Elementary, ell, High School, Junior High, school

6 Ways to Assess and Build ELL Writing Skills

Building writing skills in English language learners is, thankfully, one of the easiest skills we can assign and assess. Writing is tangible and we can fit it easily into the majority of classes we teach.

That being said, we also need to make sure that the tasks we’re asking our english language learners to complete are appropriate. They need to be challenging, but not frustrating. And, of course, we need to provide them with the tools necessary to complete the assignments.

Additionally, we also need to ensure that we begin to give our English language learners increasingly challenging work as their skills develop.

The following tasks/assignments are excellent choices for our students who are learning English. They can be tailored for different classes and levels as necessary and will definitely build skills and provide teachers tangible work to assess.


Fill in the blank assignments are a fantastic option for students who are just starting to develop their English language skills.

What I like best about fill in the blank is that you can make it super easy or more challenging, depending on students’ ability and readiness levels.

These are also great both for building skills and for assessment. If a student is brand new to Canada and to English, I start very small with having students fill in life-skills vocabulary. This includes words like hungry, bed, pencil, and so on.

As students build skills, I start having them work on fill-in-the-blank activities that focus on academic language such as compare, contrast, similar, differences, smaller, multiply, and in and on and on.

When students have developed life skills and basic academic English, that’s when I know they’re ready for content. That’s when fill in the blank comes in super handy to build vocabulary skills.

There’s so many ways to use these, and you can create as many “blank” spaces versus words to make tasks easier or harder.


Similar to fill in the blanks, but slightly more challenging for English language learners are sentence frames.

Again, these are great for students of varying levels as you can provide them with more or less in depth frames.

If a student is brand new, you can provide them with super simple sentence frames like, “my name is… and I am from…”. As students become stronger, sentence frames can be used for longer paragraph writing and answering short answer questions.

In fact, I provide suggested sentence frames to the whole class when we’re writing PEE paragraphs, essays, and so on. Students who need them choose to do so, while stronger students can just skip them. This strategy helps English language learners and students with lower writing skills from feeling singled out or “dumb”.


Not always, but often, teachers stop explicitly teaching grammar after elementary school. We assume that they’ve learned and can apply those skills.

Of course, not only are a lot of English language learners missing those skills, several students who are native English speakers have forgotten them or are generally weak.

When you explicitly teach things like sentence structure, how to use punctuation, capitalization skills, and so on, you’re helping all your kids. These skills are things we often expect students, especially older students, to just know. However, all students benefit from refreshers and skill building activities.

Try doing a small bell ringer or worksheet at the start of class to build these. Something small each day keeps kids from getting bored of an entire class dedicated to something like punctuation.


Always keep in mind when you’re working with English language learners that everyone is at different stages when it comes to their skills.

Make sure that you start incredibly small when building writing skills. Don’t ever assume a student has a skill, especially when they’re first learning a language.

Things like sentence frames and sentence starters work well. You also may only want to ask very low level English students for one or two sentences as they build those basic skills. Chances are they aren’t going to have the skills for full paragraphs or any other longer assessment.

Once they can consistently show that they’ve mastered the small steps you’ve started them with, start making work more challenging. You’ll see great growth and it will boost students’ confidence as well when they’re successful.


It can be hard in large classes to ensure all students know what to do, how to do it, and when. Structure and routine are key, not only in how you set up your days, but also how activities and assignments are broken up.

This is especially true for English language learners.

It’s extremely common for students new to English to not understand instructions or cultural norms we may not consider. They often did themselves looking around at peers and attempting to copy what they’re doing. Sometimes this works, but in an ideal scenario they are working on things different than peers and have a clear understanding of how to complete work.

Whenever you can, provide a clear structure of what kids are doing each day or each class. Additionally, provide your English language learning students with tasks that have a lot of structure to them. This can look like having clear sentence frames, looking up words with a translator, answering simple questions, and so on. Don’t offer too much variability or need for deeper thinking before students are ready and have the language capability to fully understand what you’re asking them to do.


Modeling what it is you want students to do is vital for English language learners. They often miss instructions, either spoken or written because of their language skills.

Therefore, physically showing kids how to complete the first one or two questions (or whatever it is you’re having them work on) is extremely helpful to clarify how you expect them to complete work.

You can do this with the full class, with a small group, or one-on-one with a student, depending on the assignment and the group of students you have.

Well, what do you think of these tips? Are they helpful? Are there things you’re already doing or that I missed? Let me know!




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