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November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Tools for Teaching Diverse Learners / Using Scaffolding to Teach Writing

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Without question, the ethnic, economic, and cognitive makeup of typical classrooms is becoming increasingly diverse. That increasing diversity, in turn, can severely challenge teachers, whose job is already difficult. While many of the fads that come and go in education are, in fact, effective for someone, most teachers need tools that result in at least some level of effectiveness for the greatest number of students possible.

Instructional Strategies
Our intent in this column is to identify strategies and tools that specifically foster the growth of students with widely different performance levels. In this issue, we begin with an example of using “scaffolding.”
Mr. Friedman, an accomplished, conscientious 5th grade teacher, prides himself in his ability to find “keys to learning” for his students. For that reason, he welcomes mainstreamed students into his classroom. Kenyada is one such student who has been struggling with writing. Overall, Freidman has been pleased with his writing program, which emphasizes writing as a process and authentic writing experiences. In addition, Friedman's program integrates reading and writing.
But Kenyada continues to fail. He can brainstorm well enough, but then seems entirely unable to write coherently. In the “old” writing curriculum, in which Friedman typically assigned “summer vacation” types of papers, Kenyada sat at his desk, unable to get started. Now, in the new process writing curriculum, Kenyada has the same difficulty: he sits, he contemplates, and then, inevitably, he begins to cause trouble.
Friedman believes he has tried just about everything with Kenyada. When Kenyada works cooperatively with other students, he stays more involved, but some of those students invariably assume the responsibility for organizing ideas, essentially robbing Kenyada of the opportunity to become an independent writer. Friedman has also been thoughtful about assignments: asking Kenyada to write about his favorite sport, baseball; his personal experiences; and his colorful cultural background. In addition, Friedman has thoroughly convinced Kenyada that he need not attend to writing mechanics as he tries to organize and draft his thoughts. After all, the traditional workbooks, full of endless grammar drills, have largely been discounted as a way of improving any student's writing. But none of Friedman's efforts has significantly changed Kenyada's performance.

Finding the Right Tool

Friedman inadvertently may have become overzealous about purging “instructional materials” from his writing curriculum. Kenyada might very well benefit from the use of instructional aids, devices that help him organize an array of ideas for some specific rhetorical purpose. Such devices are variously referred to as “procedural facilitators” (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1982) or “scaffolds.” A “Plan Think Sheet” (Figure 1), for example, could prompt Kenyada to focus better upon his audience and purpose for writing, and do some preliminary organization of his ideas (Raphael and Englert 1990). Such a facilitating tool would be most effective if Friedman demonstrated and offered frequent feedback on its use. Kenyada might also benefit from demonstrations by other students.

Figure 1. Plan Think Sheet

Your name:__________________ Topic:___________________________

Who do you think would be interested in reading your paper?

Why would someone be interested in this topic?

Jot down everything about this topic that you can think of.

Try to put those ideas into groups.

__________ __________ __________

__________ __________ __________

__________ __________ __________

__________ __________ __________


Another type of Think Sheet could help Kenyada further organize his ideas for his writing purpose. If he were writing an argument, for example, such a tool could prompt him to not only list his arguments, but also to anticipate counter arguments. Other organizational Think Sheets might include explanation, compare and contrast, and story text structures.
Think Sheets and cooperative learning groups are both support systems that, when used judiciously, can considerably reduce the cognitive burden inherent in moving from random ideas to a purposeful and effectively structured draft. As the main structure becomes more self-sufficient, the scaffolding is gradually dismantled.
  • study of both good and poor examples of a given text structure (such as a story, an explanation, an argument);
  • teacher demonstrations of the writing process, including demonstrations of the use of different types of Think Sheets;
  • frequent writing opportunities;
  • substantial guidance from teachers.
The role of the teacher is of obvious critical importance in writing instruction. Instructional tools, however, can be of enormous potential usefulness to teachers and to many struggling students like Kenyada—as well as many others at different performance levels.
References

Bereiter, C., and M. Scardamalia. (1982). “From Conversation To Compositions: The Role of Instruction in a Developmental Process.” In Advances in Instructional Psychology, Vol. 2, edited by R. Glaser. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Raphael, T.E., and C. C. Englert. (1990). “Writing and Reading: Partners in Constucting Meaning.” The Reading Teacher 46, 6: 388–400.

Robert C. Dixon has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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