8 Ways to Scaffold Writing for English Learners

by Valentina Gonzalez

Scaffolding Writing 2

Scaffolds are temporary supports meant to be released when no longer needed. Think of buildings that are under construction. When the building is in the early phases, more scaffolding is necessary to sustain the structure. As the building progresses, less scaffolding is needed. Finally, before the construction is complete, the scaffolding is removed.

Scaffolding our instruction for students, English learners or not, is similar in theory. Assessing when and where the scaffolds are needed, and removing them at the right time is critical. Keeping a scaffold for too long can create a crutch for some, and students may become dependent on scaffolds that remain too long. The goal of a scaffold is to support students toward future independence.

These 8 writing scaffolds can be implemented in any grade level or content area:

1. Sentence Frames

Sentence frames are highly structured. They are basically sentences with fill in the blanks that support students at earlier stages of language proficiency. Here are a few examples of frames:

The ___has ___sides.

The ____revolted against the___.

A ___is larger/smaller than a ____.  


2. Sentence Stems

Sometimes sentence stems and sentence frames are used interchangeably. However there is a difference between the two. As shown above, a frame provides a tight grammatical structure. A stem, on the other hand, is as the name indicates, just the “stem” or base of a sentence and not a whole sentence. Students must continue the thought. Sentence stems give students just enough structure to begin more elaborate writing. Here are some examples of sentence stems:

Based on the experiment, I can conclude that…

In the beginning I thought…, but now I think…

One way that ___and ___are alike is that….

On the other hand, they are different because…


3. Mentor Texts

Mentor texts are also known as exemplars. They are models of high-quality writing for students. While adult-authored books or articles are often a main source of mentor texts, it is also effective to use high-quality student-authored examples. One teacher I know would save the original student samples of writing to use as exemplars. Another made digital copies. (Either way, always be careful to remove any identifiable information such as names.) Mentor texts set students up for success because they show students what the target is, which makes it much easier to achieve. Sometimes using student-created exemplars makes the target seem more attainable for students.


4. Interactive Word Walls

Interactive Word Walls (IWWs) are large, thematic or unit-based graphic organizers filled with rich vocabulary and visually supported with graphics and real objects. IWWs are often co-created with students rather than premade by the teacher. They can be used as scaffolds for writing in all content areas because students can easily take the language from the unit-based word wall and use it in their writing.


5. Model Writing

Model writing is similar to the Read-Aloud; in fact, some call it Write-Aloud. When we write in front of students in real time, we have the opportunity to “think aloud” and model what effective writers do mentally. This helps to make the writing process visible for students. Students see how an idea moves from the abstract to a concrete piece of writing. Modeling writing in all content areas helps students develop the language of the domain. For example, when we model how to write a lab report, we can share with students the language structures and academic vocabulary that scientists use. This modeling process supports students as they go off to write on their own.


6. Quick Writes

Not every piece of writing students do has to be lengthy. In fact, quick, daily writing is an effective way for English learners to practice writing in a low-stress setting. Long essays and pages of writing can be intimidating for students who are learning the structures of the English language. What’s the saying? “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Breaking a task into small chunks (or “chunking” the task) makes it seem doable. A Quick Write is a short writing task—usually about 3-10 minutes. Author and teacher, Larry Ferlazzo writes about the power Quick Writes, or Micro-writing, holds for ELs here in an article for ASCD. He shows how this type of writing can improve English learners’ confidence and language proficiency.


7. Language Experience Approach

The Language Experience Approach has been around for a long time. It is a method of shared writing in which students and the teacher write together after a shared experience. This is actually one of my favorite techniques because it builds community, models writing, and increases student participation and engagement. Students listen, speak, read, and write.

Begin by sharing an experience (like a field trip, science experiment, movie, book, etc). Next, have students talk about the experience with partners or a group, and come up with sentences to share with the teacher. Then lead the class in creating a text about the experience on chart paper (or under a document camera) as students share their sentences with you. After you write each sentence, have the class read it aloud chorally. (This provides tons of reading practice for fluency.) When the shared writing is complete, the class rereads the whole piece. Finally, lead the class in discussing organization, revision, and editing. Students can suggest adding and deleting sentences and decide to change words or punctuation. To see an example of what this can look like, check out Carol Salva’s use of LEA here!


8. Mentor Sentences

Think of a mentor in your life. Who did you imagine? Someone you look up to? Someone you try to emulate? Mentor sentences are sentences students try to emulate. Jeff Anderson, author of Mechanically Inclined and Patterns of Power writes about the effectiveness of mentor sentences. The sentences that we choose can come from Read Alouds or we can make up our own sentences using information relevant to our students and our class.

For instance, suppose we had a visit from the fire department and the kids couldn’t talk about anything else. So my mentor sentence may have been, “While waiting anxiously to hear all about the apparatus, a crowd of kids huddled around the fire truck.” First I read it aloud, and then we read it chorally. I then invited students to discuss the sentence with their partner or in groups. What did they notice? What did they observe about the sentence? I called on a few students randomly. Some noticed that there was a comma. One student said that the sentence was in the past tense, and we asked how he knew. He said,  “Because the word ‘huddled’ ended with an -ed.” Another student said that it looked like two sentences stuck together. We talked more about that and discovered that the first part of the sentence wasn’t a complete sentence but a phrase. Finally, the students wrote their own sentences modeled after the mentor sentence. Some students used this frame:

While waiting ______to hear all about the_____, a crowd of ___huddled around the ____.

One student wrote: While waiting eagerly to grab all the kibble, a crowd of dogs huddled around the food bowl. To add to it, he drew a group of dogs around an empty food bowl.

If you have students who struggle with writing, try some of these scaffolds to support them along the way to independence and success!


12 thoughts on “8 Ways to Scaffold Writing for English Learners

  1. Thank you for the informative blog post! It’s so helpful to have ideas and strategies organized in a clear concise list! These are incredibly practical ways to get all students speaking and writing. Especially now that students have almost an entire school year worth of shared experiences to talk and write about. Buenísimo!


  2. Excellent tips! I really appreciate your effort. I was looking for such great ways to help my students enhance their writing skills. I will share this with my colleagues as well.


  3. Great tips. I love how they compare scaffolding in the classroom to a house being built. Great visual to refer back to.


  4. Thank you for all of the information. I forget about short, daily writing as an important building block, even with my seniors.


  5. Glad to have the sentence stems, I could print these out and have them around the room. I also feel that the quick write would be beneficial to sum up the days lesson.


  6. I tried Quick Writes and Sentence Stems before and my ELL students loved them. I liked the idea of Interactive word wall for Physics class


  7. I tried Interactive Word Walls last year and it was very helpful with the commonly misunderstood extensive/intensive, heat/temperature, etc. Used it for a couple of units and then dropped the ball – going to try and do more with it this year.


  8. Loved using the interactive word wall last year. This is a great list for reminders of how to effectively engage all of our learners in science literacy.


  9. Having students read Mentor Texts would be extremely helpful in creating and improving their skills. The ESL student would relate more to someone their own age and experience.


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