California English Journal


Table of Contents

April 2002

Robin Scarcella

Kathy Allen

Stanley Pogrow

Dilmit Singh

Sikivu Hutchinson

Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey

Susana Dutro

Bill Younglove


Kathryn Howell Anders


Features & Departments

Editor's Column

President's Perspective

Brieger's Bookshelf

Letters to the Editor



Accelerating Achievement for Adolescent English Language Learners: Interactive Writing Grows Up
by Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey

There is no shortage of instructional strategies that have been documented as useful for English language learners. These range from read alouds to concept maps to questioning strategies (Opitz, 1998). In fact, Adrienne Herrell provides readers with 50 of them (Herrell, 1999)! However, most of these strategies have been implemented with younger children. We were faced with two challenges in our work with 24 ninth grade students - adolescents and acceleration. These students attend a large, urban high school in a community in Southern California where 39 languages are spoken among a student population of 2100. Many of these have been in America for less than three years, and face the daunting challenge of high-stakes testing that profoundly influence their future. When these young adults join the US school system, we are equally challenged by the dual complexities of maintaining and building upon their heritage language while rapidly acquiring English. For some adolescents, we only have 3 or 4 years to do this. Thus, we need to use instructional time effectively and efficiently if we are to meet our goals. In other words, we must accelerate their academic achievement in English in order for them to achieve their goals.

Interestingly, conventional wisdom suggests that we focus on reading and developing reading skills. Fearn and Farnan (2001), however, suggest that we focus on writing because "writing interacts with the other language skills to further children's literacy development" (p. xxviii). Thus, we focused on writing instruction and built the read alouds, shared reading, and independent reading activities around this instruction.

Getting Started: Language Experience Approach
Adolescents who do not read or write well in English are often reluctant to demonstrate this in front of their peers. In addition, these young adults often do not have the skills to write independently, presenting quite a conundrum for the classroom teacher. Given this, we began our writing instruction with Language Experience Approach [LEA] (e.g., Ashton-Warner, 1959; Dixon & Nessel, 1983). At the beginning of the term, we invited students to share their thoughts on topics we believed might be of interest to them. First, we introduced a shared reading of a newspaper or magazine article to build background knowledge and set the stage for discussion. Their oral responses to the reading were scribed by an adult on a dry erase board in the front of the classroom. The message was then reread aloud several times by the group to increase reading fluency. Once the repeated readings were completed, the students copied these thoughts into their notebooks and extended the group-constructed message with their own writing. Early in the semester, the class was discussing the High School Exit Exam, a high-stakes graduation test that debuted in California this year. The LEA for the day read, "We have to pass a hard test to graduate. If not, school was for nothing." Eric extended these two sentences by writing in his notebook "I must lern ingles to pass. Stude hard to whin!"

Day after day, we allowed these young adults to see their thoughts recorded both in front of the class as well as in their notebooks. While they composed, we circulated to provided feedback on their individual extensions. Much like the adults in El Salvador who were taught using this approach (Purcell-Gates & Waterman, 2000), we found that our adolescent students were motivated through sharing their thoughts, reactions, and experiences. They were interested in seeing their words transcribed and they were writing extension sentences that demonstrated greater and greater complexity. For example, during a discussion on Muslims following the September 11 terrorists attacks, the LEA for the day read, "Not all Muslims hate Americans. Muslims are a diverse group and should be treated fairly. Respect for all people is an important part of life in the US." LaDonna extended this in her notebook by writing, "I am not Muslim, but I have frends who is. I know that they like US pepole. I am not afrade."

While we acknowledged the growth in their thinking and speaking and were pleased with the increased participation, we were frustrated with the mechanics in their writing. We believed that the Language Experience Approach was a powerful motivator and allowed students to contribute and learn. Nevertheless, our feedback technique of teaching multiple individual minilessons during the extension activity was inefficient. In the meantime, our goal was acceleration - we needed to more rapidly develop our students' correct use of English conventions.

