A Writing Conference with an English Language Learner Using Google Translate

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about English Language Learners (ELLs) and how to best support them in the writing workshop. Fortunately, the workshop model of instruction naturally lends itself to differentiation to meet the needs of all learners in the classroom. ELLs benefit from predictable routines and structures, visuals to support instruction, the opportunity to write at their own pace, and individualized instruction, all of which are part of writing workshop. ELLs also benefit from being able to write in both English and their native language, and from being able to support their writing with pictures of things for which they don’t yet have the words.

Technology tools enhance learning and teaching for English Language Learners in all subject areas, including writing workshop. The simple and powerful Google Translate has transformed writing for many ELLs. Though it may feel like it, using translation tools when working with ELLs is not cheating. Research has shown again and again that students learning English need to practice literacy skills in their native language as well as in English. Translation tools allow teachers to support students in the higher-level writing skills of which they are capable, leading to much-needed confidence in their abilities as writers. After all, research and common sense tells us that as students bolster their skills in their native language, so too is their capacity to learn higher level skills in English bolstered. So, it is imperative that we raise the level of students’ writing in their native language alongside teaching them to write in English.

To give you a sense of what it might look like and sound like to work with an English Language Learner using Google Translate, here is a snippet of a conference using this tool. The student, let’s call him Guillermo, speaks native Spanish and is in fourth grade. He can be categorized as in the early production level of language acquisition. In other words, he speaks English in short, 1-2 word phrases, can answer yes or no questions (his understanding far exceeds his ability to produce language at this point), and relies on pictures and objects for communication. During writing workshop, he writes in English for half of the time, and Spanish for the other half.

Here is the story of the conference.

During a personal essay unit, I pulled alongside Guillermo and noticed he was writing in his in native language, Spanish. He was writing electronically in a Google Doc, in part to facilitate easy translation using Google Translate. He had filled up a quarter of a page in about ten minutes, so I could assess that volume wasn’t an issue for him when he was able to write in his native tongue. Though I speak some Spanish, I am not comfortable enough to confer completely in Spanish. So, I chose to speak English, and I kept my phrasing simple and my questions ones that could be answered with a yes or no. I made sure to use some higher-level vocabulary, because I know that Guillermo understands a great deal in English and needs opportunities to learn more challenging words in context.

Me: Guillermo, can I take a look at your writing with you?
Guillermo: Nods.
Me: I notice that you’d filled up quite a lot of this page in a short time. You must be writing about something you really care about, huh?
Guillermo: Nods again.
Me: Many students now are writing about topics they care about. Then, they are searching for a thesis in their writing. Remember, a thesis is a sentence or two that says the most important thing you really want to say. Is this something you are ready to work on?
Guillermo: Shrugs.

At this point, I’m not sure if I’ve communicated well enough so that Guillermo understands what I’m asking of him. I decide the best thing is to study his writing and coach from there.

Me: Do you mind if I take a look at what you are writing in English?
Guillermo: Nods.

I use the translate feature in the Google Doc (Tools < Translate Document), and here is the text that is generated:

When we are in the playground, we have to stop playing early so that we can line up. I get mad because we have not much time for play. I want to have more time for play so that I can get my energy finished. Play is important for all kids and for adults too and for animals too. But the other kids they take too long to make the line, so we all have to wait. I think kids who make the line fast should have more time to play.

From this translated text, I realize three things about Guillermo as a writer:

  • He understands that writing can be a platform to discuss issues that he cares about.
  • He is elaborating his writing with details and feelings about events.
  • He is moving from writing about events to writing in more general terms about issues.

My work now is to help Guillermo understand the work of choosing a thesis statement and move him toward doing this.

Me: I see you understand that writing is a way to talk about big problems. Well done. And I think you are ready for the next step. You are ready to choose a big, important idea for your writing. Can you make a circle around the part of your writing that has a big, important idea?

Guillermo pauses for a moment, then circles the following sentences

I want to have more time for play so that I can get my energy finished. Play is important for all kids and for adults too and for animals too. 

Me: You have some important ideas in this part, I agree. It seems like you may have two important ideas. One, you want more play. Two, Play is important for everyone. (I hold up my fingers as I say this to underscore the two ideas.) Which idea seems more important, one or two?

Guillermo: Two.

Me: Okay, great. So your big, important idea is: Play is important for everyone. Does that sound right?
Guillermo nods.
Me: Wonderful! Now, you can write more ideas that fit with this one. Well done!

In a new window on his computer, I open the Google Translate application. I type in English and quickly translate to Spanish some notes from the conference as well as my teaching point to make extra certain that Guillermo understands the takeaways. Guillermo reads the notes, nods and smiles, then saves them to a Google doc we’ve set up for conference notes.

Here are a few sources upon which I have been drawing especially lately, for this post and in my instruction: