How to Support English Language Learners in Reading & Writing Workshop

In this article, Vivian Chen, Literacy Partners senior staff developer, shares a story that will give you some clues as to what your English language learners may be feeling.

In Vivian’s words…

I’ll never forget walking into my first French class in college. As we settled in, the professor greeted us in French. When students asked questions in English, she’d always respond in French.

I was so confused! I wondered if I should run out and drop the class immediately. My high school French teacher always supported us with English when we didn’t know how to say something. Sacré bleu! How would I survive? Then she offered us croissants and jus d’orange with a smile, and I decided to give her a chance.

Well, I survived and continued onto French Literature — which I failed. But that’s another story. 

Our English language learners don’t have the choice to run out and drop our classes the way I did in college. However, we can offer our own version of croissants and orange juice by remembering that they’re coming to us with an asset of knowing another language. Offering them support meets them where they are.

Supporting our English learners may seem daunting at times — you already do so much! 

Let’s take a look at what to do in a writing workshop. With some small tweaks, these same moves can make a significant impact on supporting your English language learners.


  • Keep your teaching lean. The mini-lesson is intended to be brief, but keep your teaching crystal clear and succinct to make it more comprehensible.
  • Model, model, model. While there are different teaching methods such as inquiry or guided practice, demonstrating or modeling a strategy helps students see exactly how to do it.
  • Use predictable language. Help students cue into each part of the mini-lesson with familiar transitional phrases. As Shanna Schwartz says, these phrases are “like labels on a map, helping children navigate their way through your teaching.” They might sound like this:
    • To set up the teaching point at the end of the connection: ”Today I want to teach you…”
    • To set up your demonstration: ”Watch me as I…”
    • To recap the demonstration: ”Did you see how I…? ”
    • To get students ready to try the strategy: ”Now it’s your turn to try…”
    • To remind students to use the strategy as part of their repertoire: ”Anytime you want to…”
  • Use visuals. Anchor charts and symbols or icons to help students remember information more easily, understand complex ideas, and promote agency and independence.
  • Use gestures and drama. Gestures, like visuals, make your teaching more comprehensible. When students do them along with you they can be even more powerful in helping students remember and understand concepts.

Supporting Materials

  • Provide sentence stems. You can offer different levels of sentence starters based on your students’ level of English proficiency.
  • Use differentiated writing exemplars. I learned from Hareem Atif Khan that students need to see examples that consider their language acquisition stage, cognitive maturity, and grade level standards. This means finding the right text or creating one!


  • Match students strategically. You might want to match a student who’s at an emergent or early stage with a bilingual student in the partner’s first language and English.
  • Make triads instead. To support all learners, you may make triads rather than partnerships. For newcomers, especially, this allows them to listen in to more proficient partners.

You can also provide more support for your English language learners by using shared writing in a small group setting. Shared writing lets students learn writing skills and language with much more guidance. In shared writing, the teacher holds the pen as students contribute their ideas. This lowers students’ cognitive load while giving them lots of opportunities to talk and develop writing skills.

In general, the process for shared writing might go like this:

This might work most of the time for your primary students. If you’re doing this with upper-grade students, you might adjust the process to focus on just one part of the writing process or a certain quality of writing. For example, you may lead a shared writing experience where you focus on crafting a strong lead. Students can give different ideas for how to start, then decide what words to put on the page. For all grade levels, you’ll want to lift the level of writing for students as you put them on the page.

If you have questions about supporting your English language learners, get in touch. 

This is the exact kind of topic that we’re covering in our monthly office hour sessions — which you get access to for the rest of the school year with any of our new courses! Check out our quick-start and deep-dive options here.

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