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Using the Native Language to Scaffold Student Writing

writing

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How often do your students write in their home language?

If you teach at a dual immersion school, the answer to this question might be “Often,” or “Daily.” But if your students don’t receive any native-language instruction, the answer might be “Rarely,” or “Never.”

While it’s sad to squander an opportunity to create biliterate bilinguals, I was struck in a different way while reading Larry Ferlazzo’s post, Common Core Writing and ELLs. His post talks about three writing types established by the Common Core: argumentative, informative, and narrative. Argumentative writing is the unspoken favorite of the Standards’ writers, requiring students to first look for evidence in texts for a particular theme, then develop a position about that theme. You might call Informative writing the less assertive twin of Argumentative writing—it has the same factual evidence, without the strong position. Meanwhile, Narrative remains a bit reflective, potentially more meaningful for the writer than for the audience.

Ferlazzo points out that the Standards call for students to do a lot of writing, varied not only in the types above, but in length, extent of revision, and extent of collaboration. He then sugge sts the following:

Provide scaffolds such as allowing use of home language (for research and even initial writing).

This stopped me in my tracks. Students should be able to use the language of their choice as they gather their thoughts to develop complex and extended writing. My first reaction is, “Obviously.” But as I thought more, I realized that using the native language seems more efficient for the stream-of-consciousness brainstorming that happens up through the first draft. If the brain can jump from one thought to the next, freed of a particular language vehicle, ideas can be reviewed, discarded, and fleshed out, unchecked and instantaneously.

Writing first in one’s native language also seems beneficial, allowing students to ensure that the content of their writing and their position is sound, with a secondary focus on the particulars of English grammar and vocabulary.

Not every kind of writing would benefit from drafting in the native language. And certainly, sometimes students have acquired the specialized vocabulary associated with their topic in English alone, and forcing another language would be more of a hindrance. But particularly for high schoolers (and newcomers especially), when writing is assigned that calls for deep analysis or personal investment (in the case of narratives), students may be able to dig into the assignment if permitted all the linguistic resources available to them.

Another way to think about it, is that students can often get help translating a finished product if necessary, but articulating thoughts and getting them onto paper isn’t always easy in any language, let alone a second language. Freeing students of that mental burden at the outset could result in a stronger written product overall.

So, how often do your students use their native language to write? Have you ever permitted it at the brainstorming/drafting level? How did it go?

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