Scaffolding extended writing; a step-by- step process

Standard

You may hear people say ‘teach to the top and scaffold up’ but what does this mean? This blog will look at how I do this with extended writing of a particular type. If you are teaching a mixed attainment group you need to ensure that those that may struggle with writing or applying knowledge in extended writing can be as successful as those that are fluent.

This process cannot be completed in one lesson or last minute before it is needed e.g. two weeks before an exam. It is a long term learning process and needs to be given significant time to each step.

Here is an example of how I’m developing this with AQA GCSE Religious studies evaluations questions.

Question types

I’ve chosen to focus on the longest, high mark question on our paper. It’s classed as an evaluation question although the exam board’s definition of what is accepted as evaluation is not the same as mine!

  • Choose the question type/command word that you want to focus on

Timing

We have a three year GCSE so we leave this question until year 10. This is so that they have developed confidence in their knowledge and other questions in year 9. They don’t need to do everything at once but they do need to do it early enough to be able to work in to long term memory. You’ve probably seen how subject knowledge is used for retrieval however it is important that we do the same with these ‘skills’ or knowledge of how to complete exam questions. Leaving this until the mocks in year 11 isn’t advised.

  • Think when it is best to introduce the different types of question

Know what makes a good answer

In this case I am using an exam question however knowing what makes a ‘good’ answer goes beyond a mark scheme. In some ways you need to decide a style of answer that you want students to produce that fulfils the mark scheme but gives students a model style or structure to follow.

I don’t give them a mark scheme. They are often a complex set of subjective, wordy criteria that in themselves would require a while to explain. Tell them what the examiner is looking for using language and examples that they will understand. Otherwise it is unnecessary cognitive overload.

Some people use mnemonics to support students in doing teaching a structure e.g. FARMER, ABCD, SONIC etc This has its pros and cons. You need to decide what is best for your students. It is important to remember that at the beginning stage it is better to over support and take it away than to under support. However, if you use a set structure it should allow high attaining students not to be limited and to be able to go beyond the structure.

In the past I have trialled using additional structures however we’ve now just used the bullet points in the question as a guide.

  • Read the mark scheme (if GCSE/A Level) so you know what is expected
  • Decide on the style/structure you will present

Modelling

The whole process is about modelling through several steps that go on over a long period of time. Modelling then merges into practice through scaffolding.

Reduce cognitive load (Use a nonsense question)

We start by modelling an evaluation question with a nonsense question. This will not be appropriate or necessary for some students/schools. Some teachers that teach in some schools may not understand why you would do this. You know your students. We use it because it takes aware the cognitive load of using subject content at the same time as exploring what an evaluation question requires.

We use an example of comparing chocolate bars because they all have the prior knowledge so don’t have to worry about this. It gives them confidence as they almost forget what they are doing; a complex evaluation. Anything we can do along the way to make it seem ‘easy’ is worthwhile in my opinion but without reducing the task of what they have to do.

In this case, it is also a good way of differentiating between their opinion and an analysis of the chocolate bars. Whilst the exam board have said that their opinion is acceptable I don’t think that evaluation is their opinion of the topic, its their analysis of the arguments used. I think that this will prepare them much better for A level than just saying their opinion is enough.

  • Consider how you can reduce cognitive load during modelling

Start with an easy question

When looking at the first ‘real’ example of a question, make sure that is an easy question in terms of the phrasing. Choose a topic that they have just done and you know they’ve all understood. As above this ensures their thinking is about the application and writing process and not about knowing the content, reducing cognitive load.

  • What would be an ‘easy’ question to start with?

Planning – Annotate the question

I begin with looking at the question with the students. We annotate the keywords with notes & linked ideas using prior knowledge and highlight the important phrase/s which are at the heart of what the question is asking. I model this on my visualiser and they copy.

The whole time I am narrating my thoughts with them (metacognitive talk).

This is part of the planning process that I want them to do every time they answer an evaluation question.

  • How can you teach students to annotate the question that will help them process what is needed?

Share a good example

Once we’ve planned the answer together I explain how this would be used to write a full answer. I write a simple model answer. We then read together and use highlighters to pick out the different aspects of the answer that fulfil the requirements. I use phrases like ‘what have I done in this paragraph?’ What connectives have I used?’ and ‘What is this sentence an example of?’ to help them see that I have put in everything we said is needed in a good answer.

