Picture Writing Prompts for ELL Newcomers

We are chugging right along in Newcomer Class!  Today I had my students mark their place in their interactive notebooks with one finger and go back to the first and second entries, when they were tracing their names and using counters to count to 5.  It was sweet to hear them say, "Wow, we know a lot more now!" And we do! We are writing sentences, adding fractions, and learning 3D shapes.

Writing has been something my students were very slow to make progress with, so I made it a priority for when we came back from Spring Break and testing.  I had been doing picture writing prompts with my more proficient students for a few years, but this group was just not ready.  Finally, we dove in! Here's how it works: I surprise them with a picture from my Pinterest board, which you can find here.  I try to choose funny, slightly scary, or thought-provoking pictures. Today's picture was this gem:

"Baby elephants throw themselves into the mud when they are upset, like a temper tantrum." hahaaa

For my more proficient students, I have a template I like (I think it came from Read Write Think several years ago).  I modified the template to suit my lower proficiency students, and even further adapt it when needed.  Feel free to pin/save to your own writing boards to use with your classes!
In Newcomer class, I turn this into a speaking activity by having the students tell me their answer before they write.  This often gives other students a chance to turn an idea into a bigger/better sentence, or expand on something they were going to write.  

Here is one student using his "blue book" to look up a word.  This was the best purchase I've made on TPT, and it came from Kristen Vibas' store- it's a Newcomer Vocabulary Office, and it has most all of the words my students need to know.  Over the summer I'll put them in binders, but until the end of the year these are just in folders with brads.  This has cut down on the "how to spell" question, which is a problem I didn't have until I started doing writing prompts with this group!

They write, then they switch papers.  I do not check for spelling/grammar/punctuation unless they ask for help.  What I've learned is that my two more proficient students (on the ends) will do the editing for me! (I can't believe I can say that...it really is amazing!)  So I give them colored pens to peer edit.  They read their friends' writing, edit, and then have 15-20 seconds to illustrate the story, then we switch again.  What's great about having them read the writing of their peers is that it is writing on their level, using words they know, with some higher level vocab thrown in from a higher proficient student here or there.

By the end of the rotation, all four kids have read each other's stories and will quiz each other like this: "Why you write he? Is she? Elephant is girl or boy?" And, "Elephant no fly!" (We had to watch a clip from Dumbo after that one!) I give them 5 more seconds to finish their pictures, then they explain their drawings.  

My students write exactly the way they speak, and that is A-OK, because they are writing and enjoying it!

This exercise has really helped them develop their skills in the four domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  I know picture writing prompts are nothing new, but making them interactive has allowed my students to become authors, editors, and audience all in one activity.  If you aren't a picture person, try using speaking or writing prompts to get your students engaged.  I have some geared for all levels of ESL!

 I'd love to know what you think! Do you do structured picture prompts with your students? For more great writing prompts, check out my ESL Writing Pinterest Board! 
Follow Everyone Deserves to Learn's board ESL Writing on Pinterest.


  1. Sounds great! I love the picture of the elephant. I did actually laugh out loud on that one. I also really like how they peer edit. That is one of my favorite things to do, and the kids always love editing each other's work!

    Eclectic Educating

  2. I love looking back at students' work and seeing all the progress they have made! That is wonderful that your students see their own progress too!
    Conversations in Literacy

  3. I love this activity! When the students explain their drawings, are they explaining each picture they illustrated in each other's notebook?

  4. This is a great idea for writing. I'm new to ESL and am placed in middle school grades 6-8. I'm wondering if you have any resources where I can find basic writing rubrics for the CCSS that are differentiated or modified for the different ELP levels based on the WIDA Can-Do's. I've been searching for a while. What would a writing rubric for Writing 6.1 for a level 1 or 2 student versus a level 3 or 4 student look like, for example? That's my current problem. I have to pull my lower ELP students from their ELA class. I teach them various beginner vocabulary, but I'm told that since they are pulled during the content area, I have to teach them that content as well. I can come up with modified materials to teach them different concepts, like story elements or characterization, but I need to know how to grade them at their ELP level, especially for writing. How do I explain to a classroom teacher that a level 1 is going to be drawing pictures instead of writing to show characterization, for example. How should he/she grade that work? How do I respond to teachers who expect ELP level 2 students to write a 5 paragraph essay after using a graphic organizer that these ELs just don't have enough English to write all that. How should I help them modify that writing rubric for the ELs' levels? Any guidance you can share would be most appreciated. Thank you so much!

    1. Hi, the best advice I can give you is to look at the NJ Model Curriculum for ELL's. It has all the standards broken down by what you can expect students to produce at their individual proficiency levels. This is the link to 6th grade, but there are examples from K-12. I hope it helps! http://www.state.nj.us/education/modelcurriculum/ela/6u1.shtml You can also look at the WIDA rubric for grading at proficiency levels- www.wida.us


Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate it.

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