ELL · language · strategy lessons

Language-Focused Strategy Groups: Supporting Language Learning in Writing Workshop

A common question I hear from teachers is “when am I supposed to teach my ELLs language lessons?” In my district, English language learners of all levels are integrated into the general education classroom where classroom teachers support language development through grade-level academic content. Writing workshop is a prime time to offer language-specific instruction through the structure of strategy groups.

Strategy groups are meant to be flexible and fluid, meeting just once or twice with follow-up as needed. The teaching point and students in the group are pre-determined through data-analysis: conferring notes, writing samples, etc. Students can be mixed levels but exhibit a similar need. It’s best to keep these groups small, ideally four students or less.

Utilizing strategy groups to teach language makes sense because it teaches language within the academic context, making the instruction more meaningful for students than a disconnected language lesson. It also allows us to support students with different language levels at the same time. Furthermore, strategy groups fit within the workshop structure, so we don’t have to “find” additional time for language instruction (because we all know, there’s never enough time).

So, what does a language-focused strategy group look like?

Let’s walk through a lesson I did with some 4th graders. Reading through their end of unit opinion on-demands, I noticed that four of the ELL students needed support with homophones. This is one of the 4th grade Common Core language standards: Correctly use frequently confused words (e.g., to, too, two; there, their). The rest of the class did not need this specific language lesson, so the strategy group format was the way to go.

Here’s some background information on the students in the group. As you can see, they speak a variety of languages, have been in U.S. schools for varied lengths of time, and are at different levels of language proficiency:  

StudentHome LanguageU.S. School EntryEnglish Proficiency Level
CristianTagalogmid-4th gradeearly-intermediate
KhanhVietnamesemid-3rd gradeearly-intermediate

Here’s how the group went:

Connect and Compliment

I want to start out by giving you a compliment because I read your on-demands and the structure that you all used was exactly what opinion writers do.  You had an introduction that hooked me into wanting to read more, then you stated your opinion, and then you wrote about several reasons that supported your opinion.

I also know that all of you speak another language at home, so you are learning English while also doing this high academic writing. We know that when we learn more about English, it helps our writing get better, too.  So there was something in your writing that I thought I could teach you more about to make your writing even stronger.


Today, I am going to teach you about homophones.  Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings and are spelled differently.  What I want to teach you is (pointing to the learning target I had written out) “I can choose the correct homophone in my writing by thinking about the meaning.” For example, both of these words are pronounced “right,” but this one means write like writing and this one means right like correct.  So I have to think about which one I mean when I am writing.

I show the group a chart of homophones with sketches to help them remember which word means what. I explain the difference between there, their, and they’re because they are very commonly used words in writing and some of the students had mixed them up. Next, the students match word cards of the three homophones to the correct sentence written on sentence strips. Together, we practice thinking about what the word means to choose the correct spelling:

This word means “they are.” I have to think, would “they are” make sense here?

Which word do I need for this sentence? Am I saying “over there” or talking about something that belongs to them?

Next, I give each student their own homophone sheet and they practice identifying the correct word for sentences I say orally:

“My son wants to buy some Pokemon cards. Is it by, buy, or bye? How do you spell it?”

Active Engagement

Now you are going to look back at your writing and check the homophones you wrote. I put an arrow next to the line where you used a homophone. I want you to think about the meaning of what you are saying and decide if you spelled the word correctly or if you want to change it. You can work with partners and use your chart to help you.


Remember, whenever you are writing, you can choose the correct homophone by thinking about the meaning. Keep this homophones sheet in your writing folder so that you can use it to help you as you write.

This group lasted just 10 minutes, but explicitly taught a language skill that supported the students’ English development and improved their writing. If you’re looking for language teaching points, start with the Common Core (or your state’s) language or listening and speaking standards, not only for the grade you teach, but also the previous grades. There are likely language skills there that your ELLs still need to master. I also find Susana Dutro’s ELD Matrix of Grammatical Forms helpful for finding grammar teaching points.

If you have language learners in your class, writing workshop is an ideal place to provide them with explicit language instruction.  Next time you look at your students’ writing, read with a language perspective, identify a language teaching point, and try out the strategy group structure to support their language development while they grow as writers!

5 thoughts on “Language-Focused Strategy Groups: Supporting Language Learning in Writing Workshop

  1. Strategy groups are good for many things… and this is yet another one of those things.
    (BTW: I’m totally sharing your homophone chart! Love the visuals. I’ve made charts for some words, like there, their, and they’re, but this one is great since it has more “meat” to it.)

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