If the question has extra details as our 12 mark does on what is expected, this can be used a tick list of what they can see in the answer and where.

Using good examples can carry on throughout the process. Either teacher or student written. Especially focusing on common errors/omissions.

First time alone……

So they now know what the question type means, what it is asking them, how to read the question, how to plan, how to structure and what a good one looks like. It’s now time for them to have a go at writing one themselves. I would not get them to do all these things by themselves in the first case. We do the following together which is the scaffolding:

  • Read and annotate the question
  • Allow them to use all their notes (subject content AND the notes they’ve made on how to answer the question including the model answer)

In this case I’m getting them to write an answer by themselves with maximum support. I have reduced the cognitive load of the process down to one aspect of the task. I want to see if they’ve understood how to transfer the planning into a structured answer. Nothing else.

The first time they write I give them all as much time as they need. I want to see that they can do the writing not that they can write quickly in this first instance. Timing comes later.

Don’t use marks or grades

Those of you that know me know that I don’t think we should use marks and grades on student work. I think during this process it is even more vital that we don’t. It is a huge challenge for some students to get into this process; the psychological effects of using marks/grades can potentially undo all the work of developing confidence.

Instead, feedback using the exact same criteria that you taught them at the start that are included in a good answer.

For feedback we give whole class feedback and use a simple tick sticker for what they need to do to improve.

They then improve their work.

They can then have this improved answer in front of them the next time they write an answer to check they complete the things they missed last time.

Praise & develop confidence

It’s so important that along the way you praise students for including the things that they’ve done well. This is why marks are unhelpful. Praising a student for getting ‘8’ is nonsense. Instead, ‘well done for annotating your question and using the bullet points as a tick list’ is promoting the skills you want them to develop.

Metacognitive talk

This is what I have been focusing on with my coach this year. We are both looking at how the EEF Metacognition report can help us with preparing students for writing extended answers.

We found that we both do much of what it says anyway. For example, explaining our thinking whilst annotating or discussing what makes the answer a good one. But one particular aspect that I know I need to develop is pupil-pupil talk.

To try this out in this context, I tried the following. On the practice question when I first got students to plan and annotate by themselves I gave them a few minutes to do this by themselves. I then asked them to discuss with their partner what they’d annotated and what they were going to use as their ‘different view’. I couldn’t circulate during this however I tried to listen in. In non-COVID times it is the perfect time to move towards certain students to hear what they discuss. If needed you can prompt and ask additional questions to help their thinking.

I plan on using pupil-pupil talk more in this process including getting them to talk about what they’ve done and why etc

Scaffolds

So in extended writing, for most subjects we can use these scaffolds:

  • Using notes for subject knowledge
  • Having a model answer (different topic) in front of them
  • Having one of their previous answers in front of them to remind them of things they forgot last time
  • A structure sheet or writing frame using simple section prompts
  • Going through the question & knowledge requirements together at the start
  • Going through the structure together at the start
  • Timing – allowing as much time as needed vs set timing
  • Metacognitive talk – teacher-pupil, pupil-pupil

These are the things that you might start with, depending on your students, and gradually take away. If you have a mixed attainment group you can make the use of notes/model answer/writing frame optional for a few of the practices. You need to be responsive to your students’ needs on this.

To me these are ‘differentiation’.

Extending thinking…..

Whilst scaffolding supports students to access writing a good answer, you may teach students that can go beyond a standard structure. To me, this is also ‘differentiation’.

Show answer variations

There are many ways to answer the same question. With fluent writers or high attainers you can show them how there are several ways to approach a question, whether that be through selection and analysis of subject content or indeed structure. Whilst our simple format ensures that students can access full marks in the exam, it may not be the most sophisticated of ways of arguing. More able students will be able to write in more of a debate style presenting arguments and counter arguments more fluidly.

They may also be extend their use of language. We use a simple ‘strong’ ‘weak’ phrasing in the initial stages but going through possible variants ensures that those that can process can use to make their writing more fluent.

Discuss possible questions along the way

When you teach new topics, point out how the content my be used in the specific type of question. ‘This could be a 12 mark question on this topic’. It reminds them of how the content could be assessed in this question format. As they develop confidence you can as them ‘what might be a 12 mark question on this topic?’.

