Tool for the Field #2


Many teens aren’t good readers. They need more scaffolding. This tool provides scaffolds to reading, especially for students in the upper grades.

The idea is “writing to read.” It turns out that writing is a good way to learn to read better. In fact, teens don’t usually benefit from additional formal instruction in reading. That boat has left the dock.

But they do need more experience connecting their own thoughts to what they try to read. In other words, they need to actively engage what they read. It’s harder than it might sound for these reluctant readers.

Writing is one way to get that engagement. Connections between reading, writing, and talking are rich and deep. Helping older readers improve through writing makes sense.

Before using any of these ideas, talk over what you want to do and why with your teacher or team. You may need more or less help. It depends on the student and the activity.

As you will see in what follows, scaffolding always involves some improvisation. With practice, and with your team’s help, you will get better at it. The bullet points are actually tips for improvising the scaffolding.

Three Ideas to Scaffold the Act of Reading*

  1. Have the student annotate the textwhile reading.Give the student a copy of the text. Explain that the point is to write notes right on the text page. The notes record ideas or questions or personal reactions.
  • Afterwards, you can talk through the students’ notes. Ask questions. Add your own observations. Learn from the student what’s needed to deepen engagement!
  • Vary the text to suit the student’s reading level and current interests. Length, complexity, reading level, and topic can all be varied.
  • You can specify certain sorts of notes. These might include questions about vocabulary, or about unclear meaning, or reactions to the author’s ideas or opinions.
  • Sometimes a student will have trouble adding notes to a page of text. If it’s better for the student, prepare a separate sheet for the notes.
  • Here’s another variation. You can have the student rehearse the notes aloud beforewriting them down.

  1. Have the student summarize the text. Again, this scaffold can be adjusted to meet the needs of any student.
  • You might start by talking about whatever the student thinks might help with the summary. Maybe the student wants to re-read the text. Maybe the student wants both of you to read it aloud together. This can help the student get a better idea about what the text says. Then you can guide the student during the summary writing itself.
  • You can assign a summary of any length: a single sentence, two sentences, a paragraph, and so forth. You can impose a word limit: 10 words, 25 words, 200 words—whatever is within the student’s reach with just a bit of extra effort. Scaffolds stretch the student a little. Too much is not good!
  • You can make a general guide for creating summaries. And the guide can come in several different versions to match different reading levels.
  • As you can see, there are many variations of this activity you can use.

  1. Have the students analyze, critique, or interpret the text. Whoa! Is this serious?? Yes!!! See the FAQ for the explanation.
  • Struggling readers are seldom given this task. Many people think that good readers are the only ones who can do this. So, for that very reason, it is critical that you give struggling readers permission to analyze, critique, and interpret. And it’s critical to help them do this work!
  • You already know that any task can be scaffolded! And this is a task that needs scaffolding for most students, even good readers.
  • As is the case with other scaffolds, numerous variations of this one are possible. To help you learn a bit more about this task, check out the FAQ below.

*The teaching ideas are based on suggestions in Graham, S., & Hebert, M. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from

FAQs for Teaching Idea #3

Q.  Isn’t “analysis” something that only experts should do?
A.  Analysis is about taking a text apart to see how the pieces contribute to the whole. It’s a kind of summary with comments about how things fit together. Anyone can do analysis, though it takes lots of practice to become good at it.

Q.  I thought the expression “it’s just your interpretation” is one way to tell someone they’re wrong. Why do we want students to give their interpretation anyhow?
A.  An interpretation is also like a summary. But it’s a summary with a point of view. So, it requires the writer to describe that viewpoint and apply it to the text. A simple example might be to ask a student to talk about the action in a story from the viewpoints of different characters.

Q.  How is “critique” different from criticism? Do we really want to encourage students to give criticism?
A. Critique is like criticism, and we do want students to give criticism. The thing is to help them say more than “I don’t like it.” Instead, we want them to be precise—to say what they don’t like and why. Critique starts with a summary. It uses a viewpoint. And, most importantly, it offers reasons for a judgment.

Debriefing the Tool

For all readers, the point of reading is to make sense of the text. When we talk and listen, making sense seems easy. But comprehending written material has an added layer of difficulty. Readers have to decipher the letters and their sounds as well as the words, sentences, paragraphs, and major sections of the text. There’s a lot of work involved in understanding a text. Each step is important; but putting it all together is the sense-making part. Students often don’t get enough help with that work: especially if they are struggling readers!

If you are talking to someone and you don’t understand them, you can ask the speaker for a repetition or an explanation. Maybe you didn’t hear clearly. Or maybe you heard clearly, but still didn’t get the point. If the speaker is right there with you, he or she can provide help.

With reading comprehension, you can have the same problems. You might have trouble understanding the words or understanding the big ideas. But, with reading, It doesn’t look like you can ask the text to explain itself. And it doesn’t look like you can talk back to the text!

But “appearances are deceiving.” Talking back to the text is exactly what writing to read encourages! When you write about a text, you’re talking back to it. In fact, talking back to texts is the whole point. When someone starts talking back to a text, we call it engagement. Educators want to encourage engagement. It’s a very active form of comprehension.