5 Powerful Strategies to Teach Writing in a Dual Language Class

How to teach writing in dual language upper elementary classes

“How do I teach writing in a dual language classroom?” A big part of my job now is mentoring other teachers, and one of the most common questions I get from the teachers I support is how to teach writing in a dual language or bilingual classroom. 

Truth be told, I struggled with teaching writing early in my career. In my 6th year teaching, and coincidentally my first year teaching 4th grade Spanish Dual Language, I really threw myself into professional development around writing. While I found a lot of valuable tips for the monolingual classroom, I didn’t find many resources that targeted the unique needs of bilingual learners. I’m not one to shy away from experimentation, so I combined well known English-only strategies with strategies for language learners.

So here are 5 tried and true effective practices for supporting writing in a dual language class in the upper elementary grades.

1. Don’t switch languages too often

A few years ago I was mentoring a new 5th grade teacher. Her grade level was 50/50 English and Spanish and generally they switched languages every 2 weeks. Unfortunately, her class was often in the middle of a writing piece when it was time to switch. So when the 2 weeks were up, she had her students translate their writing so far into the 2nd language and then continue working in the 2nd language. As you might guess, this ate up a lot of class time, was tedious for the students, and tested their translation skills rather than their writing ability.

Another problem with switching too often is that students who are dominant in one language may attempt to wait you out. For example, if you have an English-dominant student who is resistant to Spanish, they may just drag their feet until the following week when they know they can write in English.

Instead, look holistically at your program’s language breakdown. In the example above, the teacher could switch languages after each writing piece instead of every 2 weeks exactly. That way she would still reach 50/50 over time, but without losing class time to translating.

Teaching writing in a dual language program

2. Support students with transition words

Transition words are so important because they help writers to connect ideas and express themselves more clearly in their writing and speech. When used correctly, they provide a way to show relationships between ideas and sentences, such as cause and effect, comparison and contrast, and sequence. Using transition words can make your students’ writing more cohesive and easy to understand. 

Students need extra support when working outside of their home language. 

As a language learner myself, I admit that “filler” words are very difficult for me. I have to be diligent about not saying “um” and “so” while speaking Spanish. The Spanish equivalents just don’t come easily to me. 

If I struggle with this as a well-educated adult, it’s no surprise that young language learners need support in transition words and explicit instruction on when to use them effectively. 

I teach transition words using these handouts . My students always appreciated that they are bookmarked size so they don’t take up too much space on their desks. This makes it easy for them to reference while writing. There are also posters for the walls in case they misplace their bookmark.

When I model writing, I also model using my transition words handout. I do a think-aloud about what kind of word I need. It might sound like this:

“I want to add an example here. So I’m going to go to the section that says ‘Give an example’ and select one of these phrases. Today, I’m going to use ‘For instance’”. 

As time goes on, I enlist my students’ help in choosing a category and a word or phrase.

“Ahora estoy al final de mi escritura y me gustaría reafirmar mi idea. ¿Qué categoría de palabras debemos usar? ¿Qué frase crees que yo debería escribir?”

Through this modeling, students learn how to select appropriate transition words, even if it’s in a language they are learning. It makes their writing sound more fluent and polished. 

This is the resource that I use for teaching transition words. It includes bookmarks and posters to support your students in both Spanish and English.

3. Provide vocabulary support

When asking students to write, it’s helpful to prepare them with the vocabulary they will need in advance. For example, if you are writing about volcanos, you might create an anchor chart with a picture of a volcano with the various parts labeled. 

This applies to narrative writing as well. If you are writing about a field trip, you might provide a word bank with words such as permission slip, field trip, school bus, and chaperone. 

While preparing in advance is helpful, it’s often difficult to predict what words students will need. So while I do try to have anchor charts prepared, I often create a word bank in real time. As I see students writing, I add more things to the word bank. For example, if I walk the room and see everyone writing about superheroes, I may create a quick word bank on the spot with vocabulary related to superheroes. 

Another example could be repetition. As I walk the room, I might see students writing “nice” repeatedly. So I may pause the class and say, “I notice a lot of us using the word nice a little too frequently. What are some synonyms for nice that we could use?” With their input, I can make a quick word bank to help students increase the variety in their writing.

How to teach writing for Spanish dual language

4. Provide mentor texts as examples of good writing in a dual language class

Mentor texts are an excerpt of writing used as a model. They can be poems, picture books, articles, or any other strong piece of writing. You can learn more about using mentor texts from the Iowa Reading Research Center.

Mentor texts are a great way for all students to learn writing, but are extra important in the dual language class. Students who are writing outside of their home language need a strong model to help them grow. 

In the dual language class, this means that you’ll really want to take the time to find and analyze mentor texts with your students so they have a strong example to support their language learning. I recommend annotating the mentor text with students to break down the components of writing. I explain more about how I did that below with symbols. 

5. Use symbols to help with transferring skills between languages

When we switch languages, sometimes students see it as a brand new “thing”. But really, we aren’t necessarily learning anything new, we’re just transferring our knowledge to a different language. This is true in writing as well. Opinion writing is opinion writing in English or Spanish and we use many of the same strategies. Symbols are a great way for students to connect their learning in different languages.

For example, I would draw a fish hook next to the “hook” in the writing. I did this in both languages. That way students would see that we’re not doing a “new” thing. We’re writing hooks in English just like we did in Spanish. 

Here are the symbols that I personally used in my class that you could use in yours as well:

Annotating mentor texts. Hook/gancho shows picture of a fish hook. Detail/detalle shows a picture of a star. Transition word/ palabra de transicion shows a chain. Conclusion shows a big C.

And here are two examples of annotated mentor texts from my Famous Latinos reading passages:

The picture shows a student desk. In the middle is a writing passage in Spanish about Cesar Chavez. The writing is annotated to help the students improve their writing.
The picture shows a student desk. In the middle is a writing passage in Spanish about Cesar Chavez. The writing is annotated to help the students improve their writing.

You can see that even though they are different texts and in different languages, the same symbols are used to annotate each. This helps students to see that we are using the same strategies in each language and helps them transfer their learning from English to Spanish and vice versa. 

These examples are from informational writing, but they work in narrative writing as well. With narrative writing, I might draw a paintbrush for a detail that “draws a picture”. I draw little mountains for “setting”. I draw a little speech bubble for “dialogue”. You can make this your own, but what matters is consistency.

In conclusion, teaching writing in a dual language classroom can be challenging, but it is possible with the right strategies and support. By implementing these strategies, you can support the unique needs of your bilingual learners and help them to become confident and proficient writers.

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