Writing, by its very nature, requires a grasp of basic English vocabulary. According to the Economist, children born in the U.S. who were defined as linguistically “poor” first graders knew 5,000 words; linguistically “rich” first graders knew 20,000 words. (Moats, 2001) Researchers from the website testyourvocabulary.com discovered some interesting statistics about the vocabulary sizes of English speakers:
- Most adult native test-takers have a vocabulary range of 20,000–35,000 words
- On average, native test-takers of age 8 already know 10,000 words
- On average, native test-takers of age 4 already know 5,000 words
- Adult native test-takers learn almost 1 new word a day until middle age, when vocabulary growth basically stops
- The most common vocabulary size for foreign test-takers is 4,500 words
- Foreign test-takers learn an average of 2.5 new words a day while living in an English-speaking country.
Note that the vocabulary sizes for foreign test-takers are significantly less than native test- takers. This data corresponds with what ESL teachers already know: vocabulary development is the key to increasing a student’s English language proficiency. English Learners (ELs) who enter the country at age 8 must learn between 5,000 – 10,000 words to catch up with their native English speaking peers. How is this related to writing?
Common Core Standards require that all students learn three primary types of writing: writing to inform, to explain, and to make an argument. Expectations vary depending on the grade level of the student. However, developing the vocabulary and writing skills necessary to meet these standards is a huge challenge for newcomers. How can we, as ESL teachers, promote writing skills early in the instructional lives of newcomers? How can we meet state and/or Common Core Standards while teaching English language?
Tips for Teaching Writing to Newcomers K-5:
- At the beginning of the year, I collaborated with classroom teachers to determine when each of the three types of writing was scheduled to be taught, what topics would be used to introduce them, and what writing projects would include. While this did change throughout the year, getting an overview was very helpful.
- Whenever possible, I pre-taught the vocabulary my students needed to understand the upcoming writing assignments. I modified writing assignments so newcomers could participate in classroom learning experiences and informed the classroom teacher of my modifications. Example: If the assignment was to write a biography, I found one basic article or book written at a beginner’s reading level rather than multiple resources. Then I allowed students to write 10 sentences about their person versus 3 paragraphs, and allowed pictures to supplement the students’ written text.
- I redefined the writing expectations to specific, simple sentence structures and assisted the newcomers by providing sentence frames they could use to create their own written work.
- I recorded the student talking about the topic so they could listen to their ideas later.
I recommend this process for several reasons. It allows the ESL and classroom teachers to work together for the benefit of the students, while still achieving the standards required by Common Core and state programs. Students have better success because the expectations placed upon them are more within their ability and grasp of the language.
The most difficult part of the process was getting the classroom schedule enough in advance to pre-teach vocabulary and concepts related to the assignments. Sometimes the lack of lead time slowed the process down, however, the students were able to successfully complete their writing assignments. While this is an intensive process that requires a lot of planning, I know that it will be worth the effort.
Common Core Writing: Text Types Retrieved on 6/21/2016
Moats, C. Louisa, (2001) Overcoming the language gap: American Educator, Summer. Retrieved on 6/21/16
Vocabulary Size: Lexical Facts, R.L.G. The Economist Retrieved on 6/21/2016