Developing EAL/D student writing practices in a digital age

A focus on informative text types.

Sussan Allaou is an EAL/D teacher and a doctoral candidate researching how EAL/D students engage with multimodal literacy.

Developing the skill of writing is one of the core goals of schooling for all students. Given that learning to write is a process that takes many years to develop for students who begin their schooling during the early foundation years, consider the enormity of developing this skill for beginning or emerging phase English as a second language or dialect (EAL/D) students who enter the education system at a later stage. More than a third of students enrolled in NSW public schools are from homes where languages other than English are spoken (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, 2020), which is a significant percentage in any given school. EAL/D students may enter the education system at any time during their primary or secondary schooling years, with varying levels of exposure to schooling and writing instruction. How do teachers and educators address these EAL/D students’ needs to enable and facilitate the development of their writing skills? This article will consider the development of EAL/D students’ writing of informative texts in the primary syllabus.

Making explicit the social processes of writing to EAL/D students

Writing is not an innate feature because it is not a skill that develops naturally. To develop writing skills, students must consciously create, learn and manipulate aspects of written language in a way entirely unlike the way they learn spoken language as a child (Bromley, 2014). The development and use of written language is a social activity because it requires interaction between people through text, or a combination of text and visual or multimodal form (Harris, Fitzsimmons, McKenzie, & Turbill, 2003). People engage with written language according to the context of situation (Halliday, 1978), meaning that people engage in writing tasks for different purposes. Teachers are familiar with a functional approach to language. They understand that students need to learn how to communicate in a variety of text types in order to succeed in their academic lives and have access to the powerful ways of using language in society and culture (Derewianka & Jones, 2012).

However, the social nature of writing in a new cultural context may be an unfamiliar concept to EAL/D students, particularly if their previous schooling experiences have been of writing through a ‘traditional approach’ (Campbell & Green, 2006). The traditional approach ‘presents a decontextualised view of language’ (Derewianka & Jones, 2012, p 15) because it focuses on teaching writing through a series of isolated skills, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar leading into the composition of extended writing pieces (Harris et al.,2003). EAL/D students who enter the Australian schooling system with an experience of writing as a series of isolated skills will need explicit instruction to view the connections between written skills and practices. The National Literacy Learning Progression describes the development of writing as a movement ‘from representing basic concepts and simple ideas to conveying abstract concepts and complex ideas, in line with the demands of the learning areas’ (ACARA, 2020, p 39). It is important that teachers of EAL/D students draw on explicit instruction which demonstrates writing as both a process and a product, as suggested by the Four Resources Model of Writing (Harris et al., 2003).

The writing sample below, from the key learning area of English (ACARA, 2014), examines the social practices of writing that guide a student to compose an effective information report. The four writing practices of text encoder, participant, user and analyst practices (Harris et al.,2003) will be contextualised in the student work sample to offer suggestions on how teachers in mainstream classrooms can assist EAL/D students to develop their writing when composing an informative text.

Student writing sample
Image: Sample information text on Turtles (Australian Curriculum: Work sample portfolio – Year 3, 2014).

In the Australian Curriculum: English, informative texts that students learn about include explanations and descriptions of natural phenomena, recounts of events, instructions and directions, rules and laws and news bulletins (ACARA). The information report is an example of this text type, easily branching into multimodal form as students draw on print text, visual images, or spoken word as in film or computer presentation media to learn about and compose information. The information report shown in the sample requires an engagement with the following writing practices.

Text encoder

Encoding words and images about the topic into the text.

Focus questions for teachers include:

  • What knowledge of written language do students need to compose this text?
  • What knowledge about visual resources do students need to compose this text?
  • What explicit teaching will support students in understanding the language and structure of this text? (The four resources model for writing)

At Stage 2 students are demonstrating increasing fluency when writing (NSW Education Standards Authority, 2019). Composing an information report will require EAL/D students to understand how to decode and encode linguistic and visual data into meaningful text that demonstrates an understanding of the informative content. EAL/D students who enter the Australian schooling system during primary school may have come from a previous schooling system where they were also developing an awareness of text encoding in an alphabetic script that is similar, or different to the English alphabet. When teaching informative text types, some aspects of linguistic and visual text decoding may need to be explicitly taught to EAL/D students.

