Key to improving ELLs’ essay writing is helping them understand concept of ‘theme’

mind map abstract on blackboardMany secondary teachers are reluctant to require that English Language Learners (ELLs) and other struggling students to write analytical essays because they feel the required skills are too sophisticated.  Yet, students do not have the option of avoiding high-stakes, state-mandated exams that assess higher level writing abilities.

A major challenge teachers face in helping students improve their essays is getting them to understand that they need to do more in an essay than merely retell what they have read. Understanding what a theme is and how it differs from the subject and the plot of a book is especially difficult for ELLs, but it is one of the key steps they need to take to improve their essay writing,  says a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, which  describes an intervention for this population.

Researchers report that working with students on identifying the theme of a book was especially effective in improving their essay writing and their scores on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Providing explicit instruction  on many of the  other skills sophisticated readers and writers use also resulted in improved writing based on independent scoring of student writings pre- and post- intervention.


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Researchers conduct professional development program

For a period of 8 years, researchers with the University of California at Irvine California Writing Project (UCIWP) have conducted a professional development program and longitudinal study called the Pathway Project in partnership with the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD), a large, urban, low-socioeconomic-status school district where 93% of the students speak English as a second language and 69% are designated as limited English proficient (LEP).

As part of the Pathway Project, researchers developed a list of 35 cognitive strategies that skilled readers and writers use to construct meaning from and with texts. Explicit instruction was provided on these specific cognitive strategies with tutorials that were developed over the course of the 8-year project.

“Reading and writing have often been perceived as distinctly separate processes—as flip sides of a coin—with reading regarded as receptive and writing as productive. However, researchers have increasingly noted the connections between reading and writing, identifying them as essentially similar processes of meaning construction,” the researchers write.

Students who participated in the California Writing Project took a writing pretest at the beginning of the school year (October) that was used as a formative assessment to guide the researchers in targeting interventions for the students on the appropriate cognitive strategies.

Researchers develop prompts

Researchers developed prompts for use as a writing pretest, comparing this process to tossing the students softballs in order to create a baseline of students’ strengths and weaknesses.  The prompts focused on setting, plot, character and symbolism. In the final year of the project, the researchers created a comprehensive prompt calling for an interpretation of theme in “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst (1998) and “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (1991).

In the last year of the project, researchers developed a theme unit after receiving feedback from teachers that students had an especially difficult time identifying theme. For a 2-week period, 55 teachers in grades 6-12 taught a theme unit on “The Horned Toad.” Researchers report that students in classrooms that offered the 2-week theme unit showed the greatest gains in writing and better scores in writing.

Below are some of the activities in the 2-week theme unit:

Planning and goal setting.  The teachers explained to students that they were going to practice identifying and analyzing theme.

Exploring the title. Teachers drew students’ attention to the title of the story and told them that experienced readers look at the title as a reading cue.

Sentence starters.  Students wrote their responses to prompts such as “I wonder why….”,  “I’ll bet that….”, “this reminds me of…

Differentiating between a topic and a theme. Students were told that the topic was the “what” of a story and the “so what” was the theme of the story. Students were advised to look for abstract nouns that deal with human relationships such as alienation, belonging, courage, family, friendship, hope, identify, prejudice, respect, etc. Generating theme statements.  Collaborating with a partner, students selected topic words that they felt were most relevant to the text and developed 3 theme statements.

Developing a character relationship chart.  Students filled out a chart on what the characters do, what they say and what they think and feel at the beginning, middle and end of the story.  Students reviewed their 3 theme statements and selected the one they felt they could best support in an essay.

Interpreting symbols.  Students created a symbol collage out of magazine pictures, computer art and hand drawings to demonstrate universal symbols, personal symbols and textural symbols. Students were asked to explain why they chose the images that they did.

Creating a do/what chart. Students underlined verbs in the prompt that described what they needed to do in green and verbs that indicated what the task is in blue  (e.g. select, one important theme; explore, how the author communicates the theme etc.)

Color-coding essays.  Students color-code statements in their writing to better understand the different elements that make up an essay.  They might look for descriptions of plot summary  in their essays and color them yellow and color commentary sentences blue and supporting detail green.  By the colors of an essay, they can see whether the paper is weak (all in yellow) or well-balanced (has an assortment of colors).  The colors can help them in their revisions.

The researchers’ work reinforces the importance of using formative assessment as a diagnostic tool for designing instruction, the study says.

“Teaching Secondary English Learners to Understand, Analyze, and Write Interpretive Essays About Theme,” by Carol Booth Olson et al., Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, December 2010/Jan 2011, Volume 54, Number 4, pps. 245-256.

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