Capturing Stories

—How to overcome the plight of “idea block” with limited English proficient students—

“I don’t know what to write about.”

This can be a common phrase heard in classrooms. For some students, the ever-present challenge of generating a story is just too great and can typecast them as a “reluctant” writer.  For ELL students, the perception of “reluctant” can actually not be the true reality of who they are as a writer.

As educators working with students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds, there are some perspectives to consider before truly trying to tackle the ever present “idea block.”

What is the culture of stories and writing in their family?

The purpose of writing is as diversified as the languages and cultures that we have in this world. Writing instruction has diversity in its outcomes depending on where you grow up.  In some cultures, writing is the process of copying something down from the chalkboard and does not require generation of a topic.  Some cultures are primarily centered around oral language and the culture of story is preserved through the art of storytelling and not writing.  If you have a limited English proficient student who is struggling to come up with topics for writing, an interesting first step would be to find out the role writing plays in their home.

Do they really not know what to write about or is the lack of English language fluency creating a barrier to accessing their ideas?

Students who speak languages other than English have stories too. Those stories just may be preserved in Karen, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and the like. Our role as educators is to find ways to unlock the language by creating learning environments that nurture oral storytelling and common language experiences.

Talking Buddies is an important strategy to implement into the classroom that will create partnerships between teachers, students and their peers. Not only does it act as a process of rehearsing language but it also acts as the first step in planning their own story for writer’s workshop.

Are they the kind of writer that has difficulty generating stories because the topics are culturally significant and students have not had experiences that they can connect to?

Sometimes students are asked to write on prescribed topics in an effort to help           them  generate stories. One consideration that needs to be made is that some topics that are selected can be culturally significant. Imagine writing a story about a baseball game when you have never seen or played one before? In an effort to aid students in overcoming “idea block”, we can sometimes hinder them more by expecting them to pull ideas out of the air without having any experiences on the topic to pull from. Instead of prescribing topics, share topics. What common experiences do you share on a daily basis with your students that you can turn into a story? Find the cultural commonalities within your day that you can use to anchor language and facilitate the process of writing.

Capturing a story

Much like capturing a butterfly in a net, the art of teaching writing for limited English proficient students starts by catching moments and keeping them safe until it is time to release them.

1. Identify and label the experience to the student: “Do you know what I just saw you doing?  You were getting ready to go down the slide. First you sat down at the top of the slide. Then you pushed your arms on the slide to start moving.  Finally you slid down really fast! It looked like fun!”

2. Invite the student repeat you in their own words: “Can you tell me what just happened so I can always remember it?”

3. Capture the story for later: “This is such a great story. I think you need to keep this in your pocket for talking buddies and writing time later.”

Searching for stories

Common language experiences can be based on individual moments or whole group classroom activities.  Here are some examples of shared experiences that can be captured throughout the day:

Playground activities
Breakfast and lunch experiences
Art projects
School assemblies
Field Trips
Science and Social studies experience
Neighborhood investigations

The most important thing to remember is that the ability to share an experience together means opportunities to develop language, nurture story, and create community within a classroom environment.

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Molly Williams

About Molly Williams

Molly Williams works for Lincoln Public Schools as an ELL instructional coach. She currently partners with teaching and learning communities at Hartley, Meadow Lane, Belmont, Elliott, Pyrtle, Kahoa, Huntington, Riley, Norwood Park, Morley, Pershing, Eastridge, Prescott and Randolph Elementary Schools.

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