How Language Influences Writing for ELL Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Do you ever wonder how your English Language Learners (ELLs) are using their first language when they write? This lesson explores the ways in which first language influences writing in English and how you can use it as an advantage.

Literacy is an Advantage

Sergio is an English Language Learner who joins school in the US in the fifth grade. When Sergio's ELL teacher gives students the task to write a short composition, Sergio struggles with the structure to write in English. However, he is not afraid of the task of writing itself because he writes in Spanish, his first language. This example shows us that when our ELLs are literate, the task of writing in English is not entirely new. In other words, ELLs who are literate have the big advantage of being familiar with the basic tasks to write, which is a transferable skill in areas such as summarizing, scanning, skimming, etc. A transferable skill from a student's first language is an ability that can be used also in the second language by making the needed modifications. There are some aspects of the first language that influence English writing when our ELLs are literate. Let's explore them.

Aspects of First Language that Influence English Writing

There are a few ways in which the first language influences English writing and it all depends on the ELL student's first language. Let's take a look at those aspects along with some examples.


When we work with ELLs whose first language use the same directionality as English, our students are probably not going to have any trouble with this aspect. The basic directionality in English, which is top to bottom and left to right is also used in languages such as Spanish, French, German, Greek, Portuguese. For instance, Sergio follows this basic directionality when his ELL teacher asks him to write. However, Sergio has a few peers whose first language has different directionality. To illustrate, the Indian classmate writes under the lines. The Chinese child writes from right top to bottom to then continue to the top and bottom again. The Arab peer writes from right to left. These students, thus, feel confused when they see the English directionality is different from their first languages. Their ELL teacher must spend time working with these students on directionality.

Orthographic Depth

Our ELLs come from different languages that may not have similar orthographic depth when compared to English. Orthographic depth is the consistency of spelling rules within a language. The orthographic depth of English is not phonemic because the pronunciation of what is written is not exact to the letter and because not all the same patterns are pronounced the same. Conversely, other languages have shallow orthographic patterns because the way words are written in them is pronounced exactly as per specific pronunciation rules, as is the case with Spanish. For this reason, Sergio tends to write English words by following the shallow orthography of Spanish. To illustrate, when the teacher reads 'Write a composition' and then the students write; Sergio has this on paper: 'wruait a composishon'. Evidently, ELL teachers will need to spend time working with their students on the correct spelling of words in English.


Our ELLs might have trouble with the morphology of certain words especially if the morphology in their first language is different. Morphology is the study of how words are constructed including word roots, prefixes, suffixes, singulars, and plurals, etc. For instance, in Spanish, Sergio knows that adjectives have plural forms by adding the 's'. For this reason, his English writing often appears odd in some instances when he writes things like 'the whites horses'. Again, ELL teachers can approach morphology issues like this by correcting mistakes at the appropriate time.

Sentence Structure

As ELLs have diverse first languages, the sentence structure in their first language is a big piece that is going to influence English writing. To illustrate, while Spanish has the same basic structure of subject plus verb and complement for complete sentences, Sergio often drops the subject 'I' when writing in English. Sergio does this because the verb conjugation for 'I' in Spanish is unique and, thus, the subject 'I' is not necessary at all times.

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