BAP091 Engaging Language Learners with Writing – Natalia Heckman

Natalia Heckman  is back offering practical strategies to support writing with ELs.  In this show we also get a special “behind-the-scenes” look at how she structures one of her very popular workshops for teachers.  This show originally aired LIVE on  Check out that network for education radio 24 hours a day!

You can listen to this show in your favorite podcast app or right here:

Listen to “BAP091 Engaging ELs with Writing ft Natalia Heckman” on Spreaker.

Natalia has been busy since she was my guest last month.  That last show is right here and definitely worth listening to if you want to hear more about skills vs. knowledge and sentence-level writing.  I learned so much from that conversation.

Since then, Natalia has written another very popular blog post on how to engage our English Learners with writing.

She offers workshops around this topic and so we were lucky to have her come on the show to give us tangible tips we can use right now.  You may have missed her open workshop but be sure to follow Natalia and check Upcoming Events through Seidlitz Education to see what Natalia is offering in the near future.

Of course, you may decide to bring Natalia to your district and you’d be among the many districts that have Natalia working with their teachers.  Reach out to her at to do that.  She is a wonderful presenter!

During our show, Natalia shared that when looking to engage ELs in writing, she recommends a focus on three principles:





Natalia explained that there is power in making our content exciting and relevant to our students.  She explains that looking for relevance is not just looking for things that are relevant to the student’s background or culture.  She suggests, rather, that we look for things that are relevant to ALL of our learners.  We can use sporting events or things happening in the community or something they are all looking forward to in the future. She used the term “start with a spark” and cited Dr. Lora Beth Escalante’s book, Motivating ELLs.  

We just finished a round of #ELLchat_BkClub where we studied that book.  Search the hashtags #Ellchat_BkClub and #MotivatingELLs together on Twitter to see lots of insight from folks reviewing Dr. Escalante’s work.

It was fun to hear about how Natalia lifts mentor sentences from the text but actually changes those to meet the language levels of her students and to create more relevant sentences.


How important is that feeling of competence as we look to keeping our students engaged?  Research shows that it is VERY important and Natalia suggests that we build competence through scaffolding.  When we scaffold for ELs, it helps them to see that the assignment are feasible.

Natalia’s blog posts are a FANTASTIC place to see what scaffolding can look like. Be sure to check them out.  She also mentions work by Don and Jenny Kilgallon as she explains how she would support students to construct and deconstruct sentences.


I agree with Natalia that students need to have fun while working on a task!  We talked about how students enjoy working collaboratively and Natalia shred that she has educators work collaboratively in her trainings so that the teachers can experience how supportive this is for our English Learners.

Tangible Take-Away

I loved the strategy that Natalia shared toward the end of the show.  She credited the book The WRITING Revolution, by Judith C. Hochman & Natalie Wexler.

Be sure to listen so you get her explanation of the “Because,…but,…so,…” technique.

I’m not doing it justice, but basically, you:

  1. Give students a complete sentence. such as   “Teenagers should not be allowed to get married.” This sentence, by the way, is one she uses for a Romeo and Juliet unit and it drives many opinions.  It is relevant to the life of a high school student!
  2. Ask students to expand on the sentence, add to it,  with common conjunctions such as  Because, But & So.
    • Teenagers should not be allowed to get married because…
    • Teenagers should not be allowed to get married but…
    • Teenagers should not be allowed to get married so…

You’ll hear Natalia explain that this can be set up in stations and students could move around with a partner constructing these sentences.

Now she has her students constructing complex sentences using this framework.  She can point out the structure of the sentences and this format can be used again later in the year.

At the end of our conversation, Stephen Hurley asked us if it would be appropriate for English learners to write in their native language.  Natalia and I both responded with a strong YES for the pre-writing and rough draft stage of a piece of writing.  We want to draw on our students’ entire linguistic repertoire to help them express their thoughts.  But Natalia brought up a good point that we may need to work in the target language as we help them develop skills with English syntax.

Right now, Natalia has writing and language acquisition workshops scheduled for the fall.  But be sure to check the Upcoming Events page to see what else she adds this summer.

And don’t forget that our webinar page has some free webinars from Natalia like this one:

I hope you enjoyed this time learning from Natalia.  I appreciate all that she shares and I appreciate YOU for stopping by this post.

Please reach out and let me know your thoughts about writing with ELs.  We are all so much better when we share.

Take good care!


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