Scaffolding Writing To Establish More Complex Ideas In Their Claims

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SWBAT improve their topic sentences with the help of a structured process.

Big Idea

Hoping that scaffolding them to death brings life to student writing.


In the previous lesson, students were asked to draft topic sentences for the evidence they had selected. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected and I had to add more scaffolds for them as the lesson developed. Today, I want to make these additional scaffolds more clear and structured for easier use. The plan is that, once these additional scaffolds are clear, students will be able to rely on them to edit the sentences they wrote the day before.


25 minutes

I have to begin with a lecture on an old topic: the importance of working harder when the work gets challenging. Students did not do any homework the night before so their topic sentences, which were supposed to look a bit better today, have not improved at all. The general message is that I am holding them accountable for more this semester and that they are expected to work harder to reach these goals instead of giving up when it gets difficult. I state writing goals for this semester: move away from straight summaries, think conceptually, make arguments, and use precise vocabulary. I acknowledge that this is a lot to keep track of and that I know they are not used to this type of work, but insist that they need to do their part by trying my suggestions and taking risks. It is important that they know what my vision is for them and that they know what I expect from them. Having said that, we begin with the three guidelines for writing a clear and strong topic sentence that I gave them the day before. These were guidelines I added in the middle of the previous lesson after realizing they needed the extra support. Today, I have organized these and created a chart with the criteria for topic sentences. This visual is meant to help students keep track of what I am asking for. I asked student to make sure their topic sentences fulfill these three guidelines, but students did not do this. My guess is that the guidelines are abstract and they simply do not know how to communicate that in their sentences. This means that the problem has to do with the fact that they do not have full control of language and this gets in the way of controlling a basic function of language, which is that language communicates specific things. The space I have left blank on the chart is to give students the language they can use to communicate what the three bullet points are asking.

I project the chart on the board and show them where I have typed the three guidelines as a bulleted list. I read each bullet point and show them that I have transferred each bullet point to a column in the chart. I begin with the middle column because it is the easiest one. This column is simply asking students to make it clear they are commenting on a specific point made in Emerson’s essay. I ask students what words they can add to their sentence to communicate this and several begin to suggest things as I write them on the chart. These are the phrases we end up listing in this column:

Emerson points out that…

Emerson expresses the idea that…

Emerson illustrates that…

Emerson implies that…

In “Self-Reliance” Emerson argues that…

Emerson’s belief that…

I move on to do the same for the third column, meaning I work together with students to come up with a list of words that can help them communicate their perspective of whichever point from the essay they are commenting on. At this point the chart looks like this. This may feel extremely structured, but I find it necessary because the task is calling for pretty complex sentences and my students were writing sentences that fell way short of this. For instance, one student’s topic sentence said, “Trust is found within yourself.” This sentence is explaining one of Emerson’s idea but there is no sense of whether this student agrees or disagrees with the idea or why. Once the list in the third column is done, I move on to use this structure on this same sentence, which the student had edited already. This student was addressing Emerson’s belief in trusting yourself. We selected one of the phrases from the middle column to begin her sentence, which I write at the bottom of the chart, as you can see in this video where I put all these pieces together. The first column cannot contain a list of suggested phrases because this refers to the part of the sentence where students argue why they agree/disagree by establishing an idea that reveals their perspective. The final sentence in this video is an example of what I want students to do in their topic sentences. 

Independent Work

30 minutes

I give students time to work on editing their topic sentences following this format. I look over their shoulder as they word reading the work they are producing. If I see that a student is still writing sentences that do not meet the criteria I set for them, I assist them.

I also distribute the second page of “Self Reliance” and tell students they are to read it on their own and do what we did to the first page. I list this set of tasks for them: circle challenging words that need definition, highlight important information, label figurative language and aphorisms, explain the most important examples of figurative language and aphorisms, state the central idea(s) of each paragraph as a bulleted list on the back of the paper. They finished reading the first page of “Self-Reliance” following this process a few days ago. During that time, I gave them a lot of support to successfully get through that reading. I want to give them an opportunity to do the same on their own.

They have the rest of the period to work on improving their topic sentences and read the second page of “Self-Reliance.” I tell students these are both due the next day.