Lesson ideas

  • In mainstream classes, teachers can help EAL/D students to build their encoding of word skills in English by drawing on bilingual instructional strategies to teach the key words about the topic. For example, by creating a word bank or word wall of translated words and accompanying images or infographics about the topic of turtles, EAL/D students will be supported to build their word recognition skills about the topic as they are building new text encoding practices. This can be carried out as a communicative task between EAL/D students, or with the support of a bilingual teacher or teacher’s aide. In addition, there are online educational platforms which offer spoken and written translations of key words. For example, there are free educational apps such as Google Translate and iTranslate as well as the Microsoft Translator app which can be used to translate text as well as voice messages. It should be noted that a small margin for inaccurate translation exists when using educational translating apps. As with all good teaching practice, it is important to make sure that EAL/D students are explicitly taught how to refer to these translated resources during their learning.
  • Composing an information report in a digital age will also require students to have a sound understanding of how to interpret visual data to compose an informative text. For instance, to develop an understanding of turtles, the EAL/D student will need to examine maps and graphs to learn about their natural habitat, distribution and key facts relevant to the animal. Visual data may be in hardcopy, such as in a book, or the visual data may be digital, on a website, with graphic features that change as the viewer interacts with the image. How to interpret these forms of visual resources needs to be demonstrated to EAL/D students, facilitating their development of how to learn information from images and multimodal texts and then how to use relevant details in the composition of an information report.

Text participant

Accessing knowledge about the topic to effectively express meaning into the text.

Focus questions for teachers include:

  • What experiences and prior knowledge of the topic do students bring to the composition of the text?
  • What research and preparation do students need to compose the text?
  • What is their knowledge of similar texts? (The four resources model for writing)

Lesson ideas

  • Teachers can build bridges between the content of the curriculum and the topic of the information report by finding out what their EAL/D students already know about the subject. For example, teachers can draw on short educational clips, progressive brainstorms or ‘myth buster’ activities about turtles which promote discussion in the classroom. EAL/D students can contribute and develop a great amount of information about the topic through communicative activities that are introduced while building the field. They can then include these in their composition of an information report. It is useful to note that EAL/D students benefit from the teacher’s use of ‘recycling of information’, that is presented repeatedly in various forms to the student, so that coherent expressions of meaning are regularly modelled for the EAL/D student to use in their writing.
  • To build upon this prior knowledge, EAL/D students need to be shown how to participate successfully in investigation activities which are often called research tasks. EAL/D students are often unfamiliar with forms of learning that require them to search independently for information about a topic and need high levels of support through purposeful modelled and guided teaching activities that scaffold students in the research process. It is suggested that teachers provide their EAL/D students with clear instructions about the key points of information that they need to locate during the research task.
  • EAL/D students are shown many examples of how to locate and summarise information from primary and secondary sources of information as this is a particularly unfamiliar task. To implement purposeful guided teaching activities, it is recommended that teachers incorporate communicative tasks into a sequence of lessons which allow EAL/D students to practice their research skills, such as a ‘jigsaw activity’ that uses listening, speaking, reading and writing skills to build various aspects of knowledge about the topic as students work together in groups.

Text user

Understanding the social purpose and text structure of an information report to frame the composition of the text.

Focus questions for teachers include:

  • What knowledge do students bring of the social purposes and uses of the kind of text they are composing?
  • What explicit teaching will support students in composing this text for particular purposes? (The four resources model for writing)

EAL/D students need explicit teaching about the social purpose of the informative text that is being studied, as well as how to organise their writing into the appropriate structure. Students at Stage 2 of the English Syllabus are learning to ‘use simple and complex sentences, paragraphing, punctuation and grammatical features characteristic of the various texts to support meaning’ (NSW Education Standards Authority: English Stage 2 Syllabus).

