Scaffolds for writing and talking are supports for communicating in science-specific ways that may seem unnatural for students. We mean for example that writing causal explanations, talking in small groups about how evidence can be used to back up a claim, or critiquing the ideas of one’s peers in a whole class setting, are not the kinds of communication that students engage in outside of school. Tools can help—these take the form of sentence frames, guides for how to help ELL students practice final explanations, norms for whole class discussion that are developed by students, roles that students can take up in small group activity, and others. We provide a small sample of the types of scaffolding that are used during ambitious teaching.
Scaffolds for talk
Norms for whole class conversations
Classrooms should have norms for civil discussions that are developed—with help from your students—from the first day of school, that are explicitly modeled by the teacher (i.e. the teacher “names” the norm as she/he uses it) and reinforced on a regular basis. Here are some samples of these norms—there are many possibilities:
- Anyone can ask questions if they don’t understand an idea that is being talked about
- We (students and teacher) can critique ideas of others, but personal attacks are out of bounds
- Don’t talk over your classmates
- The teacher will give “think time” before asking for students’ ideas
- In small group work, everyone will contribute to the conversations
It is helpful to re-visit these norms periodically, asking your students: “How did we do today in our discussion? What do we need to work on?”
Sentence starters to sustain productive whole class conversations
Some students don’t participate because they are so unfamiliar with critiquing the ideas of others or adding onto a peer’s comments. They don’t know how to publicly disagree and some students even feel uncomfortable agreeing with others in class.
For these reasons some of our teachers have developed, with students, a list of sentence starters (structures for student talk) to help them accomplish what seems unnatural. The tool we show is just one of a set of 4 posters that a teacher made, with her students, on the first day of class. This one shows “How do I respectfully disagree with a classmate?” There are three others, including agreeing and adding to another person’s ideas, asking a probing question (often asking for evidence) or asking a peer for clarification of an idea or claim.
Role cards for small group interaction
To foster group participation, it is helpful to assign roles to students. Roles should not be simply about managerial duties, such as the note-taker, the supply-getter, the procedure-reader. Roles should be about different students taking responsibility for different parts of the science talk that moves everyone’s thinking forward. Here are some examples of roles for intellectual work. We list more here than you would assign to a group of students, and you might combine these roles in some cases. What we show below is not “the list” but some suggestions based on our experience in classrooms. To the right is one of the kinds of cards that we place on tables to help students know what to ask their peers.
Big ideas person. The BI person pulls the group (occasionally) back to the scientific purpose of the activity (often a group will get too wrapped up in the rote execution of the directions).
- Asks “How does X (something we are studying, reading, investigating, observing, etc.) relate to the anchoring event?”
- Asks: “How does X change the way we’re thinking about the anchoring event?”
- Asks: “What is the big idea we are trying to understand? Why are we [watching ice melt]?”
Clarifier. This is a role of monitoring everyone’s comprehension about one or two key science terms.
- Asks: “Do we know what the word ____ refers to?”
- Asks: “Can we put it into our own terms?”
Questioner. This person asks probing questions during the activity. These folks listen for questions posed by other group members and then re-voice the questions to make sure that the whole group takes a moment to hear and entertain questions from everyone. This is not a role that students find easy, so it helps to provide them with question stems such as :
- Asks: “What does it mean that ____?”
- Asks: “How do we know that_____?”
- Paraphrases what other have said: “So, what I think you are saying is… Is that right?”
- Asks: “What would happen if we changed ____?”
- Asks: “What’s your evidence?”
Skeptic. This person tries to strengthen the group’s work by probing for weaknesses in the developing explanation or model.
- Says: “Here’s an alternative explanation—is this just as good as the one we have now?”
- Asks: “Does it always work this way (the explanation)?”
- Asks: “How does our idea match up with what we’ve just learned?”
Progress monitor. This person ask others to periodically take the measure of the group’s progress.
- Asks: “What can we say we’ve accomplished so far?”
- Asks: “What do we still need to know/do to accomplish this task?”
- Asks: “What can we now add to our explanation that we didn’t have before?”
When you stop by a table to listen in on a group, you should expect this person to be able to communicate the ideas of the group members AND attribute ideas to particular people (giving credit where it is due).
“Talk to your partner” routines
Sometimes a tool can be more like a routine a teacher enacts to help students interact. The “A-B partner” routine is one of these. We found in many classrooms that when students were asked to talk in pairs before offering comments in whole class discussion, that most students were not really listening to their partners. Or they viewed their partner’s talk as just something to politely sit through until it was their turn to talk. This is where “A-B partners” came in. We asked students in pairs to talk about something substantive, like a hypothesis, or some evidence or an everyday experience that related to the science ideas being taught.
After the pairs talk, the teacher asks a student in the class to express the ideas that their partner had expressed. The difference in this routine from just “turn and talks.” In addition, the teacher presses the student to say more than a cursory few words about their partner’s idea. We found that this compels students to actively listen to one another and to ask follow up questions of their partners in order to understand their viewpoints. This works particularly well with English Language Learners.
Scaffolds for writing
Drafting evidence-based claims
The tool we show below is to support students’ writing of evidence-based explanations. This is core to the science practice of argumentation. The tool is accompanied by a routine. The tool is used near the end of a unit where the students have been studying a complex puzzling event (the anchoring event for the unit). They have also done several investigations that have provided data that can support various parts of the final explanation for the anchoring event.
Students work in small groups when using this tool. In the left hand column of the tool, the groups negotiate a claim about a part (just a part) of the full explanation for the event. They then cite evidence from one of the activities they’d done that applies to this claim. In the bottom cell they state the reasoning that links the evidence to the claim. You can see in the cells that there is a designated space to write and there are sentence frames, both of which help students.
But this is not the end of the work. The claim-evidence-reasoning is only the first step. Next the students give their sheet to another group. This group’s goal is to look at the argument and try to give feedback so that it strengthens the clarity and credibility. The group giving feedback has drafted their own argument of course, but they may be attempting to explain and provide evidence for a very different part of the anchoring event. In this way, the second group is learning a bit about how the first group is constructing evidence-based arguments for a different aspect of the phenomenon.
Finally, the second group meets with a member of the first group and explains their comments. The first group then takes those comments into consideration and revises their argument.
Upper elementary example of scaffolded writing
The tool below has a number of scaffolds built into it that support young learners in constructing explanations with evidence. At the top there are clear instructions that are explicit about what should be written—this is more than “explain the skateboarder’s jump.” Below is a checklist of ideas that need to be included (this is more than a vocabulary list!), there are sentence frames below that, and at the bottom there is a rubric that challenges students to achieve a “why” level explanation. These are only a few examples of tools that can support writing, there are many others.