How can we support students to write like subject experts in secondary schools?
Scaffolding writing is important for every subject. We need to show students how to write like a subject expert in every subject, for every task. Scaffolding means supporting students, then gradually reducing support as student become more proficient.
Writing becomes more difficult for students in each year of schooling, so teachers need to teach writing in each class and each year (Christie & Derewianka, 2008). That means you will still need to teach writing in Year 9 and Year 11, and Year 12. We can't assume that students know already. As students progress through the years of schooling, writing becomes more complex, both in terms of the ideas and knowledge of the subject and also linguistic complexity. So they need scaffolding support every year.
Most teachers already do a variety of scaffolding activities in their classes. The pedagogy outlined here is based on the Teaching and Learning cycle, the pedagogy associated with SFL that has a strong research base (Rose and Martin 2012) (see the About page for more on SFL).
Effective scaffolding for writing
The steps in scaffolding can be shown like this:
I do: the teacher models or shows how
We do (I lead): the teacher leads the class in creating a class text based on the model
You do (together): students work together in pairs or groups on a text similar to the model
You do (alone): the student works independently
These steps for scaffolding writing can be shown in the table below:
To make this work, you need to think of four texts
Teachers choose a short text, such as a paragraph to try first. Teachers prepare what they want to teach students about in the texts. If teachers know about language features, they should include the language features that they will focus on. The four texts have to be similar but not the same. They need to be the same genre (or purpose) and have the same features (same length, same complexity, same structure etc), but they need a slightly different topic focus.
Here are some examples of four suitable texts for this kind of scaffolding from subject areas
Science Year 8 on the topic: Properties of Metals.
Text 1: description of malleability
Text 2: description of ductility
Text 3: description of electrical conductivity
Text 4: description of thermal conductivity
PDHPE Year 8 on the topic: Bullying
Text 1: description of social bullying
Text 2: description of cyber bullying
Text 3: description of verbal bullying
Text 4: description of physical bullying
Visual Arts on the topic: Line
Text 1: description of line in Artwork 1
Text 2: description of line in Artwork 2
Text 3: description of line in Artwork 3
Text 4: description of line in Artwork 4
Scaffolding writing needs to happen as often as possible. Ideally, students should practise writing like this regularly, in every subject area.
When teachers have done a few of the paragraph-based texts together, then they can try longer texts.
Faculty planning for writing:
Plan a lesson where you write with students using this scaffolding process
Work with a colleague to draft a model text (e.g. a description), and then other similar texts for the supported writing stages
Try the lesson at a time when students are most alert and engaged.
Christie, F., & Derewianka, B. (2008). School Discourse. London and New York: Continuum.
Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn. Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. Sheffield & Bristol: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Rothery, J. (1994). Exploring literacy in school English. Sydney: Metropolitan East Disadvantaged School Program.
To reference this blog, please cite:
Weekes, T. (2021, August 22). Scaffolding writing in secondary school subjects. [Blog post]. Retrieved from: literacyinsecondaryschools.com.