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Writing development and second language acquisition in young children.

Current research provides teachers with important information about the contexts that support young children's second language development. Unfortunately, classroom practices in literacy development for children with limited English proficiency focuses upon oral language, with less consideration given to writing practices. This article briefly describes children's writing development, examines several general findings from recent research and provides some examples of how these findings speak to classroom practice for English as a Second Language (ESL) bilingual programs.



Studies of literacy development before schooling show that most children have some knowledge of print before they come to school (Goodman, 1986; Schickedanz, 1986). Children need to communicate and make sense of their environment long before they enter formal schooling. Therefore, young children are very much aware of the written language in their environment. According to studies done by Harste, Woodward and Burke (1984), the organization of children's writing is socially based and a response to the written language of their culture. They observed that children who have not yet mastered conventional letters appear to scribble in their own language.

Goodman (1986, p. 15) suggests that "children are literally driven to learn language by their need to communicate." Moll and Diaz (1982), researching children with limited English skills, demonstrate the importance and power of writing in the curriculum, especially when it is used with community-related themes. Researchers seem to agree that children's work emphasizes writing as a socially grounded process.

Young children's first attempts to communicate through writing may look like

scribbles. Closer examination reveals, however, that the child's early writing efforts reflect a clear distinction between drawing and writing. Researchers, therefore, conclude that early writing is not merely scribbling, but rather markings that are intended to signify meaning. Harste and his colleagues (1984) and Schickedanz (1986) found many examples of this kind of differentiation during their studies.

As they mature and gain more experience with writing, children demonstrate an effort to organize meaning and produce a cohesive story or text. Young children expect their marks to mean something to the readers. Children at this stage reveal an understanding of lettermaking and begin to expand their writing skills from scribbles to mock letters and eventually to accurate representations of the alphabet. Children progress to the discovery that letters represent phonemes and can be strung together to create words and sentences. Young children quickly observe that writing is organized differently for different purposes and also begin to think about their audience. After children have experimented with their own temporary spelling, they usually adopt the standard form in their writings (Goodman, 1986; Schickedanz, 1986).

Researchers demonstrate that young children's writing skills develop best when the teacher believes they are capable of expressing their thoughts and opinions on paper, where the environment is print-rich and when they have frequent opportunities to communicate meaningfully in writing (Graves, 1983; Harste, Woodward & Burke, 1984; Hudelson, 1984; Peyton, 1990; Schickedanz, 1986). It is important to be aware of research results demonstrating that children begin writing for meaning and communication long before they have mastered oral language or are capable of reading. Graves (1983) and Calkins (1983) documented that children experience extraordinary literacy development in environments where they not only wrote, but also were taught by a teacher who constantly challenged and attended to the writer and his or her ideas. These findings have direct implications for and applications to ESL classroom practice.

Research Finding 1/Classroom Applications

One important generalization that can be derived from research is that even children who speak no English or very little English are reading some of the print in their environment and are using that print to increase their English knowledge. A few years ago, Yetta Goodman (1980) investigated this premise and discovered that even students from non-English speaking homes come to school with the ability to read items such as cereal boxes and advertising on billboards.

What implications does this discovery have for classroom instruction? In spite of recent research supporting the use of authentic writing as a means of facilitating the acquisition of a second language, teachers of ESL students are often tempted to concentrate on developing mastery of basic English skills before providing opportunities to read and write. Hudelson (1984) points out that children's ESL literacy is dominated by programs that place strict limitations on writing to prevent errors. Children in these programs are asked to write only what they have practiced orally in formal lessons.

Franklin (1986) describes two teachers who believed that writing was too difficult for their ESL students. A notable discrepancy existed in these classrooms between the extended and creative texts written on a daily basis by native English speakers and the writing practices of the students with limited English proficiency. The ESL students' writing tasks consisted mainly of language drill work, copying, filling in blanks and taking dictation. Both researchers hypothesize that this cautious approach to writing actually retards second language literacy development in children.

