Composition writing has always been a very demanding task for both students and teachers. Our professional experience comes to agree with what has already been reported that poor writers and students with Learning Disabilities (LDs) exhibit weakness in sequencing their ideas (Hess, Wheldall, 1999).
These students lack the ability of organizing their thoughts. No matter how many models, plans or useful vocabulary are these students provided with, the difficulty seems to be here to stay resulting to disappointment and frustration for both students and teachers.
Some students need a more detailed guidance, a step-by-step strategy towards effective writing. At this point, teachers should resort to “instructional scaffolding” which is clearly described as:
“the assistance teachers provide for their students to help them accomplish a task they would not have been able to solve on their own, so that they will eventually be enabled to complete such tasks alone”
(Mercer, 1994, p. 97 in Sticher, 2010).
First praised by Vygotsky’s learning theories, the implementation of this strategy requires teachers to offer temporary guidance which is related to the curriculum and aims to the expansion of the knowledge already acquired by the student (Sticher, 2010).
By Vasiliki Lismani, EFL Teacher, Bed., MA (Special Education)
Of all the writing genres that EFL students are expected to produce, narrative stories might be one of the most demanding because students are asked to think of characters, events, parts of the plot with their inner – relationships and results. However, students with learning disabilities and poor students may lack a story scheme (Montague, Maddux, & Dereshiwsky, 1990 in: Medina, 2006 in: Schumm, 2006) which could include and support all these details and in this case scaffolding can embrace them (even the average ones) to comprehend the principles which govern narrative story writing.
Studies have shown that poor writers can achieve better performance if presented planning and revising strategies (Graham & Harris, 2003 in Westwood, 2004)). In this case, implementing instructional scaffolding is more than an imperative.
My “scaffolding lesson plan” is divided into the following stages:
• to make students familiar with the nature of the writing task they will be asked to produce. Depending on their level, students might have never written a narration before. Nevertheless, even upper level students are probably in need to recall the general characteristics of the specific genre: a narration tells a story, with an interesting plot which is given more often than not in chronological order, in a specific setting comprising dialogues, sensory images, details, and characterizations (Webster’s New World Student Writing Handbook).
• to enhance students with difficulties understanding the sequence of events and organizing thoughts on paper.
Material: a sample narration
step 1: the teacher explains what the task is about (writing a story); a sample of a narration is read; the teacher makes sure that all students understand the story and explains unknown words.
step 2: students are asked to notice that the narration always has a title and is divided into paragraphs; they are asked to identify the following information in the narration and then complete a table putting the information under the correct heading (paragraph 1, paragraph 2 etc):
step 3: students are asked to answer the following questions based on the sample narration (now, it is easier because they know exactly where to look for each piece of information):
• who with?
• what happened before the main event?
• what the main event was about?
• what happened afterwards / in the end?
• how did the main character (s) feel?
step 4: students must focus on the chronological organization of the events. The teacher must draw their attention to the use of specific adverbs that indicate the sequence of the events in the sample narration (first, then, next, after that, in the end etc.).
step 5: the teacher must explain that not only the correct adverbs but the use of appropriate tenses (in this case, all past tenses) also indicates the chronological sequence and the time inner relation of the events
step 6: according to their level, students should understand that besides time sequence, there are more correlations among the elements of the plot of a story and certain linking words / phrases facilitate them (eg. contrast: but, although, however, etc., result – consequence: so…that, such…that, as a result, etc., cause – result: because (of), as, etc., emphasis: in fact, to tell you the true). They are encouraged to spot as many of these elements as they can in the sample narration and study their function and how they make the narration ‘flow’.
step 7: in case of more advanced students, teachers should explain how the sentences vary and different structures are used alternatively (eg. direct / indirect speech) to make a story more appealing to their reader.
Objective: to make students write their own narration.
Material: pre - writing plan
Strategy: by the end of the first stage, students are expected to have understood what they are dealing with in this particular task. Remember that LDs and poor students face difficulties sequencing, so they will probably avoid making a pre - writing plan. Offering one in advance will relieve the burden.
At this point, they are encouraged to write their own narration following some steps:
Step 1: take a few minutes to think of an interesting situation / event in which they have been personally involved. Young students usually love fictional stories so they might come up with ideas about aliens or ghosts!!!
Step 2: plan the details and arrange them in chronological order in the providing plan.Step 3: as soon as the first two steps are completed, your students are ready to write their own story.
Objective: revising and proof-reading
Material: a check list
Strategy: last but not least, explain tthat they should always reflect on the sample writing and the pre – writing plan. Make sure that they have followed most of the elements taught in.
Stage 1. They will probably find it difficult to revise their writing all by themselves as they will “get lost” between all the points they should check. A check list will organise the revising process and make it more meaningful to them.
To sum up, the aforementioned procedure may seem to be laborious and time wasting but soon the results will reward you. However, even when you think that there is nothing more to explain and that you have covered all points relevant to writing, bear in mind the following truth: a general demand to an EFL class is to have pupils being able to think in English effectively while being in the process of learning the language which is very demanding and challenging (Villalobos, 2011).
Unlike L1 writing, students of EFL learn new grammatical structures while being simultaneously asked to create productive writing exploiting the newly acquired knowledge. As a result, EFL learners have difficulties with their productive writing tasks because they do not have the time to assimilate the new knowledge and put it in their writing in a way that would convey their ideas effectively (ibid).
In other words, you should not get disappointed if your students do not reach expected result at once and if you do, try not to show it! Always praise their effort and show appreciation to the things they have achieved before focusing on their weaknesses. The more secure they feel, the harder they try!
Medina, A. (2006). The Parallel Bar. Writing Assessment and Instruction in: Schumm, S., J. (ed.) (2006) Reading Assessment and Instruction for all Learners. The Guilford Press.
Sorenson, S. (2009). Webster’s New World Student Writing Handbook. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Sticher, A. (2009). Scaffolding in the EFL Classroom.
Westwood, P. (2004). Learning and Learning Difficulties: A handbook for teachers. ACER Press.