Thursday, 29 May 2008

Scaffolding learning in the language arts

Following on from my description of the main features of Vygotsky’s educational theories, I will now relate a curriculum cycle (that is, a progression of learning activities) designed to be consistent with these theories. This cycle is described in Exploring How Texts Work by Derewianka (1990) and is taken from the first chapter, “A functional approach to language”, specifically pp 6-9.

This particular curriculum cycle demonstrates how a teacher could scaffold a student’s learning of writing skills – anything from the basics of sentence construction to the use of the features of sophisticated literary genres for a specified communication purpose. Again, my thoughts are in square brackets.

1. Preparation
~ assess the student’s strengths and weaknesses
~ determine whether basic understanding is present and/or deeper understanding of specific aspects

[Remember that according to Vygotsky, successful teaching occurs within the student’s Zone of Proximal Development and so it is important to know exactly what the student can and cannot yet do. There is no point teaching paragraph construction before simple sentence construction has been learnt, for example. Learning activities, in contrast to those activities aimed at mastering a skill, should be a challenge to the student’s present abilities.]

2. Modelling
~ student is immersed in the knowledge/skill through exposure to exemplar material
~ teacher either tells (explicitly explains) or uses Socratic questioning to reveal the details which are to be learnt

[Copywork and previewed dictation provide ample opportunities for this sort of modelling to occur. As the student examines the text that they are to replicate, the teacher should point out particular features that the student has not yet learnt.

Start with the basics: punctuation such as capital letters for beginning sentences and proper names; full stops for ending sentences; and the use of quotation marks and question marks. Point them out to the student; tell the student what they are called; explain what they are used for and how they help the reader to correctly understand the text; remind the student to include them in their written copy. Alternatively, the teacher could ask questions designed to reveal the importance of the literary feature.

It will probably help if the teacher uses the same words for the rule when referring to it later, in order to assist the student to develop effective self-talk. For example, my 5 and 4 year olds have been taught that, “A full stop marks the end of a sentence.” I recite this for them every time they copy a full stop in their copywork, later they repeat it on their own when copying sentences, later still they will internalise this rule and either mentally repeat the phrase to remind themselves independently, or move into the realm of mastery where including a full stop at the end of a sentence is done automatically.

Once basic punctuation has been mastered in this way, the student can be taught the main parts of a sentence, and then the main features of a paragraph and a simple text such as a recount or narrative. Later a student would be expected to tackle arguments and explanations, once their ZPD expands far enough.]

3. Joint construction
~ the teacher should ask questions to clarify, make suggestions, etc
~ the teacher may scribe text on behalf of the student so they can concentrate on meaning

[Oral narration provides the perfect opportunity for this sort of joint construction of written texts. The teacher can ask questions and make suggestions as they scribe the text in the student’s words.

The focus should be on areas that are within the ZPD and which have been addressed in the previous modelling of the text. In other words, if the student needs to be focussing on correct framing of complete sentences, this is what should be addressed in the teacher’s comments. The teacher should not overwhelm the student with “constructive criticism” that is beyond the child’s ability to deal with – outside of their ZPD. For example, they should not bring up use of appropriate adjectives and adverbs until the student is independently able to correctly choose and use verbs and nouns, for example.

Again, one can see that there will be a progression in narration from oral, guided narration which is completely scribed by the teacher; to oral narration with minimal prompts from the teacher which the student may copy in part or whole from the teacher’s scribed notes; to oral narration without teacher prompts which is recorded and then written by the student as dictated by the recording.

Likewise, there will be a development in the length and sophistication of the text in the student’s narrations. Young students will be narrating in a few, short and simple sentences. Their narrations will become longer and then the sentences of which the narration is made up will become longer and more complex. Later, the student will move into a ZPD where they will learn to whittle away at their previous complexities and choose to make language choices for their eloquence and power.]

4. Independent construction
~ the student writes drafts, referring to models
~ the student may also consult with the teacher for feedback with regard to editing
~ the student progresses to producing published works (obviously the level of publishing is reliant on the purpose and intended audience of the text)

[This step of development is seen when the student completes written narrations on their own. Initially, they will be narrating recounts, but a wise teacher who is keeping a close eye on the student's expanding ZPD will gradually introduce the student to different genres, with appropriate modelling and joint construction, so that their narrations are able to take the form of instructions, informative texts, explanations and arguments, along with other literary forms such as those of poetry.]


mom24 said...

This sounds a bit like what 'The Well-Trained Mind' encourages in the developing writing process (Susan Wise Bauer & Jesse Wise). Am I wrong?

From developing a rough 4-yr plan (1st -4th) for J we've been working in 1st gr on preparation, copywork (modeling?), oral narration (joint construction?) so far. We've only just begun dictation (after many months of spelling, reading, and grammar/punctuation prep).

Is this what you mean by scaffolding?

Great info! Thanks!

Sharon said...

Oh yeah, this is my "think about what you already do and see if it fits the educational theory" method of curriculum analysis! Wise & Bauers' and Ruth Beechick's ideas have influenced my teaching methods quite heavily, with a little of Charlotte Mason thrown in, although I disagree with a lot of her ideas about the nature of children and hence don't follow anything slavishly. SWB & JW, RB and CM are/were all primarily teachers, rather than theoritsts or educational researchers. Obviously, though, all of them thought about the theory behind their educational methods, and learnt more about best practice as they went on with the teaching.

Scaffolding can also be more in depth than this, and I think I will post an example or two in the near future. First I just have to write a 1000 word essay on "What caused the Reformation?" for Church History by tomorrow evening...

~ Sharon