Teachers must treat children's ability to recognize print in the environment as evidence that the children are interacting with and learning from their environment. If meaningful writing is encouraged, children can make use of this print knowledge and begin to interact with print through writing and ultimately develop competence in English. Students' development as writers in any language depends a great deal upon the teacher's expectations. Urzua (1987) concludes that the writing process helps children develop a surprising amount of cognitive, social and linguistic skills. She further concludes that children exposed to regular, frequent and authentic writing experiences appear to develop three aspects of their writing skill: a sense of audience, a sense of voice and a sense of power in language.

Research Finding 2/Classroom Applications

Another common belief refuted by recent research is that oral language development must precede written language development. The usual instructional sequence found in most ESL classrooms is listen, speak, read and then write. Rigg (1981), Urzua (1987) and others found that students learning English as a second language demonstrate an ability to write material that they are not able to control orally, especially when it comes from within themselves. Edelsky and Jilbert (1985) provide the following example from their study of a 2nd-grader who did not use much English print and avoided speaking English, but nevertheless wrote in English when requested to do so.

Ones supon a time ther livd a good harted lien. he difrent from de adrs. He ws good toode adr animoles and de adr animoles wer good too hem. Ande he dident like too fte and he dident like de adr animol too fte. He somtims guen [when] da abr animoles fte gued [with] hime and he liked too play and he livd gapolievr aftr. (p. 67)

The child used a great deal of En orthographic information not taught in his Spanish reading group. Edelsky and Jilbert stress that this child did not need to have total control over oral English in order to read and write it

Peyton (1990) found that when given the opportunity to write often ESL children progressed through the same standard stages of writing development as children proficient in English. They "moved from drawing to writing; moved from reliance on copied sight words to sounding out words and using invented spelling, which gradually approximated conventional spelling; demonstrated knowledge of written conventions; elaborated on topics; and showed an awareness of audience" (p. 214).

The classroom implication of these findings is obvious: encourage ESL learners to write as often and as much as possible. Create opportunities where children spontaneously write with purpose for a real audience (Perez & Torres-Guzman, 1992). Whether they are learning to write in their native language or a second language, children will learn to write much as they are learn everything else - through practice, observation, trial-and-error and receipt of supportive feedback from peers and adults. Children are likely to make rapid progress in a second language when reading and writing are part of normal, day-to-day classroom activities. Ammon (1985), after observing ESL classrooms in which students had made significant writing gains, concluded that: success in helping children learn to write in English as a second language hinges primarily on the use of instructional activities that are rich in opportunities for exposure to, production of, and reflection on English discourse.... [S]uch activities must include frequent writing, with guidance and feedback, on topics of personal interest. (p. 82)

Research Finding 3/

Classroom Applications

As in a first language, writing in a second language interacts with reading. These two processes are closely related and compliment each other. Edelsky and Jilbert (1985) demonstrated that, for some ESL children, written expression in English may precede formal reading instruction. For others, their English writing forms their first reading.

The practical implications of this finding are many. ESL programs should foster children's pride and confidence in their language(s) and their growing literacy. From the beginning, children write for themselves and for others. Reading and writing develop together and support each other. Goodman, Hudelson and Peyton all agree that supportive classroom environments are crucial to students' development of self-confidence and the motivation to continue to read and write.

As young writers and eventually readers, children should be exposed to a variety of activities that integrate reading and writing. Such activities include writing letters; keeping journals; making signs, labels and lists; keeping records; and reading predictable books. These activities will give children plenty of self-motivated practice. Language experience stories are also effective ways for teachers to incorporate the teaching of reading and writing in both languages into a context that is meaningful to the students. Sustained time allocated for reading and writing gives teachers the opportunity to work with students individually.

Interestingly, these conditions are the same ones advocated by whole language proponents for native English-speaking children (Goodman, 1986; Graves, 1983; et al.). All children blossom as readers and writers in an environment where these conditions exist.