Focusing on the Language: Interactive Writing
Interactive writing is an instructional tool that is typically used with emergent writers (McCarrier, Pinnell, & Fountas, 2000). Typically, interactive writing is used in large and small group settings to engage students in meaningful conversations that include the purposes and conventions of writing. As with LEA, the process of interactive writing follows a sequence of "going from ideas, to spoken words, to printed messages" (Clay, 2001, p. 27). However, three important differences distinguish interactive writing from LEA. First, there is an increased emphasis on aspects of composition, especially planning the exact content of the message. This requires extended time for discussion as the class engages in the same "wordsmithing" processes used by more fluent writers, including rehearsal and substitution of increasingly precise vocabulary. Furthermore, after the exact text is agreed upon, the construction of the printed text is also negotiated. As with composition, these decisions about layout and mechanics mirror the processes used by all writers. But it is the final difference that is most identified with interactive writing instruction - students, not teachers, control the pen. While a student writes on the board, the teacher provides instruction to the whole class on some aspect of the language. At the same time, the emerging text is reread by the entire class after the addition of each word to monitor the accuracy of the message. Thus, language lessons are based on students' thinking and speech. The language lessons are also dynamic - the teacher selects focus lessons on the spot as students develop the text to be written.

Interactive writing is much more complex that LEA and requires trust on the part of the students. Our students knew from experience that we would not humiliate them for mistakes in their writing, but that mistakes may be used to illustrate a confusing point of English. In addition, interactive writing requires that the teacher rapidly develop instructional points based on the words selected by the students. Given what we knew about our students, we often used common spelling patterns, word families, and high frequency words as the focal point of the lesson. For example, during a reading and discussion on the increase in teen pregnancy, the interactive writing began with a class consensus statement, "More girls are getting pregnant today." Anthony was the first student to volunteer to write. He approached the dry erase board and wrote the word "More." While he was doing this, the teacher asked students for examples of words with a silent "e" at the end and made a short list on another dry erase board. As Anthony was walking away from the board, the whole class repeated the agreed text, "More girls are getting pregnant today." Rashawn was next to approach the board. He wrote, "Girls." While he was doing this, the teacher asked for other words that the class could have selected for "girls." When the capitalization error was noted, the teacher asked for clarification on capitalizing nouns. Rashawn changed the word to "girls" and then the whole class said out loud, "More girls are getting pregnant today." Thuy was next. The teacher asked her to write the next two words. As she was doing this, the teacher asked each student to write on his or her individual papers another word with a double consonant. This was done in part to remind Thuy that the word "getting" has two t's. Students then shared their word with a partner - little, hopping, llama, yellow, etc. When Thuy was finished, the whole class again repeated "More girls are getting pregnant today." This process continued through this sentence as well as the next ("Some times girls get pregnant to leave school."). Following this, each student expanded the group message in his or her notebook. Juan wrote, "Schools should try to help girls so they won't leave. I want my sister to finish school." Angel wrote, "Thats not the only reason. Sometimes girls want to be a mom. Some girls just believ the guy. Being pregnant is not bad, just sad."


From our experience with these students, we believe that acceleration is possible. We agree with Fearn and Farnan (2001) that writing instruction is key. Our next steps will be to increase the amount of time that students are writing independently. We will also begin timed writing activities to build fluency as the students become more comfortable with their skills. As these writing samples suggest, English language learners can acquire mechanical control of their writing when they receive quality instruction and feedback. We believe that the modeling provided through LEA and interactive writing is critical to this success. We also believe that LEA as a precursor to interactive writing allowed our students to see that writing was possible and that they would not be shamed in front of their peers for trying to write. LEA and interactive writing also allowed us, as teachers, to focus on writing instruction in ways that encouraged students to participate. We are reminded of Lucy Calkins's (1986) advice: "Enfranchise students as teachers and they will become learners" (p. 271).

Ashton-Warner, S. (1959). Spinster. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Clay, M. M. (2001). Change over time in children's literacy development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Dixon, C., & Nessell, D. (1983). Language experience approach to reading (and writing): Language-experience reading for second language learners. Hayward, CA: Alemany.
Fearn, L., & Farnan, N. (2001). Interactions: Teaching writing and the language arts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Herrell, A. L. (1999). Fifty strategies for teaching English language learners. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
McCarrier, A., Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. C. (2000). Interactive writing: How language and literacy come together, K-2. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Opitz, M. (1998). Literacy instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse sstudents: A collection of articles and commentaries. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Purcell-Gates, V., & Waterman, R. (2000). Now we read, we see, we speak: Portrait of literacy development in an adult Freirean-based class. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

About the Authors:
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey work witht he City Heights Educational Pilot, a partnership between Rosa Parks Elementary School, Monroe ZClark Middle School, Hoover High School, and San Diego State University. The can be reached at and


Breiger's Bookshelf
A Review by Marek Breiger

"Lives on the Boundary,"
The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared
By Mike Rose
The Free Press, 1989

"Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development." -Mike Rose

Mike Rose's "Lives on the Boundary" should be required reading for any teacher-first grade through college-- involved in working with "at risk" students. Rose is a fine storyteller and a true educator whose life experience belies the labels that deter so many children from believing they can succeed in higher education. Yet, unlike the glib proponents of one educational system or another-Rose has no secret formula except dedication, knowledge and heart.

