Scaffolding literacy

Some of my colleagues may remember my raving about an Australian paper I read last year called “Systemic Functional Linguistics,” by Mary Macken-Horarik and Misty Adoniou about Scaffolding Literacy. Some of the key points were that we need to make all input comprehensible, and that we would make much greater gains with children if they were connecting to appropriate, authentic texts. (That was of course music to my TPRS ears.) Well, today I got to hear these authors present, and I do believe that the TPRS world needs to join up with the Literacy Scaffolding Literacy world. The gains that children made in ESL circles were impressive, and I have just now walked through the process with my adults to absolutely rave reviews. (OT comment: they showed a video of an Aborigine girl who was struggling as a 5th grader to read a simple text, having had no success with the phonics system her school had been using. The school turned on to this system of teaching reading, and two years later, she read a very complex text without a hint of difficulty. I almost wept. The presenters said that usually when teachers see the before/after videos of students, they buy in immediately. Her statement reminded me of Susie’s saying almost the same thing about why she shows videos of students speaking and samples of student work.)

There’s no way to reduce an eight-hour day of information (which was even then reduced because ordinarily they teach it over the course of a semester–in an on-line course, by the way) into a blog post that I’m limiting to ten minutes.

Having said that, here goes.

The teacher has in advance decided on some aspect of storytelling to emphasize–it could be the setting, the complication, the communication, or so on.

Tell the kids the story of the text, pointing up new vocabulary as it comes up, with visuals, in the same way you might tell a story on kindergarten day, not reading it but using all the tricks of storytelling that you do when you’re telling a story to your own child–just don’t read. Pay special attention to the piece that you want the kids to pick up on. (In the ESL classes or regular TL classes, this is usually an aspect of writing/reading, so I today I chose the “fascinating” aspects of grammar that we’re working on. That might not quite be kosher.) Then, when you’re sure that you’ve told that story in a compelling, comprehensible fashion, read the story to the kids (and/or let them pick up the texts, and read those). At this point, or earlier, you can use visuals, actors, pictures, or whatever works to help the kids see the movie of the text.

Then after you’ve read together, you tell the kids that you are going to share your favorite sentence with them and explain why you like it so much. You’ve picked a rich sentence that demonstrates whatever you’re wanting them to get out of the text. They have a copy in front of them, and they go through it with you while you explain the chunks and have them underline bits and circle other pieces based on your reasoning. (Today in our workshop, we underlined sections with the teacher as she discussed which parts were answering which questions, and circled the key structures that she’d introduced.)

Mary said that part of why this strategy is successful is that students keep getting the same comprehensible input over and over “the same but different.”

The next part of the lesson, you have the sentence on sentence strips in a pocket holder (gotta get one of those…have been meaning to, and have more reason now) and you end up cutting up your sentence into pieces as you discuss what each word or phrase brings to the meaning. All the grammar is in terms of meaning, even punctuation. No rules, just meaning. It’s so TPRS-friendly! I could see discussing what questions pieces answer. The presenter did say, “Which chunk of the sentence shows where the dog was?” as she pointed to that chunk. By now, the kids do understand the chunk perfectly… While you’re doing this, you can also show them variations on the way the sentence is put together, and possibly explain how different word order would change meaning. The kids are the ones cutting the pieces so that they can be rearranged, and they are the ones who come up and physically move them around (I could see this would work really well on a Smartboard). Even we teachers wanted to be able to do the cutting and the moving! And like when a speaker of a language hears a TPRS story, even though the sentence was from a children’s book and we all understood it, we were all engaged and wanting to take part in the discussion.

Then in the end, we were presented with the sentence in large chunks and a chance to model our own sentences after the example, having changed the “field” (the setting, characters, etc–teachers my age might remember sentence modeling from the old days, but this was in context). We saw some student work and noted the gains that kids made in only a few months.

I didn’t ask my parents to write tonight, but I did get as far as rearranging the sentence parts, cutting off morphemes and showing what would happen if we changed bits. They loved it. Oh…and when they’ve read this sentence and heard it about fifty times already because of the different activities, you can do Ben’s “repeat in a chorus.” Guess what…my adults had perfect pronunciation, and they knew the sentence by heart already (I can still remember the sentence from today’s workshop). I can see how the modeling would work.

Gotta go. A video of today’s session will be available this fall on our district “ASD-Tube,” and there are workshops coming up in DC and in San Francisco that will be similar, even if they aren’t the wonderful Mary and Misty. I think that this strategy has enormous application for at least our advanced language classes.

