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Scaffolding Student Writing

Page history last edited by Mallory Burton 12 years, 4 months ago

The UDL approach encourages multiple means of expression, allowing students to show what they have learned in a variety of ways.  This is fine as long as the students are all working toward a common goal such as demonstrating their knowledge of polar bear habitat by creating dioramas, oral presentations, posters, videos, etc..  However, sometimes the goal IS to write a sentence, paragraph, or story.  Then it becomes important to scaffold the writing goal so that every student can succeed. 


Finding a Reason to Write


  Writing about a personal interest or passion is often motivating.  In a recent writing contest sponsored by SET-BC, students were encouraged to report on an event that had happened at their school.  Notice how the quality of engagement and writing improves when this student begins writing about the First Nations Cultural program at his school and his particular interest, drumming, winning him an iPod!

Much of student work is presented for an audience of one...the teacher.  Presenting or performing for a larger, genuine audience can be very motivating.  Paul Hamilton's interview with Mrs. Smith's bloggers makes a convincing case for student blogging.  


It can also be very motivating for students to write for a genuine purpose such as reviewing video games or electronics or protesting against a curfew.

Wikipedia is created entirely by volunteers.  What motivates these writers?

  Students may not recognize certain types of writing as writing.  For example, if students are creating a PPT presentation they may not realize how much writing they are doing.  Students may be motivated to write captions for pictures or fill in the speech bubbles for cartoon characters.  (I had a laminated set of these for use with ESL students that they could write on in erasable markers.) They may also be motivated to write by using digital storytelling tools such as pic lits


Generating Ideas


Brainstorming on paper, verbally,  and/or with an electronic tool is a popular way to begin generating ideas for writing.  Webspiration is a free collaborative online version of the popular Inspiration mind-mapping software (available in BC through ERAC).   Wordle is a fun Web 2.0 application to use for brainstorming or creating colourful word-clouds for graphics or title pages.


Many teachers use Story Starters as a way to help students generate ideas.  Students can write from text prompts, artifacts, pictures, videos or in response to music.   With a camera or video camera, you can create your own video story starters.  Taking pictures on a field trip and writing from those pictures is an excellent way to help students generate ideas.  You can even purchase Story Starter picture cubes or paste your own interesting pics on cubes to roll and generate ideas.

  If a student finds it easy to verbalize ideas, he or she could chat with a partner and record ideas first using software such as Audacity or a hand-held recorder.  The student can play the recording back to begin writing.  Here's a great video that teachers in Abbotsford created to show the ipod being used to record ideas before writing.


Organizing Ideas


Graphic Organizers are helpful in organizing ideas for many kinds of writing.  

Inspiration was mentioned above under Brainstorming.  It is well worth spending some time looking at online examples of the way Inspiration Templates and Kidspiration Templates have been used in many subject areas. 

  Professionals sometimes use storyboards to plan media productions.  Digital Storytelling guru Jason Ohler suggests we use a variety of Story Maps instead.


Writing a Sentence


This kid-friendly website How to Write an Orange provides a step-by-step procedure for writing a single sentence .

  Writing a single sentence can be very engaging if you're using a site such as Automotivator or PicLits.com.

Cloze Sentences and Sentence Frames can provide structure for students who have trouble composing a sentence.   Or start with a bad sentence and make it better.


Students can also re-assemble a sentence from its words.  This works great in a pocket chart or on the SMARTBoard.  After my ESL students learned a poem we would cut the sentence strips into words they would re-assemble.   Word Magnets allows you to paste in a block of text and then move it around.  (There is a new downloadable version for purchase but this is the old free version.) Check out Nik Peachey's video tutorials.

Dogs bark.

Aardvarks burrow.


Snakes slither.

Leaves wither. 


Bells ring.

Bells peal.

Bells chime.



A great teaching aid from the BCTF (no longer available) started with students composing sentences consisting of just two words. In each lesson, one more word or phrase was added.  I believe the progression was subject/verb, different kinds of articles, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases.  This was extremely successful with ESL students and with a grade 5 class I helped team-teach.  This activity was flexible enough for students to participate at many different levels. 