Research Finding 4/

Classroom Applications

ESL teachers often express the concern that offering children two written languages in the school environment (whether through transitional programs, a regular classroom environment or exposure to print) leads to confusion and possible interference (Edelsky & Jilbert, 1985). Edelsky found, however, that children seemed to acquire the two separate systems without confusion. Krashen proposes that children apply knowledge from their first language literacy when they write in their second language (McGroarty, 1988). Peyton (1990) discovered that, when given the option of journal writing, ESL students did not seem to question their own ability to start writing, although the researchers did. They simply started, finding the resources they needed from the environment around them. The children did not stop to ponder the complexities of writing in two languages; they plunged in and used the resources immediately available.

Rather than acting as an agent of confusion, the children's bilingualism instead increased their options for making meaning. Surprisingly, code switching occurred rarely in the children's writing (Edelsky & Jilbert, 1985; Hudelson, 1984; Urzua, 1987). The children could and did sustain either Spanish or English when the situation called for it.

These findings suggest a few classroom applications. ESL learners should experience the freedom to write in the language they choose without having their writing efforts corrected. Children need time to "play" with writing - to develop more or less at their own pace. Teachers need to be aware that, with minimal adult guidance and assistance, children will use their environment and their natural growth as writers to make the transition from one language to another. Mistakes are a necessary part of second language development and are critical to language growth. A supportive environment is needed in which children can begin to take risks with written language in many forms. Young children need an environment where they can make choices about which language to use when writing or reading. Teachers need to remember second language children are not only trying to improve their own writing and language use, but they also are trying to understand what someone from another culture needs to know.


The processes of writing, reading, speaking and listening in a second language are interrelated and interdependent. Since it is impossible to separate the language processes in a child's natural environment, classroom teaching should not attempt to separate them, especially with young bilingual children. Teaching only reading or only writing, for example, is ultimately useless in a program aimed at helping young children acquire a second language.

The research and examples presented here refute the theory that ESL material is best presented in a linear fashion; that is, first listening, then speaking, then reading and, finally, writing. Second language learners demonstrate that they make sense of language as a totality as well as any monolingual child. Teachers should therefore provide meaningful language opportunities in meaningful contexts.

If writing is a social act, then publishing is essential for writers. When a child reads her work to an audience, she gains a sense of her role as an author. Furthermore, she is given an opportunity to practice language development through interaction with other writers. Publishing should not be reserved for only the best writers. Rather, it should be the experience of every child. Graves (1983) explains it this way: "Publication is important for all children. It is not the privilege of the classroom elite, the future literary scholars. Rather, it is an important mode of literary enfranchisement for each child in the classroom" (p. 55). When young children feel a sense of accomplishment and see progress through publishing, they are encouraged to take risks with a second language.

The use and acquisition of writing as a means of facilitating the development of a second language has only recently received attention as an area of research. These new insights into the importance of writing for young bilingual children will provide useful information for classroom teachers that will, ideally, translate into practical curricula. As researchers and classroom teachers spend more time observing children and their use of writing (and reading), the results will provide more answers to the important questions about second language children and their instructional programs.