10 responses to “Scaffolding literacy

  1. Michele,

    When you say you’ve “got to get” a story strip, what do you mean? Is there a special product or something?


    • There’s a cloth-and-plastic creation made to hold paper sentence strips in the front of an elementary classroom. You’ve probably seen them if you’ve visited the lower grades. The one the presenters used had more “lines” for the sentence strips. I’m going to ask our school supply folks whether we can get them.


  2. Ok, correct me where I’m wrong but a quick overview of this process would look like this:

    1. For any given text, choose some focus of storytelling in advance (setting, problem, characterization, etc.)
    2. Compellingly tell the story in the role of a storyteller: use visuals, props, actors, change in voice, etc. while emphasizing your previously chosen focus
    3. Then read the actual text or have students read it, enhancing it as you go with the visualization aids you used in the last step
    4. Then share your favorite sentence in the text and tell students why you like it so much. Students have paper copy and mark up along with you as you emphasize what you like about it.
    5. Something about story strips (?). Students cut up the sentence you chose into specific parts, which you then manipulate, rearrange, discuss meaning with, etc.
    6. Then students write up their own sentence based on the target sentence in which they substitute elements in the original sentence (subjects, objects, verbs, etc.) with ones of their own, in a mad-libs style.

    I like how this method moves from the general to the specific, whereas I usually tend to move in the other direction (read the text and then spin it out and apply it wherever I can). This parks the meaning upfront for everybody so nobody feels dumb that they didn’t get it, but then only after that hurdle is over do you look at specific elements to play with. I especially like the play element because you start with modeling the play by letting your geek out of the box, and then encouraging them to do likewise.


  3. Here is a detailed example of this process. Think I’ll spend the rest of the week reading it thoroughly. There is important stuff here. This movement comes out of the old RR (Reading Recovery) movement from New Zealand if I am not mistaken. Thank you for sharing your experience, Michele.


    • Dear Jody,

      This is EXACTLY it…interesting that they told us that Accellerated Learning was the other name; I guess the authors of this page left the university where the program was developed, and that original university claimed copyright of the name.

      Thank you for going and finding it–I can tell that it’s going to be a valuable resource for me.


  4. The presenters called it the hourglass approach from reading into writing. You get ever narrower as you move through the reading, going from very broad to very narrow, and then do the same thing with the writing.

    I did the telling and acting out with two different groups today (an English op-ed piece and part of the first chapter of our new novel in Russian), then read it to them, re-reviewing vocabulary words, then read with them. I forgot to read it to them in English today, and then missed the “independent reading” step there, but will get to that tomorrow in both classes.

    The kids today were really not bored at all by the telling, and the reading, and the re-reading. I still had my structures up on the board, which meant that I was slowing every time I got to them so that I could point, and I clarified a bunch with the English kids in advance. I forgot to establish the field with the Russian group, so one kid finally asked where in the world we were! OOPS! The Australian term “field” is something analogous to the setting, but it’s described as “the complete world” of the piece.

    I think this does indeed come out of RR from New Zealand; I’ll have to ask the visitors tomorrow, because . . . they are coming to observe me YIKES!!!

    Nathan, there are a couple of steps missing there, not the least that then the kids do a more complete write, using the sentence that they’ve developed. I guess I would do a fast write in which I would encourage the kids to tell the rest of the story. I think there’s also a spelling piece–they’re spelling the words that they’ve been looking at. Hope I have time to ask the presenters to do that with me.

    The big problem that I can see is that if a kid has missed any part of this process, she’s really going to be hanging out to dry, since she’ll have missed critical bits of understanding.


    • Nathan, what I forgot to say is that you nailed it when you said “general to specific.” This stuff fills in holes that I sensed I had but couldn’t identify.

      And about spelling, Misty today said she asks teachers why they would need spelling tests, if the kids are writing for them, using the vocabulary–wouldn’t those mistakes show up in the writing? Why test them? It’s kind of like what Scott said to us about testing vocabulary and grammar.

      It seems to me that there is a similar philosophy of teaching underpinning both SL and TPRS.


  5. I’m so glad to hear that it will be on ASD Tube! Yippee!!! Thank you for taking the time to write all of this out, and I look forward to seeing the entire session!


    • Martina,
      You can go to ASDTube, and search for Scaffolding Literacy. There are two sessions each for elementary and secondary. It’s powerful stuff.

      I’m sorry that no one outside Anchorage (and outside the closed system, even) can see these videos. Get your TESOL folks to invite Mary and Misty to your school and you too can see a new world of literacy instruction!


  6. Here’s a great article that Jody posted on the yahoo site. I hadn’t seen it!


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