You’ve probably heard a million times that you should be using differentiated instruction in your classroom. If you’re in a stricter building, it may even be required that you document your differentiation strategies. But how, exactly, are we supposed to differentiate writing instruction for our advanced, gifted, special education, trauma-sensitive, and ELL learners in a single class period!? It seems impossible! At least it does until you consider scaffolding writing instruction.
Why Use A Scaffolding Technique in Teaching Writing?
I’ve written about scaffolding in the creative writing classroom specifically before. That post is great for an introduction to the idea of scaffolding if that’s a new term for you. But scaffolding is great for all writing instruction–not just creative writing.
Scaffolding refers to the tools we give students to help them take baby steps towards conquering a bigger task. Before they write that ten-page paper, they’re going to have to know how to write an introduction.
How can we set our students up for writing success? In this post, I hope to share some tricks and techniques that have helped students in my own classroom.
Scaffolding Writing for Struggling Students
Scaffolding, which basically involves breaking down large tasks into smaller steps, is helpful for all learners. Yes, even your gifted students will benefit from the same scaffolding techniques that your ELLs are leaning on.
While your struggling learners may be seemingly incapable of tackling that big essay without some scaffolding support, forcing your advanced students to try various scaffolds can help them too.
When they’re made to slow down and really examine every step, advanced students will be unable to rush through assignments and turn in work that meets the requirements, but it below the student’s full ability.
Scaffolding Writing Assignments
Pretty much any writing assignment can be scaffolded for students. Creating scaffolding just means that you’re breaking down a task into smaller components or steps. Scaffolding can be anything that helps the students conceptualize what their final product should look like, put their ideas together, or even help them reflect on their work.
When I first started teaching, I looked at the curriculum and thought, “We just don’t have time for all of that!” I know better now.
Scaffolding in your writing instruction is necessary. Sometimes in life, we have to slow down, so we can speed up later. Writing instruction is no different.
When we take it slow in the beginning, we’re setting ourselves (and our students) up for faster, better work in the future!
Slow down to speed up. Scaffold for more structural integrity in writing.
Ok, sounds well and good, right? But how exactly do we do that without sacrificing our entire curriculum? How do we scaffold without spoon-feeding our students the answers?
Scaffolding Strategies with Writing Scaffolds Examples
Scaffolding Tip #1: Tap into Prior Knowledge
One way to make struggling students feel more comfortable doing the work is to show them how much they already know.
You’re probably already familiar with the variety of ways we teachers help students activate their prior knowledge: K-W-L charts, brainstorming, concept maps, etc. When students can see all that they already know, venturing into new territory seems less scary.
An Example of Activating Prior Knowledge
One of my favorite ways to activate prior knowledge is through anticipation guides. In my free Internment Anticipation Guide, students read through various statements deciding whether they agree or disagree with each.
Then, they discuss these statements with partners and groups, attempting to persuade others to see their side.
By the time we discuss each statement as a whole class, students are passionately debating. They’re not worrying about what they don’t know–they’re ready to dive deeper into the topics.
Scaffolding Tip #2: Give Students a Framework
Frameworks help all kinds of writers with all kinds of writing. Whether you’re writing a formal essay, a blog post, or even an Instagram post, if you’re doing it successfully, there’s probably a method to how you structure the content.
If even confident writers use frameworks, then our struggling students definitely need one!
The typical five-paragraph essay is a great example of a writing framework. In general, all five-paragraph essays follow the same framework: one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.
There’s even a framework for each of those paragraphs. If we zoom in on the introduction paragraph, for example, we’ll see that it typically starts with a hook, leads with background information, and ends with a thesis.
Once students understand the framework and how it all works together, all they have to worry about is the content and their writing craft. The overwhelm is gone. The task no longer seems daunting or impossible.
An Example of a Scaffolding Framework
In my school, we use a C-E-R framework for all of our school’s academic writing–from English to gym class.
I break down the C-E-R framework in detail in this post, but basically all of our academic writing starts with a claim, which is supported by evidence, which in turn is explained through the students’ reasoning.
Once students learn the framework in freshman year, they understand the expectations. Throughout their four years, they’ll apply that framework to writing for all content areas, for writing of different length requirements, and to writing for different audiences.
Students no longer have to wonder about the expectations or how to get started. Instead, they can spend those four years working on skills: improving their transitions, citing evidence correctly, correcting their punctuation, etc.
Teaching a framework is a great example of slowing down to speed up. In freshman year, teachers hammer claim, evidence, and reasoning into the curriculum. That leaves students ready to tackle bigger, more complex writing in years to come.
It doesn’t have to be a four-year process, though. I review C-E-R over the course of a couple of weeks in my senior class. For students new to our school, it’s the first time they are exposed to it, but with the help of their peers they catch on quickly.
Scaffolding Technique #3: Teaching the Writing Process
This one is probably the best-known version of scaffolding for any English teacher. The writing process is basically a framework for how to write. It consists of six steps: brainstorming, outlining, creating a rough draft, evaluating that work, then sculpting a final draft, before the optional step of publishing.
You’ve probably implemented the writing process before in regards to an essay, but the writing process is just that–a process. It can be applied to pretty much any writing task.
Except, I hear you say, we don’t really have time to apply the writing process to every single thing we do in class.
And we don’t! I wouldn’t have students complete the whole writing process for informal assignments or journal writing, for example.
An Example of Scaffolding the Writing Process
But we also don’t have to save it just for essay writing. In fact, exposing students to a variety of writing tasks and showing them that this process WORKS for any kind of writing is probably a better use of everyone’s time than hammering away at another five-paragraph essay.
