At the end of my first year of teaching, I had to decide which of my students should stay in the ELL newcomer class the following year and which ones were ready to transition to general education classrooms. In the newcomer classroom, teachers were able to provide intense language supports that weren’t feasible in the gen-ed classroom. I remember struggling with the decision for many students. I wasn’t sure if they were quite ready or not, and I didn’t want them to fail.
I will never forget when my principal told me that sometimes, in our best of intentions, we end up holding students back because we think they aren’t ready or can’t do something, rather than giving them the opportunity to try. Her words struck me to the core. Was I inadvertently holding my students back by giving them too much support?
Teachers have big hearts. We went into this business because we love children and want them to succeed. We know that our students have diverse needs and we do everything we can to scaffold those needs. But sometimes we over-scaffold and end up stifling our students’ opportunities to grow. This is especially easy to do in writing.
Writing can be hard, especially for multilingual learners (MLLs). The most common writing scaffold I see is sentence stems. Sentence stems are a go-to scaffold for MLLs and one we use a lot at my dual language school. However, when it comes to writing, using too many sentence stems can turn authentic engagement in the writing process into a fill-in-the blank activity. Too many sentence stems can rob students of practice generating their own ideas, putting their thoughts into their own words, and determining how to organize their writing. Too many sentence stems deny students the chance to put their own voice into their writing. Worst of all, too many sentence stems take away creativity and can make writing boring.
Earlier this year I sat down with the second grade team at my school to plan an integrated reading/writing nonfiction unit about bugs. Inevitably, the idea of giving students writing paper with sentence stems for them to fill in came up. That would have supported students in learning and recording facts about bugs, but we knew that it would not support their growth as informational writers. Here are some of the scaffolds we decided to use instead:
Repeated practice in the genre – In the primary grades, when students are writing shorter pieces, they have lots of opportunities to generate piece after piece of writing. This allows them to write about many topics and try on many different strategies. As they get older, writing topics often become more specific, and students spend more time working on one piece of writing. This takes away opportunities to experiment with different strategies. As the bug unit was written, students would write only one nonfiction book the entire time. We decided to have students write multiple books about different bugs during the unit to give them more opportunities to practice informational writing skills and strategies.
Teacher modeling – To launch the unit, teachers modeled the process of researching and writing about one bug in a whole-class, guided format. This experience gave students confidence as they began the research and writing process on their own topics. It also taught them academic vocabulary to support their writing related to the topic of bugs.
Scaffolded note template – Taking notes can be intimidating, especially for younger students and multilingual learners. We provided students with a scaffolded note-taking template that broke down the information they were looking for as they read. The template included picture-prompts to support comprehension.
Scaffolded writing paper – To support students with organizing their informational book, we provided them with paper that had the chapter titles at the top. We also included the same picture-prompts as the note-taking template to remind students what information belongs in each chapter. We did not put any sentence stems or prompts in the writing or drawing area intentionally.
Oral rehearsal – To provide students with the language support they needed, teachers provided time for oral rehearsal before writing. Oral rehearsal gives students the opportunity to articulate their ideas multiple times and receive feedback from their teacher or peers before writing it down on paper. MLLs can practice in the language they are most comfortable in and then decide how to say and write it in the target language, with help from their teacher or peers if needed.
Writing folder resources – Teachers provided students with two key resources that they kept in their writing folders: a personal word wall and a bank of transition words. Teachers modeled how to use these in their mini-lessons, and then every student kept them in their writing folder to refer to as needed. I have found the personal word wall to be especially helpful for older students who struggle with spelling high frequency words because it provides them a scaffold they need in a discreet way.
Emergent Reader/Writer Group – We knew a small number of students in each class would require more scaffolds than the rest of the class. These students included newcomers and students with special needs. We met with these students during independent work time in a guided writing group, researched a bug they chose as a group together, and supported them more directly as they wrote.
At the end of the unit, we were blown away by the volume and quality of the writing the students had produced. It was a reminder that students can do so much when we don’t hold them back. I will always be grateful to my principal who taught me that sometimes less is more. I hope her words help you reflect on your scaffolding practices, too!