Research & Writing for ELL Students

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

The more help and guidance you can give to your English language learners (ELLs), the better prepared they will be for the rigors of academic life. This lesson outlines research and writing strategies teachers can employ with ELLs.

An ELL Approach

English language learners (ELLs) face many academic challenges when developing research and writing skills. For instance, they may be coming from an educational system that stressed rote learning instead of critical thinking, or one that prizes the sciences over the development of writing skills.

Even if your students are in high school or above, you'll want to be cautious about rolling information out too quickly or assuming they already know research and writing techniques their native English speaking peers have been practicing for years.

Research Matters

When you explain how to conduct research to your ELLs, you need to emphasize why research is important, how to find appropriate sources and use them correctly, and the importance of focusing on relevant sources.

Why Research?

Begin by making a case for why research is so important. In addition to being the primary means of gathering needed information, it also allows students to develop critical reading, note taking and thinking skills. It can be helpful to portray research as the foundation of the writing to follow. If the research isn't sound, the writing that's based on it can quickly fall apart.

Finding and Using Resources

You'll want to give your ELLs a good starting point for finding appropriate resources. If possible, provide them with a list of reputable websites and other reliable resources relevant to the assignment. However, limit this practice to the first few assignments; otherwise students will never learn how to find their own sources. Be sure to provide guidelines on how to identify credible sources and how to avoid disreputable ones.

A common mistake that ELLs make is to equate opinionated writing, such as editorials, with objective information based on facts. There is also a tendency to excessively quote or outright plagiarize material to meet a required word count. In some countries academic plagiarism, especially at the high school level, is ignored or viewed as inconsequential. It's vital that you provide students with a clear definition of plagiarism and outline proper academic honesty. Some ELL teachers go as far as to have students sign an academic honesty contract at the beginning of the year stating that they understand the rules and agree to abide by them. This document can give the teacher some backup if a student is caught plagiarizing or cheating.

Focusing on Relevant Sources

You'll want to remind students to keep their research focused and to pursue the most relevant sources. Another technique to look out for is the use of off-topic, unnecessary or irrelevant information, as this is also sometimes used to bolster a low word count.

Students may become discouraged if they discover large parts of their research is either not needed or unusable and may feel that hours were wasted. If you find this happening, remind them to scan a source quickly to determine its relevance, before spending a lot of time on it. If they do end up spending time on information they don't use, emphasize that the time spent studying the information enabled them to practice critical academic skills.

Writing Right

After the research is completed, the writing begins. It's surprising how many mature ELLs have never learned how to brainstorm, outline or prewrite in any form. Any writing that requires significant research should involve multiple drafts. The concept of drafts is new to many ELLs and may be viewed as a repetitive waste of time. Because of this you'll want to clearly point out the many benefits of multiple drafts such as the chance to fix mistakes, improve fluency and better engage the reader.

You can reduce some reluctance to write drafts by giving students a specific schedule as to when different drafts are due. To keep students on task you can grade or at least briefly comment on each draft. This takes a lot of time, but it may be worth it for the first few assignments to instill good writing habits.

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