Practice, practice, practice

So, the process does not stop after the first step. Each time you get the students to complete this type of question take some scaffolding away or give optionality. You can also make the questions more complex.

Students don’t always have to plan and write a whole answer. You can get them to practise one part of the process. Sometimes I get students to just annotate and plan their answer without writing the answer.

From introduction of the questions to the first time they complete an answer fully independently may be several months In fact for us it will probably be their year 10 mock exam in March. Some might have chosen to be independent by then but others may still be using prompts.

So teaching to the ‘top’ here means that I teach them all ‘how’ to get full marks on a 12 mark answer. It doesn’t mean that they will but they all have the knowledge of what it means.

Here are the steps and how they link to Rosenshine’s principles of instruction and the EEF metacognition report.

StepRosenshine’s principles of instructionEEF Metacognition
Use an easy questionLimit the amount of material students receive at one time.
Obtain a high success rate
the
strategies are mostly applied
in relation to specific content
and tasks, and are therefore
best taught this way
Planning/annotatingGive clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
Think aloud and model steps
A series of steps—beginning
with activating prior
knowledge and leading
to independent practice
before ending in structured
reflection
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Share a good exampleThink aloud and model steps
Provide models of worked-out problems
Modelling by the teacher is
a cornerstone of effective
teaching; revealing the
thought processes
of an expert learner
helps to develop pupils’
metacognitive skills.
Don’t use marks/gradesProvide systematic feedback and correction
Praise & develop confidenceObtain a high success rate
Metacognitive talkThink aloud and model steps
Ask students to explain what they have learned.
Teachers should support
pupils to plan, monitor, and
evaluate their learning
Promote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
ScaffoldsGuide students as they begin to practise.

Obtain a high success rate
Set an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Extending thinkingSet an appropriate level
of challenge to develop
pupils’ self-regulation
and metacognition
Discuss possible questions along the wayProvide models of worked-out problemsPromote and develop
metacognitive talk in
the classroom
PracticePresent new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
Monitor students when they begin independent practice
Provide a high level of active practice for all students (particularly those struggling to acquire the skill being taught).
Prepare students for independent practice
Explicitly teach pupils
how to organise and
effectively manage their
learning independently
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Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary

Standard

“Find the solution”

“Start your argument…..”

“Here is a theory……”

“What is a cell?”

What do these teacher phrases have in common?

They all have different meanings depending on the context, domain or the subject that the student is studying. Students, particularly at secondary school, will be faced with a huge amount of new vocabulary where they may already know a meaning however are unaware that it has another or multiple other meanings when used within a particular subject or discipline.

This blog is some musings on what this might mean for teachers. I’m not expert on this just a teacher sharing some thoughts and working some things out.

Disciplinary discourse

We want our students to think and communicate effectively within our discipline . In science we want them to think, talk and write like a scientist. Or in history, to think, talk and write like a historian.

But what does this mean and how can we teach it?

This blog will look specifically at language. Using language and subject specific vocabulary is part of disciplinary discourse and ‘making meaning’ within a subject.

An example based on science but can be applied to all subjects.
Linder, Cedric. (2013). Disciplinary discourse, representation, and appresentation in the teaching and learning of science. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013. 1. 43-49.

Each subject or discipline has its own rules and ‘language games’ (cf Wittgenstein 1958) that are played within it. In simple terms, students need to learn the ‘rules of the game’ that they’re currently playing and that these rules may differ when they work in different subjects. We need to be aware of these and be explicit about them with our students. This includes the vocabulary used within the discipline. Disciplinary literacy is a crucial part of their understanding of a subject.

The range of disciplines we initiate students into can be a cognitive challenge to our students, especially coming to secondary school having 10 different teachers speaking 10 different ‘languages’. This is a kind of disciplinary ‘code-switching’. They need to ‘code-switch’ between the language they use in each lesson and get their heads into the discipline they’re in. So what can we do to initiate and support them into the disciplinary discourse of our subject?

Know our disciplinary/subject examples

The problem in some cases is that subject specialists may know their vocabulary but may not appreciate that the same word means something different in another subject.

I asked Twitter for examples in other subjects and was overwhelmed with responses from every subject.

