On 29 May 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers officially confirmed to have reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mount Everest. After the failure of many previous expeditions, their feat has become a legendary benchmark of human commitment and ambition.
So what has this piece of mountaineering history got to do with learning in a modern secondary setting? Well, I think that their success provides a perfect analogy for the importance of, and interplay between, the modelling and scaffolding of extended writing.
Hilary and Norgay’s success would not have been possible without the use of scaffolds: a series of basecamps, a slow acclimatisation to high altitudes, bottled oxygen, thick woollen suits and heavy wooden ice-picks all played a part in staging their ascent. Without these essential scaffolds, rudimentary by today’s standards perhaps, it is fair to assume that they would have failed completely.
Their incredible achievement has since paved the way for many successful ascents. In fact, nearly 4,000 climbers have also reached the earth’s highest point since Hilary and Norgay including, amazingly, an 80 year-old man and a blind person. Hillary and Norgay wrote the original model, a model which has both inspired and instructed all those who have followed in their footsteps. The chances of success since the 1950s have been further improved by the development of more sophisticated scaffolds: fixed ropes, lightweight aluminium axes, closed-cell foam insulation boots and high-tech communication equipment to name but a few.
Reaching the peak of Everest, therefore, is a metaphor for the successful completion of a challenging writing task. If even the most talented climbers following in Hilary and Norgay’s footsteps need the influence of models and high-tech scaffolds, is the same not true of young writers? And if the scaffolding is developed to a higher quality, then is it not true that many more will find success than just the odd maverick? Yes, not all will reach the summit, but by attempting and falling just short, do we not learn more than by playing it safe at sea-level?
My belief is that scaffolding is not about making written work easier; instead it is about quite the opposite. Our scaffolds should make the work harder, more challenging, yet also ensure that success remains a tangible possibility. So how do we design effective scaffolds that allow this to happen?
It is important to note before I share some other strategies that models and modelling are the most important scaffold. Success is much easier to imagine and conceptualise when there are concrete examples available. Indeed, Hattie and Yates ascertain that cognitive load theory research has demonstrated that presenting students with ‘worked examples’ (completed model answers) is one of the most effective means of providing guidance. Moreover, if we teach writing without models we run the risk of having to compensate with too much scaffolding so that extended writing becomes ‘painting by numbers’ or ‘filling in the gaps’. I have two key modelling strategies: 1) the use of multiple completed exemplars, and 2) the use of ‘live’, or shared writing, where students and teacher co-construct a text or part of a text. I have written about these strategies in more detail here and here.
Before considering how – or indeed, if – we will scaffold student writing, I find these questions to be useful:
- How will I ensure that scaffolds will extend and not restrict?
- How will I ensure that scaffolded resources are simple to use and understand so that they do not inadvertently create an impediment to learning?
- How will I know that the fine balance between support and challenge has been struck?
- How will I foster grit and determination in my students, yet ensure that the gap between where they are and where they need to be is not too big a challenge that they ‘give up’?
- When should the scaffolds be removed? (Because, ultimately, that is what we are aiming for.)
Below is the ‘Everest’ writing scaffold that I have developed for preparing students for extended essay writing. It is a ‘macro’ scaffold comprising of ten interweaving ‘micro’ scaffolds. Many of the strategies below can be planned in advance or improvised there-and-then as necessary.
- Upstream knowledge. Often my students struggle with writing because I have failed to ensure they have the essential knowledge and understanding they need before they begin. If they are writing, say, about Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth then they must have a detailed understanding of her character before they start. I know this sounds obvious, but too often I have found myself giving students with flimsy knowledge an over-challenging task. I am then left with two untenable options: spoon-feeding or underachievement.
- Verbal responses. Regular opportunities to verbalise ideas are crucial all the way through the build-up to the final writing piece. However, these need to be structured so that they support writing. I have written – here – about one strategy I use to scaffold writing through structured discussion. I am also now trying to be explicit about how students respond to questions in lessons. If we are commenting on a poem, for instance, I will get them to respond in full, analytical sentences: ‘I think the poet uses the word ‘emerald’ as a metaphor for how precious this place is.’ With clear modelling, explanation and visual scaffolding on the board – sentence stems and the like – this should be possible every lesson.
- Key words. These are best embedded way before the final written product is attempted. Repetition through teacher explanation and questioning, student verbal response, spelling tests and practice sentences and paragraphs is key.
- Planning. Just like the writing itself, planning needs to be modelled and scaffolded. A great way to do this – as John Tomsett explained brilliantly in this post – is to work backwards from an exemplar essay, so that students replicate the plan they imagine the writer originally worked from. From here, they can design their own plans with this model in mind. There are, however, plenty of well-trodden ways, some more scaffolded than others, to help children plan.
- Practice paragraphs and sentences. Before students write an extended piece, I like to set the challenge by having them write practice paragraphs – Hilary and Norgay would not have attempted Everest without the extensive mountaineering experience they had on smaller climbs. It is through practice writing that knowledge and understanding of subject content and written genre come together. These can be modelled first through exemplars or shared writing. This is a good stage to look at explicit grammar constructs. I am particularly in love with– and passionately so! – the sentence structures Chris Curtis has shared in his blog (here); they can be easily introduced and trialled in practice paragraphs. Students might write these paragraphs individually or, if the class are motivated, they can work in pairs (this is another great way for students to verbalise the genre they are writing in – see here). These shorter pieces are easy to peer-assess or self-assess in fine detail through simple check-lists.
So, how do we scaffold during extended writing?
- Writing frames. My aim, usually, is not to use these. I have been guilty in the past of giving students such detailed writing frames that an essay becomes an unwieldy list of prompted sentences. However, I do offer my very weak students an ordered list of sentence stems, but only after they have given it a decent go beforehand or I am unconvinced by the quality they have produced without a scaffold.
- Procedural check-lists. These help keep students on track as they write. Again, we have to be judicious about how much we use them and with whom:
Have you used a topic sentence?
Have you used an embedded quotation?
Have you chosen a word/phrase from the quotation to analyse?
Have you linked your analysis to the play’s context?
Have you made a link back to the original question?
- Time. I have written before – here – about the importance of slowing writing down rather than speeding it up. Students need time to work through their difficulties; learning, as cognitive science makes clear, is necessarily slow and difficult.
And after writing?
- Response to marking. Dedicated time for editing and improvement in response to teacher marking is vital. See my DIRT post here.
- Redrafting. This provides the perfect opportunity for students to start again. They may have failed to reach the summit in the first attempt, but they will certainly be more prepared for their second attempt. By withholding the opportunity to write a second draft are we sending the subliminal message that this is it, you cannot get any better?
Naturally, it is almost impossible to include all of the above stages in every unit or cycle of work. Likewise, there are many other useful scaffolding strategies I have not had room to include. As with any teaching and learning strategy, we need to take from it what is useful to us and the students we teach.
Realistically of course, many students will struggle to reach the summit and will fall short. Frustratingly, we also know that many will perform well with scaffolds in place, but will seem to have forgotten it all next time they put pen to paper. Some educators will argue that students learn more through more struggling and less scaffolding, but my question is slightly different: can we not have both? I will, however, concede that it is imperative that students also get accustomed to regularly writing without scaffolds as this is how they are ultimately assessed at GCSE.
To me, however, scaffolding challenge is a vital component to the teaching of writing. Most kids can produce two pages of writing without much struggle, but very few can produce two pages of excellent writing.
Scaffolds do not have to ‘dumb down’; in fact, they can provide quite the opposite.