Scaffolding and College Writing: Five Pedagogical Considerations

by Guest Blogger on May 8, 2014

beselGuest post by Richard Besel,  Associate Professor in Communication Studies, and member of the 2013-14 Learning Community, Beyond the Term Paper: Integrating the Teaching of Research and the Teaching of Writing. 

Never before have the skills needed to engage in effective writing been more important for student success. In a survey of 50,000 employers, jointly conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, written and oral communication skills were identified as one of the areas where job candidates were “lacking most.” For many recent and soon-to-be graduates who wish to earn an advanced degree, they will face the analytical writing component of the Graduate Record Exam. For those students with a creative streak, publishing the next Harry Potter series is highly unlikely if every other sentence contains a mechanical error. More than a means of completing an essay for an introductory composition course, writing skills are key for upward mobility in the corporate world, acceptance into graduate programs, and elegant expression in the arts.

Despite its widely acknowledged importance in a variety of fields and disciplines, more can be done to improve writing instruction at the university level. In this blog entry I wish to focus on the pedagogical practice of “scaffolding” as one potential way instructors can better prepare students for the writing demands that await them.

Scaffolding is the learning process of providing students with the support needed to complete a task that they otherwise would not have been able to complete independently. The intention, as the construction metaphor implies, is to eventually remove the support once students understand how to complete the task unassisted. In one of the first published articles on instructional scaffolding, David Wood, Jerome Bruner, and Gail Ross noted in 1976 that this approach to learning may result in the development of competencies that would “far outstrip” the learner’s unassisted efforts. Although early scaffolding studies examined one-on-one instruction with children, later studies explored the idea of using scaffolding in group contexts, with special needs students, and in the college classroom.

SacaffoldAlthough the scaffolding metaphor has only been in popular use since the middle of the twentieth century or so, some scaffolding advocates have also linked this method with the ideas of the early twentieth-century social psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky observed that young children were capable of significant advances in learning if they were assisted in the right ways: “With assistance, every child can do more that he can by himself—though only within the limits set by the state of his development.” In other words, there are some tasks children can do on their own, perhaps quite easily, and some tasks that are challenging. However, if assisted, they can learn to do much more, up to a point. The range between what is easy for the child unaided and where the child finds his or her limits with assistance is what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). Commenting on one approach used in an early twentieth-century school, he explains the ZPD concept in Thought and Language: “In offering the child problems he was able to handle without help, this method failed to utilize the zone of proximal development and to lead the child to what he could not yet do. Instruction was oriented to the child’s weakness rather than his strength, thus encouraging him to remain at the preschool stage of development.” Since Vygotsky’s work with young learners, much has been done to expand the notion of scaffolding into new contexts.Vygotsky

That scaffolding may be used with learners of various ages seems relatively uncontroversial. The young adult college student who has never written in a particular genre would certainly benefit from an instructor’s use of scaffolding. In her study of scaffolding use in tutoring sessions at university writing centers, Isabelle Thompson has argued “scaffolding provides a promising framework for describing what happens in writing center conferences.” Indeed, at the collegiate level scaffolding supports students “while they figure out answers for themselves.” As you consider how you might incorporate scaffolding into your own university-level courses, keep in mind these five pedagogical considerations that I have found helpful and hope you do as well:

1. Skeleton Frames and Outlines

For many educators, the use of outlines and skeletal framing assignments are useful scaffolding resources. Paul Warwick and Beth Maloch have noted in one scaffolding study that “what became very clear was that the use of the writing frames was successful primarily because the teachers viewed learning as a social process.” I would emphasize the word “process” here. It is not enough to simply provide students with the outline or frame, expecting the students to figure out the rest. Instead, use the outline as an interpretive resource. If one has students reading writing models, encourage them to use the outline or frame to understand what it is they are reading. Then use the outline or frame to engage students in class discussions. As Warwick and Maloch argue, outlines and frames should not be “used as worksheets” or one-time reference materials if they are to scaffold future student writing. Find ways to reference the outlines and frames in multiple ways throughout the course, ultimately leading the students to their own writing. Of course, the outline or frame should not stifle the students’ writing either. It is merely a starting point and should be treated as such.

2. Horizoned Isolation Exercises

An additional scaffolding technique is one that I like to call the “horizoned” isolation exercise. It seems a common occurrence in the college classroom that students are given isolated assignments to demonstrate their mastery of a skill, but then never again use that particular skill in the course. Instead, a horizoned isolation exercise is designed to teach the student about a particular skill with the intent of having the student use that same skill in another assignment in the near future. Students can then focus their attention on particular skills before having to combine them into the production of a single written product. One may choose to design an exercise that encourages students to write and discuss research questions, for example, with the purpose of having students later generate a research question for a final paper.

 3. Peer Feedback and (Re)writing 

One of the most popular forms of scaffolding is the use of peer feedback assignments. However, simply asking students to comment on the papers of their peers is not enough, nor is asking students to simply “edit” them. Students should have the opportunity to discuss and process what it is they are hearing from their fellow students. Ultimately, the process should emphasize the use of peer feedback in the writing and rewriting process. As students read others’ papers, they may understand the nature of the assignment differently than if they did not read the papers. Good writing does not end with the first draft.

4. Instructor Feedback and (Re)writing

In a narrow view of teaching, one may argue that assigning a grade on an assignment with a few comments is enough to teach a student about the writing process. Yes, this is giving the student instructor feedback, but it does not really provide the student with any sense of how he or she can continue to develop as a writer after he or she has completed the course. Try using shorter paper assignments early in a semester or quarter so that instructor feedback must be used for future assignments. Having assignments that are incorporated into later assignments is likewise a useful scaffolding strategy.

5. Use Scaffolding Across Courses 

Although much of what I have commented on up to this point has focused on scaffolding within a single course, scaffolding can likewise be applied across courses. If one course is a prerequisite for a higher-level course, linking the writing assignments will teach students that writing skills learned in one course do not stay in that course. If one uses writing models (see number one above), use models of student writing developed in later courses so students can see where they are heading with their writing. Although this is easiest when one teaches both courses in a sequence, with a little cooperation two instructors may coordinate assignments with final written products that allow student to advance far beyond what they could have done absent the scaffolding.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released the Nation’s Report Card, a national assessment of education progress in relation to writing. Based on a sample of over 28,000 twelfth-graders, the report noted that only 24% were writing at a “proficient” level. More can be done at both the high school and university levels to better teach students the writing skills they will need. Additional scaffolding activities may be one option we should consider as we revamp and revise our writing-focused assignments to greet the next generation of high school graduates as they enter our university classrooms for the first time. 


Applebee, Arthur N. and Judith A. Langer. “Instructional Scaffolding: Reading and Writing as Natural Language Activities.” Language Arts 60.2 (1983): 168-175. Print.

 Bodrova, Elena. “Scaffolding Emergent Writing in the Zone of Proximal Development.” Literacy Teaching and Learning 3.2 (1998): 1-18. Print.

 Thompson, Isabelle. “Scaffolding in the Writing Center: A Microanalysis of an Experienced Tutor’s Verbal and Nonverbal Tutoring Strategies.” Written Communication 26.4 (2009): 417-453. Print. 

Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986. Print.

Warwick, Paul and Beth Maloch. “Scaffolding Speech and Writing in the Primary Classroom: A Consideration of Work with Literature and Science Pupil Groups in the USA and UK.” Reading: Literacy and Language (2003): 54-63. Print. 

Wood, David, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross. “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17 (1976): 89-100. Print.

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