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Scaffolding the Multiple-Paragraph Essay for Struggling Writers

Your students are arguing with you, whining left and right, straying off task, staring at a blank screen, even exhibiting behavior issues. They’ve shut down. You’re only trying to do your job. Why aren’t they cooperating?

Could it be that you’ve just assigned a multiple-paragraph essay? Teaching struggling writers can be a daunting task. On one hand, the Common Core standards require middle and high school students to be able to write full-length essays…eloquently, confidently, skillfully, maturely. On the other hand, there’s reality. Sometimes we have students who honestly can’t write a single sentence coherently, let alone a multiple-paragraph composition. How can we meet these students at their readiness levels without sacrificing the rigor?

Over the years, I’ve taught at-risk freshmen in a myriad of different settings. In order to save both my sanity and theirs, I had to devise some scaffolding solutions so that we all didn’t go off the deep end. Are you in that boat? Maybe some of these tips will help you make teaching writing more manageable.

For one, you could try writing together.

Not everyone is comfortable with modeling writing on their feet, but this approach was the single most beneficial way I have reached struggling writers. It’s actually fairly simple, and if the thought of it makes you nervous, it’s easy to brainstorm some ideas beforehand so that if students get stuck, you have information you can use to probe and prompt them.

In my classroom, this is how it works:

After some prep time (sometimes weeks!) of teaching students about traits of writing, the writing process, MLA skills, and plagiarism, we are ready to begin a class writing activity. We start with the thesis. Having already taught them that an argumentative thesis takes a stance on a controversial topic, I ask, “Who can compose a solid thesis statement for this topic?” (You can give the class a topic, or you can work through selecting one together, which is always interesting.)

Students provide possible answers. Sometimes I type them all, and we select the strongest one. This practice is effective because it provides students with the opportunity to see how brainstorming multiple options while obtaining meaningful input from others can strengthen the final product.

The process continues in this way. Periodically, we pause to consult our notes, to conduct research on the Internet, and to revise or edit as we reread what we have written collectively to that point.

If you haven’t tried this one, I just can’t stress enough: It’s a game changer. Modeling and facilitating in this way makes the whole essay writing process more accessible to students. Plus, it gives them a birds’ eye view to the internal thought process of a skilled writer (that’s you).

Another go-to approach is writing one paragraph at a time.

Don’t be afraid to take it slow. When I teach the research writing process to my at-risk freshmen, I block off an entire nine weeks. During this time, we still do choice reading and grammar, but I dedicate the majority of the curriculum to writing time.

Think about the last time you felt truly frustrated by something. Perhaps it was an online course, and you just wanted to be able to talk to the director face-to-face to get clarification. Maybe you were overwhelmed by needing to do one thousand things but only having an hour to get them done (We’ve all been there!).

That’s how our struggling writers feel when we rush through the instructional portion (or even the compositional element) of a multiple-paragraph essay. We, as the teachers, may feel we’ve devoted ample time to the topic, but we understand the material. They don’t. So? We have to adapt.

I’ve found success in slowing down my writing units by providing thorough time to model each paragraph. After modeling, I invite students to provide feedback on examples (of only that paragraph – perhaps it’s the introduction or counterargument). A great follow-up approach is to allow students to write a paragraph with a partner. So many of our kids are collaborative learners by nature, and allowing them to tackle an overwhelming task by working with someone else takes half the pressure off of them. Finally, students are ready to tackle a paragraph on their own.

Provide students with meaningful feedback on this paragraph, and ask them to revise before moving on to the next segment of the essay.

This simple scaffolding approach can do wonders for your reluctant writers’ confidence and readiness.

Practical ways to scaffold the writing experience for struggling writers #Writing #Scaffolding #MiddleSchoolELA #HighSchoolELA

You can also provide students with sentence stems.

If your students struggle to begin a sentence (after all, half the battle is in getting started), you might consider providing them with sentence stems. For example, let’s say you want them to avoid elementary narration (as in: The next reason I am going to tell you about is…), you can come up with topic sentence or supporting detail wording options they might use instead. You can create an anchor chart, interactive notebook insert, or reference sheet that students can refer to when writing.

  • In the same way,
  • While many people argue…
  • The body of research suggests…

Depending on the grade you teach and the maturity of your students, these stems may look entirely different. When I provide my struggling writers with sentence stems, I’ve found it beneficial to do two things:

  1. Avoid simply providing one-word transitions. We want all of our students, even struggling writers, to understand that when authors move from one point to the next, we can use phrases and clauses to help our readers follow along.
  2. Define unfamiliar words. Many of my students look at a transition list, and they can’t define words like “moreover,” “furthermore,” “consequently,” and “subsequently.” Make it easy for them by providing definitions in layman’s terms.

Most importantly, provide meaningful, frequent one-on-one feedback.

Life gets busy. It’s easy to sit on a stack of papers for weeks. We all know that’s a bad practice. Struggling writers, especially, need almost immediate feedback regarding their work. You can conference with them, you can leave notes on their Google Docs, you can do it the traditional way and write comments on a printed paper, or you can even use dialogue journals. You might even consider asking each student which form of feedback he or she feels would be best for his or her learning style.

Putting it simply, if we don’t have time to provide this type of feedback, we shouldn’t be assigning the piece to struggling writers. Students won’t learn. They won’t grow.

When you provide feedback, remember that struggling writers already have low confidence. Instead of providing them with a list of ten errors and asking them to revise, try using a one-to-one rule. Give them one accolade for every piece of constructive criticism. This can be so hard! Sometimes you might even have to stretch the truth a bit, but the reward is worth it.

Final thoughts…

Think about it this way. If our bosses approach us (as they sometimes do) with complaint after complaint, we can easily begin to wonder if we have any value…if anyone sees the effort we put into our jobs day after day. Isn’t there a “thank you” in sight?

Now, think about the piling mandates…the constant pressure and responsibilities added to our daily workload.

These burdens are so similar to what a reluctant writer often feels when rushed into writing a multiple-paragraph essay without proper scaffolding. It would behoove us to keep that feeling of frustration and burnout close to our hearts as we work with struggling writers. Build them up by using best-practices. Take the extra time to do it right, and your students will thrive.

Interested in reading more techniques for supporting struggling writers? I can keep going! Here are 14 fresh ideas you can implement today.

Looking for practical writing lessons for struggling secondary writers? You can find some high-interest options here.

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  1. I am reluctant to write in front of the students, and I’m hoping your strategies will help.

    1. Hi Kat,

      Thanks so much for your honesty. You’re not alone. After you practice for a while, you’ll feel much more confident. I promise. It’s difficult at first, but struggling writers are very forgiving. I’ve found it much more challenging to model writing with enriched and AP students because they are already talented writers and catch your every mistake! Still, it’s valuable, but for teachers who are a little out of their comfort zones, this approach really does work, and it’s not too scary. Just have some ideas prepped beforehand, and make sure to try to anticipate their misconceptions if possible.

      I begin every time by telling them that I appreciate learning from them just as much as they do from me. If you get stuck, just take the time to share with them that even experienced writers struggle. It’s okay to step away, reflect, and come back with fresh eyes.

      Good luck! I know you can do this. 🙂


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