Writing a Paragraph

  The kid-friendly website How to Write an Apple provides a step-by-step procedure for writing a paragraph.
  Graphic Organizers can be used to structure paragraph writing.  The hamburger paragraph organizer is an all-time favourite.

Cloze Paragraphs and Paragraph Frames can provide structure for students who have trouble composing a paragraph on their own. 

  An activity that really makes kids think about paragraph writing is to present a quote out of context and have the kids construct a paragraph around it to make the quote make sense.


To create a simple narrative or description of a process, provide 3 or 4 pictures that tell a story.  The students can put them in order and write a sentence for each picture, creating the body of the paragraph.  You will also need to teach some "time words" to connect the ideas.  You can find sequencing cards on the internet, purchase commericial sets, take your own pictures, tear pictures out of old books, or capture frames from a video using the SB capture tool.

In a recent workshop I attended, Anita Archer suggested a simple process for writing a paragraph.  Students wrote down all of their ideas.  Then they crossed out ideas they didn't need and drew lines to connect ideas that could be combined in a sentence.  Then they numbered their ideas to determine the order in which they would included them in the paragraph.  Here's a link to Anita's handout.


Writing a Narrative, Essay or Report



Writing as a process is a popular teaching method which breaks a writing task down into manageable segments.  These stages are typically pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, proofing, and publishing.  The most variation probably happens in the pre-writing stage.  For example, Philip Roth says he typically writes a 100 pages stream of consciousness before he "finds" a novel.  It might be interesting for your students to look at a number of videos of real writers such as Mary Amato describing their writing process.

Woodland Mushroom CC photo by Pam Brophy


Great Source iWrite has excellent online resources for different types of writing.  The student can choose a type of writing such as "narrative" and then receive help on the subtypes of narrative writing, graphic organizers for narrative writing, detailed templates for each part of the narrative, and examples of narrative writing.  There is a tremendous amount of scaffolded help available here.


The ReadWriteThink site has a large number of interactive online graphic organizers for scaffolding student writing projects.  For example, the Animal Inquiry organizer prompts elementary students in researching an animal.  The Character Trading Cards provide an engaging way for students to write about characters in novels they are reading. 


Kurzweil (Windows version 11) contains a webbing and outling tool which is useful at the drafting stage.  





Ira Socol explains the importance of text-to-speech as an editing tool in this blog post.  Using text-to-speech helps students hear the mistakes they have made and increases their ability to edit independently.


A variety of Text-to-Speech tools has already been discussed in the Scaffolding Perceptual Access to Printed Text section.

For a fresh take on text-to-speech, try the talking avatars are Read the Words.



A year 2 UDL team discovered that their grade 7 students were using the readability feature in MS Word to evaluate the readability and grade level of their own writing.  Students were motivated to use more sophisticated vocabulary and more complex sentence structures in order to increase the grade level of their work.  You can check the readability of an MS Word 2007 text by enabling Readability in the Proofing Options.  In Word X for Mac, go to the Word Menu/Preferences.  Choose Spelling and Grammar Preferences on the left and check the "Show Readability statistics" box.  The readability will be displayed after you spell-check a document.



Using a computer to write dramatically improved my own writing because I was able to make so many more drafts with ease.  It was much easier to try a different order or change the point of view electronically than on paper. 






Just as in written work, words in multimedia presentations need to be spelled correctly.  MS Word contains a spell-checker.  Kurzweil contains a talking spellchecker that will read the choices.  Word Talk (Windows), is a free text-to-speech app which includes a talking spell-checker.

Ghotit is a free online spell-checker designed specifically for dyslexics.  It uses the context of an entire sentence to figure out mispellings. 



To use Kurzweil's word prediction, the student types the first few letters of a word and the program supplies a list of words for the student to choose from.  Kurzweil contains built-in word prediction.  If that is working well for your student and you would like to use word prediction in other environments, consider the more powerful WordQ or Co:Writer



Most students can benefit from using custom word lists in Kurzweil, even if they do not need the word prediction.  Creating the custom word list can become part of the learning activity.  For example, a student could create a custom word list for the words in the current science chapter, complete with definitions.  That list could be exported to all of the computers with the word prediction program installed.  That specialty science vocabulary is now available for technical writing.


