Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Colorful Writing

TamaraJonesTamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland.

When you’ve been teaching for as long as I have, you’ve probably tried just about every teaching technique at one time or another. I have drawers full of old games and activities that I dust off from time to time for use in a class I am currently teaching. Sometimes, I attend a PD session that reminds me about an approach that I used to use years ago, too. When I was at TESOL in Seattle a few months ago, one of the sessions I attended did just that; it put a name to a strategy that I used to use years ago when I was teaching a TOEFL Prep class, Writing with Colors ©.

Colors in the TOEFL Prep Class

One of my favorite classes to teach is TOEFL Prep. The students tend to be super motivated and focused because they are on the cusp of a major life change, and they need specific scores to move on to the next chapter. It’s also challenging for me as a teacher because the students ask the most thought-provoking advanced grammar questions and because, when I was teaching it, I was always trying to come up with engaging and meaningful ways to introduce students to useful strategies for increasing their scores.

One of the biggest challenges my students faced was often the writing. In addition to the regular grammar, spelling and punctuation problems all ESL writing students encounter, I noticed that my students tended to struggle to organize their writing in an appropriate way. In addition, they didn’t always include all the elements that make a strong TOEFL essay.

In order to help them master these skills, I thought it might be helpful to first have them analyze some model essays. I found some good sample responses online and tried to have students read them and answer questions about them. Let’s just say, that wasn’t the most engaging class I’ve ever led. That weekend, I went to the store and laid out my own hard-earned pennies on several sets of highlighters. I bought enough highlighters so that each student could have a set of 3 different colors. The next class, I gave out the highlighter sets and the introduction paragraph to a sample TOEFL independent response essay. I asked them to work with a partner to highlight the thesis statement in yellow. Then, they highlighted the hook in green and the background information in pink.

At the end of that portion of the lesson, they all had introductory paragraphs that looked like this:

Writign with Colors 3

For homework, they wrote their own introduction to a different TOEFL independent response prompt. Before handing it in to me for grading, they had to highlight their own writing in the same way as they had done the sample response the class before: thesis statement in yellow, hook in green, and background information in pink. In this way, it was easy for students to see if they had incorporated all three elements into their introductions before they even handed them in to me. (If they hadn’t, I gave them the opportunity to re-write their paragraphs and hand them in the following day.) In subsequent lessons, we worked our way through the rest of the independent response paragraphs, highlighting transition words and phrases, topic statements, specific examples, etc. We also used the highlighters as we worked on the integrated response writings. It proved to be a really helpful way to approach the analysis of sample responses, as well as for students to see what they were (and weren’t) including in their own writing.

Writing with Colors ©

Flash forward a gazillion years, and I found myself at a fantastic workshop at TESOL, delivered by Christi Cartwright and Nicoleta Fillmon (2017). One of the strategies they modeled was strikingly familiar, but they cited Renna, Daly & O’Toole (n.d.). They suggested providing students with a sample writing text and having them highlight all the words and phrases associated with these four groups of words:

Writing with Colors 1


Then, they provided students with a color-coded scaffold so they could write their own paragraphs:

Writing with Colors 2

Cartwrite and Fillmon (2017) suggest having students work with both strong and weak sample texts, so students can experience analyzing some writing that contains all of what it should and some that doesn’t. They also suggest having students analyze multiple samples to gain experience and confidence. In their presentations, they were speaking about working with their SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education) population; however, I can attest that this works equally well with highly educated, advanced level learners as well.

So, have you tried the Writing with Colors © approach? If so, what did you think? Has anything else worked better? I would be really interested in hearing about all of the ways you have used color in your writing class!

Cartwright, C. & Filimon, N. (2017). SLIFE Unlimited: Cracking the Code to Academic Writing. Paper presented at TESOL, Seattle, WA.
Renna, A., Daly, P., & O’Toole, T. (n.d.). Writing with Colors. Retrieved from http://writingwithcolors.com/?page_id=20.


Comment from Ryan
August 3, 2017 at 1:47 am

Very helpful! Thank you!

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