Here are some common examples for different subjects:

SubjectExample
Artmedia, tone
MFLmasculine, feminine
Sciencelaw, theory
Mathssolution, factor, translate
REargument, theory
Historysource, period, primary
Geography source, place
Computing/ITcell, redundancy
Dramawings, projection
Design Technologybias, volume
Businesscapital
Musictexture
Sociologysocialising, agency
Psychology random, affect
Economicsscarcity, capital
Englishtext, play, voice

See the thread here:

This thread also had some great discussion around some of the vocabulary used in different subjects
Temporary definitions

I was having a discussion with a trainee recently about giving students subject specific vocabulary and how the definition that they had learnt at university level was probably not going to work with year 7. So whilst it is important for us to use disciplinary vocabulary, it is also important that it is used contextually and is appropriate for students to understand it at the level that is needed for their current level of study. Roy Watson-Davis calls this ‘access language’. Sometimes we need to simplify things for younger students that might not actually be 100% accurate for high level study. I don’t think this is an issue. We can be really clear to students on this “I’m going to tell you a definition of X that I have simplified. If you go on to study this further you will learn a more complex definition”

Knowledge then understanding or understanding then knowing?

simple exposure to disciplinary discourse is not enough for students to experience disciplinary ways of knowing; students need practice in using disciplinary discourse to make meaning for themselves…..” p21 Airey and Linder (2009)

Knowing the vocabulary does not necessarily lead to true understanding or full engagement in disciplinary discourse. Students can use vocabulary fluently but still not have a complex understanding of how it works and links to other concepts (‘discourse imitation’). A bit like me and some of the concepts in this blog! Airey and Linder (2009) call these ‘learning slogans’ (from DiSessa)

In my subject at GCSE we get students to essentially rote learn a set of definitions before we teach them. So when we then teach the concepts they already have a ‘instant’ definition that they can ‘pin’ their new understanding to. Anecdotally, I think that this is the best way for our students to learn the new vocabulary. I think it reduces the cognitive load when teaching a new concept. They will make a connections between the words they’ve learnt as the definition and the deeper meaning of the word. Airey and Linder (2009)call this an “imitation-revelation learning trajectory”..

Students should be expected to initially make “fuzzy” meaning—that is their discourse will initially be a poor imitation of disciplinary discourse, but, with appropriate guidance, gradually this will spiral towards something closer to the discourse of the discipline (they achieve discursive fluency

Be explicit

We should openly tell students that a word has multiple meanings. It may be useful to start with any meaning they already have. Possibly compare multi-disciplinary meanings if you’re confident in alternative meanings. Either give them or get them to write clear definitions.

Use etymology

Using etymology where possible may help. If students understand the root of a word they may then be able to see how there are varying definitions. For example, the term ‘cell’ used in science and computing, is from from Old French celle or Latin cella, meaning ‘storeroom or chamber’. If students know this foundation meaning they can see how it relates to the specific disciplinary example.

Why bother?

If students understand that a discipline has its own vocabulary and discourse it will help them to understand the epistemological similarities and differences between subjects; it helps them understand ‘how things work’.

Using this vocabulary promotes discursive fluency. We want students to be literate in our subject. This means using disciplinary language confidently. Gradually learning disciplinary vocabulary allows a students to build up their knowledge and in turn they should be able to discuss the knowledge more fluently. They become literate in the subject’s discourse and can hold a relatively complex discussion using this vocabulary and understanding what someone else means when they use it. The knowledge and use of this domain specific vocabulary becomes a foundation for their learning.

Using disciplinary vocabulary promotes the academic nature of study. If we avoid using it because we feel it is too challenging or even boring, we aren’t presenting a subject in its true light. Teachers’ jobs are to take an academic discipline and make it as accessible but challenging as possible for students. We’re not expecting them to be university level academics in year 7 but introducing them to this discourse makes them part of the discipline from early on.

There’s also no space in this blog but we should also be aware of how our subject’s disciplinary discourse affects how we want students to write and present information. Another blog.

Questions for teachers

  • Do we know which words in our subject have multi-disciplinary meanings?
  • How do we introduce these words to students?
  • How do we model and repeat use of these words?
  • What opportunities do we give for students to practise using disciplinary vocabulary in a subject?
  • How do we ensure that all colleagues within a subject area use the same definitions and consider effective processes for introducing them?