For example, in my Social Justice Mini-Research Project, students create a pamphlet around a social justice issue of their choosing. This assignment is shorter and more creative than a traditional essay. Plus, it involves choice (point for differentiation!) which I always like to include where I can.
In this resource, I’ve broken down the writing process for the teacher and the student.
Students look at work from the historical activist group The White Rose for inspiration, before brainstorming and doing some research around their own social justice cause.
Then, they use the included graphic organizers (scaffolding in and of itself) to outline the pamphlet they create.
From there, students can create, edit, and publish in whatever ways work best for the student, class, or teacher (I do include some publishing suggestions in the teacher’s guide).
The resource breaks down the writing process–choosing a topic, doing research, analyzing a mentor text, outlining, etc.–to help students. Walking students through this process–and teaching the process–is a scaffolding technique that benefits any writing instruction.
Scaffolding Technique #4: Show Examples
Another common scaffolding strategy is to show examples. This sounds overly simple, but students just cannot see enough examples.
And they shouldn’t just see good examples! Showing students examples of bad or mediocre writing can be just as powerful–so long as you discuss why the examples are subpar.
Perhaps my favorite use of examples is through mentor texts. Mentor texts are expert examples of the type of writing you’d like to teach.
An Example of Using Mentor Texts to Scaffold
My Author Study Project is a deep-dive into this concept.
Students select an author to study. Then, over the duration of the project, students read and take notes on their chosen author’s style. They analyze the subject matter, the tone, and the imagery style of their mentor author.
Once they’ve reached an understanding of the author’s style, they try to mimic that style in their own original work!
Of course, using examples doesn’t have to turn into a full-blown author study or project.
Showing students examples of “ok” essays versus excellent essays can really encourage them to put forth the extra effort. Showing students several examples of how to apply a skill (say, citing evidence) can also be beneficial.
Using examples throughout your class is not only a great scaffolding technique but a great differentiation one as well. Showing an exemplar paper will encourage struggling students to get help, clarification, or use extra resources. Meanwhile, striving students will be pushed even further.
When do you show examples?
You should show examples as often as you can. When you assign the assignment, it’s good to have a few examples of what the final product should look like.
Then, as students have begun to grapple with the writing, it’s nice to have a few examples of techniques. Or even examples of how past students have managed the same struggles.
Then, at the end of the assignment, right before it’s due, it’s great to bust out some of those stellar examples again. (This might also be a good time to show some examples that did not make the cut.)
Scaffolding Technique #5: Graphic Organizers
I love me a good graphic organizer! I use them all the time for creative writing projects, but they can be created, used, and applied to pretty much any topic or project.
A graphic organizer is pretty much just what it sounds like: a way to organize ideas and thoughts visually.
When my students will be working on a writing assignment, I like to create graphic organizers that break down the writing into step-by-step processes. If possible, I’ll include tips or prompting questions on the worksheet as well.
If you’re using any kind of framework, I highly recommend turning it into a graphic organizer for students. Even if it’s just a checklist that students can use to make sure they’re covering the requirements.
I don’t know why, but even a few empty boxes seem much more accessible to struggling students than a blank notebook page.
An Example of Using Graphic Organizers Prior to Writing
With my Figurative Language Photo Writing Activity, students practice using figurative language techniques to describe various landscapes.
The resource includes graphic organizers for students to use to brainstorm sensory figurative language that they will be able to use in their final description.
Scaffolding Technique #6: Encourage Peer Discussion and Feedback
One more scaffolding strategy is maybe one of the most important: encourage students to discuss ideas.
We can teach our hearts out; we can teach until we have used every level of Bloom’s taxonomy twice. It won’t matter. Students will always learn best from their peers.
Kids learn from kids. Maybe it’s because their peers “speak their language”. Maybe it’s because their peers are less intimidating than educators? But when I’m stuck explaining a concept, having another student show or explain it can often do the trick.
During work time, I love hearing students help one another. While some other teachers would intervene to make sure students learn correctly, I love hearing student explanations of ideas.
This goes, of course, for open, opinion-based discussions as well. I love hearing students’ takes on literature that we read. Often, they’ll question or bounce ideas off of one another, and I even end up learning from them!
An Example of Incorporating Class Discussions
One of my favorite activities of the year is my The Hate U Give Discussion Activity. During the round table discussion, students talk to one another about some really BIG life questions. They are required to use examples and quotes from the book to back up their thoughts, but students really shine during this activity.
Expecting students to show their perspective and respectfully challenge others’ is one of the greatest life lessons you could possibly teach. Students open up each other’s eyes more so than I will ever be able to do.
Slowly Remove Scaffolding
Scaffolding is a great tool for writing, but ultimately it is just that: a tool.
As students begin to master certain skills, it’s ok to take scaffolding away. In fact, you should to build student independence.
As a freshman, students might need a very structured framework for a five-paragraph essay. They’ll need to almost be told what to include in each and every sentence.
But by senior year, students should be able to choose different outline styles. They might be able to choose how they approach the writing process or structure the final draft. Capable students could even be given the choice about whether or not an essay is the best way for them to show what they know!
Like real-life scaffolding, it should be temporary. A building should not rely on its scaffolding to stand up forever–neither should students.
I hope that you’ve found these scaffolding techniques helpful. Scaffolding is an important tool for differentiation and is a must in any writing curriculum.
There are so many ways to help students craft their writing: showing them a framework or writing process, giving them graphic organizers, or even just showing some great examples.
You can also help their confidence by activating prior knowledge and encourage them to help one another.
Once you start thinking about incorporating different scaffolding techniques into writing instruction, it gets easier. You’ll see opportunities everywhere to help your students craft their next masterpiece!
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