About the Author

Kerry Enright is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of California, Davis.

Responding to English Learners’ Writing with the 3 P’s

Middle school student, NYC

The qualities that make a piece of history writing “good” or “effective” vary, depending on the purpose and genre. For students, this can feel like a moving target! For English Learners, it’s even more challenging.

Your feedback on their writing can help them to communicate their thinking more effectively. However, English Learners often turn in assignments with so many flaws in their writing that it is difficult to know where to start. Overwhelming students with too much feedback will not help their learning.

Being strategic with feedback means:

  • focusing on meaning and understanding first, and
  • letting go of some things we care about for now, so that students can focus their attention on a few core issues at a time.
Think about the three P’s: Preparation, Purpose, and Proficiency.

To prioritize your feedback, think about the three P’s: Preparation, Purpose, and Proficiency.

1. Students’ preparation for the assignment.

The more explicit you are about your expectations when you assign student writing, the easier it will be to evaluate students’ work later on. Don’t just tell students how long their final products should be. Always give students the following information, and then give feedback on how well they’ve met these criteria.

  • audience of this text: How does one address this particular audience? What can students assume the audience already knows? Provide examples.
  • rhetorical purpose: Is the piece intended to persuade, to critique, to compare, to describe, or to recount? Show students how a text is organized for this purpose by providing model texts, and create a list of words and phrases that signal this rhetorical purpose. [See Why did it happen? for examples of words and phrases tied to writing about cause/effect relationships.]
  • historical concepts: What are the main historical ideas being evaluated in this writing? Help students with words and phrases tied to these historical concepts.

Any resources such as exemplary assignments or lists of words and phrases should be available to English learners throughout their writing process.

2. The instructional purpose of the assignment.

Sometimes we try to do too much with one particular assignment. With English learners, it is essential to have, and to communicate, a focused explicit purpose behind each writing assignment so that we can focus our feedback accordingly.

Communicate a focused, explicit purpose behind each writing assignment.

This means letting go—for now—of some issues that are important to you. If the purpose was to represent multiple perspectives on a historical event, then focus your feedback on how effectively students included multiple perspectives. If one of the perspectives is expressed a bit vaguely due to limited English proficiency, do not provide extensive feedback on that problem right now.

Be strategic with your feedback. Today, focus on the issue of multiple perspectives. Later, you can focus on being more explicit or providing more details.

Likewise, if the purpose is on integrating details from primary sources, make that your priority in the feedback process and let go of other issues for now. Be intentional about including a variety of purposes for writing over the course of the year, and spiraling back to those you have done in the past so that students have multiple chances to practice and develop over time.

Note: If your students are very limited in their English proficiency, always include prewriting activities (such as graphic organizers and outlines) before longer written texts, and have them submit the prewriting with their final product. Sometimes it is easier to evaluate their thinking and understanding from the prewriting, since it maps relationships more visually instead of linguistically.

3. Students’ current level of English proficiency.

Don’t mark every error of spelling, grammar, and mechanics! This overwhelms students and keeps them from seeing patterns in their errors. Language learning is a developmental process, so our feedback needs to target students’ current level of proficiency and nudge them forward, one level at a time.

Pick one or two types of errors to correct.

Pick only one or two types of errors to correct in each student’s written text, based on his or her current level of proficiency. To develop a sense of what English learners should be able to do at each level of proficiency and which skills are appropriate to target in moving them forward, look at your state’s writing standards for English learners at your grade level.

See, for example: