Scaffolding Students' Writing

Scaffolding is a useful metaphor for thinking about all types of instruction. In this part of your learning module, we will consider how good teachers scaffold students' learning about how to be competent and effective writers.   The work of Langer and Applebee (1986) demonstrates that scaffolding of learning about writing is a complex process which includes specific types of moves and decision-making that teachers perform, based upon formative assessments of their students.   The goal is to push students to accomplish complex and challenging writing tasks, giving them just enough support to aid achievement of proximal goals.

Though Vygotsky (1978) did not use the term, scaffolding, his concept of the zone of proximal development calls for an extensive use of scaffolding to take a student from the point at which he/she can solve problems and use cognitive tools independently to a level of problem solving and thinking that he/she can do only with the help of a more knowledgeable other, who can be either teacher or more experienced peer—or both.   An important element of scaffolding is a gradual release of responsibility to the students who are expected to internalize skills and thinking modeled and prompted by the more knowledgeable other so that they need fewer or, ideally, none of the supports they previously used in their performance and learning.   As Benko (2012/2013) reminds us, this gradual release of responsibility "is a critical—and often forgotten—aspect of scaffolding" (p. 293).  

Benko (2012/2013) cites recent research about writing instruction in advising teachers that instructional scaffolding must be varied and specific depending on the teacher's purpose for prompting students.   In particular, she suggests that scaffolding before, during, and at the end of the writing process will take on different characteristics and structures. Below is a brief summary of the scaffolding she suggests for each of these stages, followed by a diagram that she uses for an even more concise summary of what she calls the "scaffolding process" in writing instruction.

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Benko's Stages of Scaffolding

  1. Scaffolding through Initial Task Selection :   To help students to, first of all, engage in writing tasks, teachers must
    1. Ensure that the writing task is appropriately challenging for students
    2. Consider ways to make the task relevant to students, thus providing ownership of the task by students (for example, when students are to learn to write a literary analysis, teach the process using a favorite film or video game).   Whenever possible, allow students to write about what is important to them.
    3. Use more familiar and popular formats (to students) in initial assignments and then move them from these initial writing tasks to more conventional, and less familiar, essays or literary analyses that need to be learned.
  2. Scaffolding during the Writing Process : Teachers can
    1. Structure tasks in ways that students can learn skills and strategies that apply both to the writing task they are completing and to parallel tasks that they will later encounter.
    2. Use less complex formats, like the five-paragraph essay, as a base on which students can build more complex and creative structures once they master the simpler format.
    3. In giving feedback, both written and in conferences, as students write, emphasize skills to be learned rather than products to be created.
    4. Provide models and examples for the type of writing that students are aiming to accomplish.   Whenever possible, model process as well as products and use student models.
    5. Use digital tools and spaces for engaging students in helpful thinking and development of ideas.   For example, use an online role-playing site to get students to take on different viewpoints and stances to develop ideas for writing arguments and persuasive essays.
    6.   Provide students with graphic organizers to keep track of ideas and organize them for writing.
    7. Avoid focusing on isolated skills (like grammar and usage skills) that seem disconnected from the writing task at hand.
    8. Teach "mini lessons" as Nancie Atwell (1998) describes them, to address issues interrupting good writing, as the information is needed, either by an individual student, by small groups, or by the whole class.
    9. Share their own writing with students and talk about obstacles to clear communication encountered and ways that these were addressed and overcome.
  3. Teacher's stance while scaffolding the writing process.   Teachers should
    1. Be collaborative, not evaluative.
    2. Minimize students' frustration whenever possible.

Steps that teachers can take to scaffold the writing of students

Source: Benko, S. (2012-13).   Scaffolding: An ongoing process to support adolescent writing development.   Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56 (4), 291-300.