Lesson ideas

  • EAL/D students rely on the teacher’s use of the teaching and learning cycle to build an understanding of the text type and its structural features (Derewianka & Jones, 2012). This includes explicit instruction in the use of paragraphs to organise ideas, topic sentences and supporting examples to sequence an information report.
  • Similarly, EAL/D students need clear models of the language features in the informative text, as well as opportunities to practise the use of the language features such as relating verbs, noun groups, technical vocabulary and simple and complex sentence structures that are characteristic of information reports.
  • As EAL/D students move towards the written end of the mode continuum, they have to take greater responsibility for constructing the text independently. It is important that teachers provide ample time for EAL/D students to ‘look up references, to make notes, to draft and revise, to edit out irrelevancies, to think about relationships between ideas, and to structure the text into coherent stages’ (Derewianka & Jones, 2012, p 127). Digital technologies provide some assistance in planning and proofreading EAL/D student writing, as the use of word translations, spell-check, and sentence coherency notifications are available in Word processing documents as well as online platforms such as Google Docs.

Text analyst

Presenting a viewpoint that is implicit in the composition of the text.

Focus questions for teachers include:

  • What knowledge do students bring of the ways this text can be designed to represent particular views and interests?
  • What explicit teaching will support students in developing critical language awareness of the ways language works to create particular meanings in their written texts?
  • What explicit teaching will support students in developing critical awareness of the ways visual elements work to create particular meanings in their visual texts? (The four resources model for writing)

EAL/D students face a range of challenges in developing critical writing skills (Allison, 2011; Hammond & Macken-Horarik, 1999). Teaching EAL/D students about presenting a viewpoint in the composition of a text is a skill that can be built through ongoing engagement with imaginative, informative and persuasive texts. The information report is a text which presents factual knowledge, although there is scope for the writer to present their underlying values and views about the topic through their choice of vocabulary and adjectives used, or images included in the information report.

Lesson ideas

  • Teachers can create engaging, communicative activities which encourage EAL/D students to identify the linguistic, visual and multimodal features that represent the composer’s view about the topic. For example, students can participate in a progressive brainstorm about how the view or values are suggested in a small collection of different informative texts.
  • Students work in pairs to sort a list of given linguistic and visual features which present the values or views that are implicit in a text. Implementing a teaching and learning cycle which demonstrates how language and visual elements can present different meanings is an important part of explicitly teaching EAL/D students to develop critical awareness (Derewianka & Jones, 2012; Harris et al., 2003).

Teaching EAL/D students provides a view into how the intricate wheels of learning must be acknowledged. Learning to write is necessary to develop self-expression, as well as to assess what students have learned from our teaching. However, it is important for teachers and educators to remember that before writing becomes a ‘product’ of expression, it is a social ‘process’ of learning which needs to be developed and planned for during our teaching.

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. Glossary.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. (2020). National literacy learning progression.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. (2014). Work sample portfolio summary: English year 3 above satisfactory.

Allison, D. (2011). Learning our literacy lessons: EAL/D students, critical literacy, and the National Curriculum. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 34(2), pp 181-201.

Bromley, K. (2014). Best practices in teaching writing. In L. B. Gambrell, L. M. Morrow, & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction, 5th ed. pp 288-314, New York: Guilford Publications.

Campbell, R., & Green, D. (Eds.). (2006). Literacies and learners : current perspectives, 3rd ed. NSW: Pearson Education Australia.

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. (2020). Schools: Language diversity in NSW, 2019. NSW: CESE.

Derewianka, B., & Jones, P. (2012). Teaching language in context. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as social semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning. London: E. Arnold.

Hammond, J., & Macken-Horarik, M. (1999). Critical literacy: Challenges and questions for ESL classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), pp 528-544.

Harris, P., Fitzsimmons, P., McKenzie, B., & Turbill, J. (2003). Writing in the primary school years. NSW: Social Science Press.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

State Government of Victoria. (2019). Literacy teaching toolkit: The four resources model for writing.

How to cite this article – Allaou, S. (2020). Developing EAL/D student writing practices in a digital age: A focus on informative text types. Scan, 39(7).

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