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How to Provide “Scaffolding” with SWR

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Have you heard the term “scaffolding” before in regards to teaching? In education, this term refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.*

Let’s explore how the SWR teacher helps students move through the process of learning a new word to being able to recognize it while reading and spell it appropriately while writing.

New Spelling Words

How does a teacher offer scaffolding while teaching a student how to spell a new word? A specific, multi-sensory dictation method is used for introducing the word.

The teacher guides the student through the process of breaking the word down into syllables, applying the “think to spell” tool when necessary, providing fingergrams while letting the student know which phonograms to use when there could be confusion or when the one being used is not what is expected.

This is not a test, but rather the student has all the information necessary so he can be successful when he goes to write the word.

This is a sight-last approach so that all the senses are involved. The student hears, says, writes, and THEN sees the word.

This method has powerful impact on the brain’s capacity to learn, and it works with different learning styles.

Have you read Wanda Sanseri’s Senate Speech? This will help you understand why this approach is so powerful in teaching literacy.

“Say it While you Write it”

The student needs to be saying the sounds while he writes his new spelling words. This helps him establish 1:1 correspondence to the sounds of the language and the phonograms that represent them in the written code. Teachers, are you regularly reinforcing this with your students?

This “say it while you write it” is one way the teacher helps the student move toward independence with his new words. Hearing himself say the sounds is a way he coaches himself.

Practice Reading Spelling Words

A student needs to regularly practice reading his new spelling words the way he wrote them (sound-by-sound or syllable-by-syllable) and the way he says the word in normal speech.

This not only helps to reinforce the spelling patterns, but it helps him recognize his words when reading.

The Wise List starts with the most frequently used words in English. The first 260 words account for 50% of what the student will ever read or write. These are important words for him to master.

By the time your student has finished the Wise List, he will have worked twice through the 2,000 words in a language that has over 1,000,000 words. He will have learned virtually every pattern of spelling, and he’ll have worked up to Freshmen college level spelling.

Regularly Quiz Spelling Words

The teacher will quiz the words and phonograms that are being studied that week. How does the “scaffolding” idea work with quizzes?

Immediately after teaching new words, the teacher can quiz those words. While the goal is to see what was retained in short-term memory, the teacher can also help at this point. Does the student need to revisit the “think to spell” tool on a word? Does he need to see the fingergrams again? Perhaps a reminder about a silent letter? Obviously, a student that needs help has not mastered the word yet, but that’s not expected at this point of the learning process.

Gradually the teacher will wean him off of this help by the end of the week, leaving him to take “ownership” of the words with repeated practice.

Learning Continues During Reinforcement Activities

How much help does the teacher offer during reinforcement activities? What is needed to help the student be successful? When do you need to let him remember on his own? Answer that and you’ll be on your way to mastering the art of teaching!

Here’s an example. When you’re teaching a beginning student, you will teach about using a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and how to use end punctuation. Much of the time you’ll help him remember (ask him what he needs to do or simply remind him). As he has experience with writing, he’ll start remembering on his own. That’s when you know it’s time to let him do exactly that and you cut back on those tips.

Testing or Practicing?

Speaking of “helping on reinforcement activities,” regardless of the extent of your instruction on a concept, the moment you ask the student to complete an assignment independently, it has become a “test” of what he knows — or doesn’t know — rather than a continuation of your teaching.

You have a lost teaching opportunity when the student makes multiple errors on an assignment and then just moves on to the next activity. Yes, you can check off that assignment as “completed” and assign a poor grade, but the student either learned next to nothing or will remember incorrect information.

Only use that assignment as an independent activity if the student can complete it fairly successfully on his own. That means that completing an assignment together may be part of your lesson plan. Use it for “practicing” and further learning a concept.

Routinely Test New & Review Words

At the end of the week the teacher will give a test on the words taught that week and some other words that still need review.

This end-of-the-week test is like a progress report. How is the student doing in the PROCESS of learning the new words? Complete mastery is not expected at this time since it may take a while still for a student to have automaticity with that word. Children vary greatly in their need for repetition and review.

That’s why the teacher constantly recycles review words into the quizzes, reinforcement activities, and the weekly tests. The student needs repeated experiences where he writes the word from memory–not copying–and in which he applies the tools he’s been gaining to help him master the language.

The teacher should not be helping on end-of-the-week tests, but the younger the student and the earlier in the “learning to read & spell” process a student is, the more likely she’ll still be offering hints even now.

If help is still needed on words by this time in the week, make note that the word is not mastered and still needs review, but keep moving.

Also, make sure the student is not simply relying on your help and expecting you to always step in with the answers. Some children avoid independence by giving up before trying. Generally, help on “tests” should be rare.

When to NOT Provide Help

With all this talk about “scaffolding” and when and how to help students, please understand that NO HELP is to be offered on the Diagnostic Test. This is not a teaching situation, but rather this test helps you to assess what a student knows about our phonics code and what he doesn’t.

Move at a good pace through the test but not so fast that you frustrate your class. Use your regular pronunciation and absolutely no “think to spell” help. Do the students know the word or not?

For more on the diagnostic test, how to administer and score it, how to use it for initial student placement in the Wise List, and more, we have a video on our Facebook Page that will help answer your questions.


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