Ammon, P. (1985). Helping children learn to write in ESL: Some observations and some hypotheses. In S. W. Freedman (Ed.), The acquisition of written language: Response and revision (pp. 65-84). Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Calkins, L. (1983). Lessons from a child. Exeter, NH: Heinemann. Edelsky, C., & Jilbert, K. (1985). Bilingual children and writing: Lessons for all of us. Volta Review, 87(5), 57-72. Franklin, E. A. (1986). Literacy instruction for ESL children. Language Arts, 63(1), 51-60. Goodman, K. (1986). What's whole in whole language? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Goodman, Y. (1980, March). The roots of literacy. Paper presented at the Claremont Reading Conference. Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann. Harste, J., Woodward, V., & Burke, C. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons. Exeter, NH: Heinemann. Hudelson, S. (1984). Kan yu ret and rayt en Ingles: Children become literate in English as a second language. TESOL Quarterly, 18(2), 221-238. McGroarty, M. (1988). Second language acquisition theory relevant to language minorities: Cummins, Krashen, and Schumann. In S. L. McKay & S. C. Wong (Eds.), Language diversity problem or resource? (pp.295-337). Boston: Heinle & Heinle. Moll, L., & Diaz, R. (1982). Teaching writing as communication: The use of ethnographic findings in classroom practice. In D. Bloome (Ed.), Literacy and schooling (pp. 193-221). Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Perez, B., & Torres-Guzman, M. (Eds.). (1992). Learning in two worlds. New York: Longman Publishing Group. Peyton, J. (1990). Beginning at the beginning: First-grade ESL students learn to write. In A. M. Padilla, H. Fairchild, & C. Valades (Eds.), Bilingual education issues and strategies (pp. 195-218). Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications. Rigg, P. (1981). Beginning to read in English the LEA way. In C. W. Twyford, W. Diehl, & K. Feathers (Eds.), Reading English as a second language: Moving from theory (pp. 81-90). Monographs in Teaching and Learning 4. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana. Schickedanz, J. (1986). More than the ABCs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. Urzua, C. (1987). "You stopped too soon": Second language children composing and revising. TESOL Quarterly, 21(3), 279-305.



* Writing activities are integrated with reading, listening and speaking within a meaningful social context.

* Writing activities build cooperation and self-esteem and encourage experimentation and risk taking.

* Children have frequent opportunities and long blocks of time write extended texts.

* Writing is treated as an act of communication, rather than practice or drill language form.

* Children write for their own purposes, about topics that are of personal interest to them, and the teacher shows genuine interest in the ideas expressed.

* Children talk about and reflect on their writing.

* Children receive extensive language input through reading and being read to, as well as through oral and written interactions with the teacher or their peers.

* Children receive feedback about their writing through oral or written interactions with the teacher or their peers. This feedback focuses first and primarily on content and secondarily on writing conventions and languages form.




Writing in journals gives children the opportunity to use language authentically in a literacy context. Interactive journals provide a vehicle for children and teachers to communicate on a daily basis about student-selected topics.

Guidelines that facilitate journal writing:

* having a consistent time designated each day four journal writing

* making students feel they can use their own mechanics and invented spelling

* having teachers authentically interact in writing with each child.

Journal writing gives children the

opportunity to:

1. learn that written language communicates

2. experience making choices about topics and develop a sense of ownership of the written product

3. develop their writing within meaningful context

4. integrate language skills and experience its function and processes

5. develop a personal interaction with the teacher through writing

6. use this safe environment to experiment with the second language.

Journals give teachers an opportunity to:

1. learn about each child's interests, ideas and everyday concerns

2. interact and communicate on an individual basis with each child

3. model standard conventions of writing in the context of authentic communicative use

4. asses the use of knowledge and skills that each child is developing.

5. assess when the child is making a transition into the second language.




Over time, children's writing passes through the following stages:

* progression from drawing to writing

* progression from reliance on copied sight words to sounding out words and the use of invented spelling

* demonstrated knowledge of written conventions (spaces, punctuation, capitalization)

* elaboration on topics

* awareness of an audience



(Review of the research)

* Even children who speak no English or very little English are reading some of the print in their environment and are using that reading to increase their English.

* ESL learners are able to read English before they have complete oral control of the language.

* ESL learners can write English before they have complete control over the the oral and written systems of the language.

* Bilingual children's written work is similar to that of monolinqual children. They move through the same stages.

* Code switching rarely occurs in written form among bilingual children.

* As in a first language, writing in a second language interacts with reading.

* Offering two written languages in school does not confuse young ESL learners.
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Author:Perotta, Blanche
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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