Supports that help students work independently can be posted around the room.  Many teachers use word walls to display special topic lists and/or high frequency words students may need in their writing.  




Computer Word Wall Words Flickr CC photo by Nedral


Word banks are the electronic version of word walls.

Clicker5 is an excellent choice to support emergent writers and/or students who have cognitive disabilities.  Many Clicker5 Learning Grids have been designed for these students and are available for free download from Crick software and from SET-BC's Curriculum Set.  Students also have access to an alphabetically organized word bank which contains words typically used in beginning writing.  You can add the words from your own word wall to this word bank or easily create custom word banks for subject areas. 


For elementary students who need extra help with spelling in general, check out Spelling City.  Spelling City is a spelling site recommended by James Hollis (Teachers Love SMARTBoards).  Input a list of spelling words and click test me, teach me, or play a game.  The test me section gives the word orally , uses it in a sentence, and the student spells it and gets feedback.  The teach me section spells the word orally and uses it in a sentence.  The play a game section instantly generates games such as word search, crosswords, hangman using the spelling words.  The games work great on a smartboard.



For elementary students who need extra help with phonics, word families, and spelling, check out Simon Sounds it Out.   This program uses phonics and word families in teaching spelling and is self-directing.  Teachers can also view student progress.  Available through PSAP at SET-BC. 




While a dictionary is often used to look up unfamiliar words while reading, a thesaurus is often used to find alternative word choices in writing.  It's just as important to use a variety of words in multimedia presentations as it is in writing.  MS Word contains a built-in Dictionary and Thesaurus.  Kurzweil  also has a synonym look-up tool that provides multiple definitions for a word with synonyms listed for each definition.


Visuwords is an online thesaurus that displays associated words in a movable web.  The relationship between words is indicated by the shape and colour of the connecting line.  It's a great tool but can be a bit visually complex.


Lexipedia is an online thesaurus that displays associated words in a colourful web.  A side bar allows you to choose which type of thesaurus entries you would like to see (synonyms, antonyms, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, etc.)  This eliminates visual clutter.

  RhymeZone's rhyming dictionary may be helpful for writing poetry. 




MS Word contains built-in grammar support which underlines errors in green and suggests corrections.  Proceeed with caution.


The word prediction program Co:Writer only suggests words which are correct in a grammatical context.  For example, if you type "The red h" it will predict nouns that start with h (hat, horse, house) but not verbs (has, had).  It will also predict the correct verb endings, making it ideal for ESL support.  Co:Writer also has excellent flexible spelling support.


Grammar Girl is a site that answers grammar questions by podcast.  You can browse questions that have already been answered and play or download the podcast.  There are some ads but otherwise this is a great grammar reference.  Grammar Girl would be a great referee for in-class debates on grammar questions.


Physical Access  (Ask your SET-BC Consultant; it's what we do!)

  Clicker5 is an excellent choice to support emergent writers and/or students who have cognitive disabilities or physical access challenges.  Many Clicker5 Learning Grids are available for free download from Crick software and from SET-BC's Curriculum Set. 

Voice recognition 

The only way to see if voice recognition will work for a student is to try it.  The ideal candidate for voice recognition is a student with good literacy skills and clear speech who has a condition such as juvenile arthritis which makes typing difficult.  Often teachers want to use voice recognition with students who have very poor literacy skills.  There are two problems with this.  First, the student generally has to read some kind of passage in order to do the initial training.  The way around this is to pause the program and read the passage to the student so he can repeat it back.  This is doable but time-consuming.  The second issue is monitoring the written output.  If a student cannot read what the computer has written, they will be unaware of mistakes.  Worse, these mistakes will be added to the information in the student's voice file, which will become less accurate (corrupted) every time the student accepts an incorrect response.  For these students, it is probably better not to save the changes to their voice files after each session.  At present, Dragon Naturally Speaking is your best bet for student use.  Here's a very nice wiki that describes a DNS implementation done for a project by 3 teachers enrolled in the EPSE 410 course offered by SET-BC.  Here's a demo of a free voice recognition tool included in My Study Bar.





















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