Born in 1943 in Pennsylvania, the son of Italian immigrants, Rose's family moved to South Vermont in Los Angeles, an area that borders Watts, in the early 1950's. Rose's father suffered from bad health and would die before Rose's senior year in high school. The author's parents were able to give their child love and affection but could not prepare him for the academic world of high school or college. The Los Angeles Rose describes in "Lives on the Boundary" is not the city of the Beach Boys but a city much like other American big cities: New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia-a place with distinct divisions not only of race but also of class. Rose loved his parents but does not romanticize their lives or the environment where he came of age. He does not minimize his own fears and difficulties both in high school and in college.

His parents, ambitious for Rose to succeed, sacrificed to send Rose to a private Catholic High School, Our Lady of Mercy, two bus rides away from South Vermont. There Rose was misplaced in Vocational Education, a seeming dead end for the ambitious youngster. At Mercy, Rose was saved by an English teacher named Jack MacFarland. Rose's encounter with MacFarland should give hope to all of us in education that wonder whether our lives can make a difference:

"Jack MacFarland couldn't have come into my life at a better time. My father was dead, and I had logged up too many years of scholastic indifference. Mr. MacFarland had a Master's Degree from Columbia and decided, at twenty-six, to find a little school and teach his heart out. He never took any credentialing courses, couldn't bear to, so he had to find employment in a private system. He ended up at Our Lady of Mercy teaching five sections of senior English. We wrote three or four essays a month. We read a book every two to three weeks, starting with the Iliad and ending with Hemingway. He gave us a quiz on the reading every other day. He brought a prep school curriculum to Mercy High."

Rose, who had given up on attending a four-year college, writes: "There were some lives that were already beyond Jack MacFarland's ministrations but mine was not." Rose, through MacFarland's help, was admitted as a special student to Loyola. Rose would eventually succeed both at Loyola and UCLA but his success did not come easily. " The passage from South Vermont to Loyola began with me feeling angry and isolated." Later he explains what it means to live a life "on the boundary," and to long for something that seems so close yet out of reach: "I had watched from the sidelines people whose lives seemed laden with meaningful pursuits, and I longed for such involvement. If you live long enough on South Vermont, you begin to feel not just excluded but out of the picture entirely. Ralph Ellison captured it perfectly for the black man with the metaphor of invisibility. Jack MacFarland, Frank Carothers, and the others created the conditions for me to use my mind to engage the world."

Mike Rose has dedicated his life to reaching those students who are still on the boundary.
Rose's approach is a holistic one: working on whole essays, not doing sentence drills, showing students how their experience complements the life found in great books, not attacking the canon because it is the canon, but relating the students' culture to the cultures found in world literature. He inducts students into a common world culture, showing them that the world of ideas is not an alien place.


Editor's column
By Carol Jago

English language learners face the triple challenge of acquiring a second language, learning content matter, and negotiating an unfamiliar culture all at the same time.
For this reason, ordinary progress towards state standards will never be enough. These students need the kind of instruction and educational support that will help them accelerate. This issue of California English asked teachers to share classroom practices that foster accelerated learning.

The opening research by Robin Scarcella from the University of California, Irvine, presents a powerful case for targeted instruction in vocabulary, specifically academic language, and corrective feedback on student writing. Susana Dutro offers ten pedagogical considerations for reading instruction. Stan Pogrow describes a program that combines Socratic dialogue with technology to foster critical thinking. Bill Younglove and Kathy Allen, experienced classroom teachers of middle school age English language learners, suggest specific ways for making classroom instruction comprehensible. Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey explain how the language experience approach and interactive writing helped high school students accelerate their learning.

Sikivu Hutchinson, a researcher in Alfee Enciso's ninth grade classroom at Dorsey High School in LAUSD, provides evidence of the impact of a culturally relevant curriculum. She explains how "the linchpin of culturally relevant education is high teacher expectations." As you can see, this issue offers many different perspectives and varying solutions. What the contributors all have in common is a belief in the ability of children to rise to the challenge.

I urge you to add your voice to this chorus and respond to what you read here. Every teacher in California is struggling with this issue. There is much we can teach each other. Send your letter to the editor to