My West end schools are a joy these days. A fair number of junior and intermediate students have arrived recently, all new to English, and many with solid literacy skills in their first language. Teachers stop to chat in the halls, excitedly telling me about the latest science project, or writing assignment, or music class, in which they have used first language to enable students to learn curriculum and English and, critically, to help them maintain and develop their first languages. Classrooms are filled with multilingual writing, and every time I lean over and read a student’s work, I learn a little more about what they can do, and wonder what else is around the corner. 

As many ESL teachers have noted, student writing reveals a lot, even if you do not understand the language of the writing. Sometimes, a paper on a desk in an empty classroom can speak volumes … I love it when I find a story, or an essay, for example. Paragraph after paragraph, the steady flow of sentences, the well-formed letters, the crisply-accurate capitals and punctuation …all can suggest awareness of form, convention, and fluidity of thought. Looking at compositions such as these, it is apparent the student can do so much more than their beginner work in English can reveal — for now. Or sometimes it is short notes in first language that I see, written above English vocabulary on a math problem or science experiment … the brisk dashes in the student’s writing suggesting that, perhaps, they used a translation tool or teacher support for an unknown word, quickly jotting down the meaning before moving on to the next section, learning English naturally as they engage with curriculum. And sometimes, I am lucky enough to see a student in action, engaged in the process of writing … pausing to think, to erase, to edit, to look up words … evidence of the ability to proofread and revise.

When a student is just learning English for the first time, and using only simple writing skills as they begin their journey, these first language writings offer a window into the complexity of their thoughts and skills. And as I said at the beginning, it is a joy to see their colourful voices on the page, the full spectrum of their capabilities and resourcefulness in evidence. 


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