consultant on literacy, especially focusing on ELLs.  Our campus was fortunate to host Meredith on our campus for labsite visits for two days this month.  This blog post will explain some of the amazing learning that took place over these two days.

(Note:  This introduction was written following one of her strategies for writing introductions.  I plan to use this with students to show that this is a strategy for all writers.  It will serve them throughout their lives as writers – not just for one writing piece.)

Meredith taught three sessions on our campus over two days focused on expository writing.  Our school has both bilingual and ESOL programs.  Fourth grade teachers from various schools in our district were invited by the Department of Other Languages to learn from and observe Meredith with our fourth graders. I was impressed when I attended a workshop with Meredith last year, but seeing her teach our students was an extraordinary experience.  My teachers were quick to put these ideas into practice on our campus.

A Walk Through An Expository Writing Unit

The central message of Meredith’s work with us was the students MUST be able to write independently, which includes taking pieces through all the steps of the writing process.  Every strategy, tool, and tip she shared went back to the idea of developing student independence.  Meredith described four bends in a unit.  I will walk you through the unit and embed her strategies and tips within each bend of the unit.

Bend 1:   Immerse your writers in student examples of the genre.  These may be actual student samples or you may choose to ghost write these as a student.  Provide a packet of at least three pieces to each student.  As a class you will analyze these to mark the introductions, thesis statement, “parts” or support for the thesis, and the closings.  You are developing a sense of what writing in this genre should look like and sound like for students.  Students will use these packets as reference tools for the remainder of the unit.

Bend 2:  This is where your writers will spend the majority of their time in the unit.  Provide students with a process chart, “What am I Doing Today”.  On this chart you will list the steps to the process in order.  Students should be able to indicate where they are in the process by moving a binder clip along the edge or moving an icon on Velcro down a strip or whatever creative idea you have for that in your classroom.  Students will be writing at least two pieces through this bend in the unit by referring to the steps rather than asking you what to do when they are “done.” In this bend they will not complete the final draft step.

Handouts (Meredith Alvaro) 10-15-15_Page_09 (2)

     To help students with organizing their pieces teach them to be independent with the “Giant T” organizer.  While complicated graphic organizers create dependence, simple ones that students create themselves fosters independence.  Meredith had our students practice making the organizer in the air, with fingers on desks, and with paper and pencil.  Students then write their topic in the rectangle, their parts on the left side and related words for each part on the right.

giant t

     Each part becomes a paragraph in your essay (chapter in all about books for younger students).  Teach students to use at least one word from the word bank he or she created per sentence in the writing.  Students can successfully elaborate using this method.  They should check off each word as they use it.  If students cannot think of parts to go with their topic, teach them a strategy called ‘Brain Drop.”  Using this strategy students think of 10 words related to the topic and think about how the words are related.  the created categories become the parts to the piece.

brain drop

Once students have a plan they can begin drafting.  Students draft in what Meredith calls a “drafting booklet.”  Simply staple together loose leaf notebook paper:  1 for introduction, 1 for each part they have identified, and 1 for closing.  The benefits to using the drafting booklets are:  more room for revising and trying out different things (therefore students are more likely to revise), you have the ability to easily add paper to say more, and when they are ready to publish – each turn of the page as they write the final copy is a indentation for a paragraph.

Bend 3:   This bend is a short bend.  Writers decide which piece they will publish.  The teacher provides bottom lines for revising and editing based on the skills taught and what students should have mastered.  Meredith emphasized that we need to teach students that revising is explaining more. Students should revise and edit section by section.  She has some “magic words” we can use to help students to revise to say more.

anecdote – “one time…”

example – “for example”

data – “out of the ___(#) students I surveyed ____ say…”

definition – “___ is ____ or _____ are ____

explanation – “This is similar to…” “This means…” “This shows…”

Bend 4:  In this the time to work on responding to a prompt as they may need to for tests.  On Day 1 the teacher gives the prompt and students get their ideas and plan (think: Giant T).  On Day 2 students finish their plans and begin to draft.  The third day is when students finish drafts and begin revising.  On the final day students finish the revision and edit the pieces.

Picture this – students enthusiastically planning for an essay, writers lingering long enough in the oral rehearsal phase of writing, and teachers happily conferring while students independently write.  This is what is possible when you use the ideas of Meredith Alvaro in your writing workshop.  We know these strategies will be transforming in our classrooms.  I urge you to visit Meredith’s website and if you have the opportunity to see her in person, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.

Living the workshop with you,


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic


2 thoughts on “Supporting Independence in ELL Writers Benefits All Writers

  1. Melissa: Although I was unable to be present at all of Meredith’s training both days due to principal duties, you’ve done a beautiful job here summarizing the learning in this piece. Now I feel complete b/c you’ve filled in some of the holes I was missing!! Thanks!


  2. Melissa; What a wonderful job walking us through Meredith’s training on expository writing. A big thanks to you and everyone at BCE for all you did to make the lab site at BCE such a success.


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