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Scaffolding the Writing Development of Undergraduate Literacy Education Students:
A Win-Win Solution

Elizabeth Swaggerty
Assistant Professor of Reading Education
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education

My role as a teacher is an integral component of my identity and I take pride in my ability to support my students’ learning in reading education so that they can support the literacy lives of their students. However, supporting undergraduate students in writing a scholarly paper turned out to be a teaching challenge of a different color and I felt utterly underprepared for it. Fear drove me to experiment with the strategies presented in this paper– fear that my twenty-six undergraduate teacher education students would ultimately submit incoherent, unorganized, mechanically-deprived papers and that they would learn nothing about their topics in the process. I imagined that the papers would be so terrible they would require countless hours of grading and recording feedback (feedback that students would probably never read), resulting in my failure as an educator and the students’ failure as learners. This fear of failure served as my motivation to develop a plan to support students in their writing.

This article presents a plan for scaffolding undergraduate student success in scholarly writing endeavors over the course of one semester. Scaffolding instruction is a common teaching strategy in which a more knowledgeable person builds on prior knowledge by offering instruction just beyond the level the learner can accomplish independently. The teacher provides “scaffolds” so that the learner can be supported in completing tasks and learning new information. In the context of this course, I provided scaffolded instruction that supported students in writing a scholarly paper with three important guiding principles—inquiry, revision, and audience—so that the entire process was less painful and even, dare I say, enjoyable for both the student and the instructor.  

Background

In order to demonstrate depth of content knowledge, undergraduate teacher education candidates specializing in reading education at my university must craft a hefty scholarly paper as one requirement for reading licensure. The resulting product moves beyond demonstrating growth in content knowledge – it is also characterized by growth in scholarly writing.  Many students came to this course with very little experience writing research papers. On the first day of class when I announced this major writing task, the students began squirming in their seats and the questions came at me like projectile vomit: How many pages? What size font? How many sources? Can we use Wikipedia and YouTube? What size margins? How many headings?  I calmed them down by explaining that I would support them through the process and I then proceeded with my plan to scaffold their writing with inquiry, revision, and a sense of audience leading the way.  

Inquiry

Students relaxed a bit when they learned that they could choose their topic of inquiry for the paper. After exploring various hot topics, issues, questions, and theories in reading education, they seemed eager to choose one that interested them the most for further inquiry. Areas of inquiry included the following topics as they related to literacy instruction and/or development: digital literacies, reading comprehension, English Language Learners, homeless and/or poverty-stricken children, and motivation and engagement. Student had opportunities to ask questions, discover information, and synthesize information that addressed the original line of inquiry. This process seemed to result in increased motivation to do their research and more ownership of their projects. The opportunity to explore a question of interest in depth was integral to the success of this writing project and reinforced the notion that writing comes more easily when the writer has something to say.  

Revision

Nathaniel Hawthorne, a novelist and short story writer, once said that easy reading is damn hard writing. Accomplished writers know that good writing takes time and that revision is key to a successful piece. There are three important points related to revision: (a) revision is a process, (b) revision requires “new eyes,” and (c) revision takes time. I found that my students needed to understand the definition of revision and acknowledge that it involves more than adding a period or fixing a capital letter. I encouraged them to think of writing a paper as a process of revisiting and reconsidering the writing and getting feedback from others.  I shared my stories of writing for publication, admitting that it sometimes took a year to complete a chapter or article and even then I sometimes received an “accept with revisions” stamp on my writing. I encouraged them to rethink and reconceptualize their papers, keeping in mind that with each revision, the paper improves. When revising, students were prompted to ask themselves:

  • Why am I writing this paper?
  • Can the reader tell what this paper is about?
  • Does the organization of my paper make sense to the reader?
  • Can the reader follow my train of thought?
  • Does my writing say what I want it to say?
I liken the second characteristic of successful revision to the chorus of a famous Beatles song: I get by with a little help from my friends. Writing can be a very isolating activity, but much can be gained by letting others read one’s writing. Sharing writing, especially in the beginning stages, can be compared to what author Stephanie Snowe calls “pulling my pants down in traffic” because writers often feel insecure about their writing. I asked my students to pull their pants down in traffic and share their early draft with a peer reviewer. The peer reviewer read the paper, marked it with comments, and filled out a rubric (See Peer Reviewer Rubric Round 1 below) providing feedback and suggestions. Writers revised their drafts and then shared them with a university writing center consultant. After this revision, they shared their writing again with the original peer reviewers, who took a more careful look at mechanics, focusing on both revision and editing suggestions when filling out rubrics (See Peer Reviewer Rubric Round 2 below). Throughout the process, I was available for individual writing conferences, of which many students took advantage (I met with some students more than once). Although they were initially hesitant to offer and receive feedback during the peer review exercises, students reported that this experience helped them grow as writers.

