By Liz Armstrong
As parents, family members, or mentors, we naturally coach and gradually release children to help them learn new skills. For example, we automatically use training wheels or a training bike before putting a child on a real bike. Next, we hold the back of a child’s bike seat as they pedal. Finally, we let go quietly and smile as we watch them ride alone.
It should be the same approach in the classroom. Teachers must decide how to scaffold their students, coaching them and gradually releasing them once they have mastered new skills.
This blog is inspired by one of my students, whom I will call Jessica, for privacy purposes. Jessica transferred to our school at the beginning of her first-grade year. After spending kindergarten in a bilingual classroom, Jessica had literacy knowledge in Spanish. English literacy, however, was uncharted territory for her. Our initial conversations were heavy in Spanish.
I remember asking myself, “How will I help her read in English as well as her peers?” Then I remembered that Marie Clay’s book is titled Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals...not Cookie-Cutter Lessons for All Students. I immediately changed my outlook. There is no set recipe for all readers to be taught the same way. And no students start their learning at the same place.
Another one of Clay’s books is called, By Different Paths to Common Outcomes. My common outcome was to help Jessica actively use English, and I needed to determine what scaffolds to use on her unique path. Clay’s article, “Reading, Writing, and Talking,” helped me discover Jessica’s learning recipe!
Main ingredient: language
Practice: reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English
Tools: What scaffolds did I need to help Jessica?
The first scaffold I used was reading to Jessica. I did not expect her to read in English-that would be like diving in the deep end without learning to swim. Instead, I modeled reading in English. I used books that sparked her interest. For example, she enjoyed books with funny stories and lovable recurring characters, like Hameray’s Joy Cowley Classics.
Next, we practiced talking and writing about the books we read in English. Jessica did not always have the vocabulary or grammatical knowledge in English to express the idea she wanted to say. However, she could express herself in Spanish, so we used that skill as a scaffold to figure out what she wanted to say about the book. Then I would provide support for words she did not know in English, and we would practice speaking and writing sentences about the stories we read.
With these scaffolds in place, guess what? Jessica read all of those sentences we created! She read them right after we wrote them and even days later! Do you know why? It was because they meant something to her. They were sentences related to meaningful events in her learning, genuine reactions to silly characters or events in a story we read together.
As more time passed, Jessica took over more reading and writing, needing less scaffolding. Eventually, she completed the book's initial reading and composed the writing consistently on her own. I had to give to get, create her recipe, be open to using Spanish, and provide as much support as needed from the start.
Sometimes at school, we have invisible chains of “rules.” They can feel rigid, making teachers question if they are “allowed” to help students. Stop being afraid of giving children what they need to see their growth! As educators, we must patiently provide support and scaffolding before stepping away and watching our students shine independently.
And always teach to inspire and lead with joy…
Your students will fall in love with reading Joy Cowley Classics! Featuring 36 original stories from bestselling children’s author Joy Cowley! With her most popular characters, Mrs. Wishy-Washy, Hungry Giant, and Greedy Cat, and her signature storytelling, these stories will surely be a hit in your classroom. Guided reading levels B–K. Also available in Spanish.
Liz Armstrong has been a Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la Lectura Teacher Leader for eight years. In addition to being a Teacher Leader, she is a Literacy Coach and Consultant. She has provided professional learning for other districts, presented at conferences nationwide, published blogs, adapted hundreds of books to Spanish, and leveled many children’s books for publishers. Before training to be a Teacher Leader, Liz obtained her Master's degree in Administration with licensure as Principal, Director of Instruction, and significant coursework toward Director of Special Education and Pupil Services licensure. She has been an educator since 2002 with experience as an ESL teacher, bilingual classroom teacher, bilingual literacy intervention specialist, and bilingual instructional coach. In 2011, she completed a Professional Development Certificate program with action research on how focusing on language development impacts achievement in reading and writing in various instructional settings. Language development, using data to inform instruction, and equity/advocacy for all students have been areas of emphasis in her career as an educator.