The final point to consider is that quality papers are not written in one day and submitted to the instructor for a grade. I reminded students that revision involves letting a piece rest, revisiting it, letting it rest, sharing it with others, revisiting it, etc. Revision is messy and time-consuming. Well-known writers consistently admit that they worked on particular pieces for years, seeking feedback from others and reworking the text until the writing was just right.  

Audience

Motivated writers often have an authentic audience in mind and write to that audience. Rather than asking students to write and submit a paper to me for a grade (the traditional approach), I asked them to write a paper that would be reviewed by a classmate, reviewed by a consultant at the university writing center, read in full by some classmates, and read by me.  Students also created a digital “commercial” that shared the highlights of their research in an innovative digital platform (such as Windows MovieMaker, www.glogster.com, www.voicethread.com, or www.prezi.com) that was viewed by all classmates and made publicly available. Broadening the audience seemed to up the ante in terms of quality. Since students knew that others would read their paper, they seemed to care if it made sense and was high quality. 

Organizing Instruction to Scaffold Student Success  

I designed a timeline that reflected the characteristics of the inquiry process, the revision process, and the power of an authentic audience to support students in their writing. It should be emphasized that this plan required a great deal of support from me in the beginning. Students wrote mini-papers in response to the weekly readings and I provided detailed feedback on their writing and content. While this effort was time-consuming, it paid dividends when the time came to grade the final papers: it was evident that students had learned a lot from my feedback on the mini-papers and as a result their final papers were of better quality. This scaffolded plan also ensured that students revisited their writing over time because it required that a draft be submitted during week 9 and revisions take place at least 2 times after that with a final draft not due until week 13 (see course schedule below).  

Course Schedule

Due DateTopics/ActivitiesAssignment(s) Due
– Before Class Begins
Tuesday, January 12Course Introduction 
Tuesday, January 19(a) Topic exploration: Comprehension
(b)Types of scholarly information (peer-reviewed, research study, perspective piece, etc.)
Biosketch Response Log Entry for Set #1
Tuesday, January 26(a) Topic exploration: New/digital literacies
(b) Locating scholarly information
Response Log Entry for Set #2
Tuesday, February 2(a) Topic Exploration: Poverty and Literacy
(b)  Reading/critiquing scholarly information
Response Log Entry for Set #3
Tuesday, February 9(a) Topic exploration: Word study
(b) Pulling information together: The purpose of a literature review matrix
Response Log Entry for Set #4
Tuesday, February 16NO CLASS MEETING (Mary Lois Staton Conference)Topic Selection and Rationale Due
Tuesday, February 23Independent researchN/A
Tuesday, March 2NO CLASS MEETING Literature Review Matrix Due
Tuesday, March 9SPRINGBREAK
Tuesday, March 16Drafting your paper: Clear focus, APA Style, returning to the literatureDraft Due to Moodle
Tuesday, March 23Revising your paper: Organization, transitionsDraft Due to Peer Reviewer
Tuesday, March 30NO CLASS MEETINGDraft Due to Writing Center
Tuesday, April 6Revising/editing your paper: Word choice, transitionsDraft Due to Peer Reviewer Again
Tuesday, April 13NO CLASS MEETINGFinal Draft Due
Tuesday, April 20Share final papers and summary component in classSummary Component Project Due
Thursday, April 29:
FINAL EXAM 5-7:30pm
 Final Exam Letter Due
Comments on 2 Papers of Interest Due
Comments on Summary Component Projects Due

Conclusion

An emphasis on inquiry, opportunities to receive and offer feedback, opportunities to revise, and writing for an authentic audience all contributed to the establishment of a community in which students could be supported as they gained content knowledge and developed their writing ability. I am happy to report that most students submitted organized, coherent, APA-style papers that I was able to read from beginning to end without the sudden spitting of expletives. Most papers were of good quality, if not great. There were two papers that I went so far as to recommend them for submission to peer-reviewed state journals. Grading 26 scholarly papers is likely never going to be a walk in the park, but it was certainly easier for me when the papers were of better quality. I now feel confident in the way I can support students in their writing so that they can also gain the targeted content knowledge. It was evident when students shared their summary components that they were knowledgeable and excited about their topics. By setting students up for success with their writing, both the students and I came out on top.

View the Peer Editor Rubrics here.