Tool for the Field #2


This tool deals with reading in the upper grades. Why? The reason is that so many adolescents have not yet become proficient, let alone expert, readers. They continue to need scaffolding.

The idea here is “writing to read.” It turns out that writing is a good way—especially for adolescents—to learn to read better. In fact, adolescents don’t usually benefit from additional formal instruction in reading—that boat has left the dock. But they do need more experience connecting their thoughts to what they read: more experience actively engaging what they read. And writing is an excellent way to cultivate that engagement. Connections between reading and writing and talking are rich and deep: and the scaffolding can be built using those connections, as this tool illustrates.

Before using any of these ideas, talk over what you want to do and why with your supervising teacher or instructional team. You may need more or less help, depending 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 improvising. The bullet points are actually tips for improvising the scaffolding.

Three Ideas to Scaffold the Act of Reading*

  1. Have the student annotate the text as she or he reads or re-reads it.  Give the student a copy of the text and explain that the point is to write ideas or questions or personal reactions right on the text page, as he or she reads.
  • Afterwards, you can talk through the annotations with the student: ask questions, add your own observations, get ideas for how to extend the student’s engagement with the text.
  • You can vary the text to suit the student’s “zone of proximal development” (reading level and current interests): length, complexity, reading level, and topic can all be varied.
  • You can specify certain sorts of annotations—questions about vocabulary, or about unclear meaning, or differences of opinion as compared to those of the author, and so forth.
  • You can prepare a separate sheet on which to record annotations, if that seems less confusing.
  • You can even scaffold the scaffold, by having students rehearse their annotations aloud before writing them down.

  1. Have the student summarize the text. Again, this scaffold can be built to accommodate the student wherever he or she is at.
  • You might start by talking through whatever the student considers relevant. This exercise might suggest that the student needs to re-read the text, or that you and the student need to read it aloud—in order to get a better idea about what it “says.” Then you can guide the student to write the summary.
  • 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 the “zone of proximal development” suggests might be good choices.
  • You can provide a general guide for creating a summary. And several different versions of such guides can be created, for students at different reading levels.
  • Again, the kinds of variations for this activity are, if not infinite, truly numerous!

  1. Have the students analyze, critique, or interpret the text. The FAQ explains the related ideas of analysis, critique, and interpretation.
  • Struggling readers are seldom given this task, on the assumption that only proficient readers can analyze, interpret, or critique a text. So for that very reason it is critical that struggling readers be given permission to do this work!
  • And you know that any task can be scaffolded! Helping a student analyze, critique, and interpret what he or she reads might be a task for which you may want some scaffolding.
  • That is, you will probably need expert help (scaffolding for your own work with the student). Find a sympathetic teacher or team member to help you.
  • In any case, the same types of variations are possible with this activity as for annotating or summarizing a text. To help you learn a bit more about this task, check out the FAQs 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 detailed sort of summary, but with comments about how things fit together. Anyone can do analysis, though it takes lots of practice to become expert.

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.   Interpretation is also like a summary, but one that imposes a particular viewpoint: the task requires the writer to describe that viewpoint and apply it to the text. Interpretation summaries one text from the viewpoint of another. For that reason, it’s a bit more difficult than analysis.

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 specify exactly what they don’t like, but more importantly why others should care—what the reasons are in detail.

Debriefing the Tool

For all readers, the point of reading is comprehension: making sense of the text. As compared to comprehending what someone is saying, comprehending written material has another layer of difficulty. Readers have to decipher the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and major sections of the text. Then they put it all together in their minds—that is the sense-making part.

If you are talking to someone and you don’t understand, you can ask the speaker for a repetition or an explanation. Repetition is needed when you haven’t deciphered correctly (that is, didn’t accurately hear what was said). Explanation is needed, however, when you have deciphered correctly, but still don’t get the point. Reading comprehension confronts both problems, but here’s the difference: it doesn’t look like you can ask the text to explain itself, and you don’t get to talk back to the text …. or can you, and do you?

Talking back to the text is exactly what writing to read encourages: when you write about the text, you do get to talk back to it! In fact, talking back to texts is the whole point because it’s a very active form of comprehension. So, when these activities work well, students read better: they learn to force texts to mean something to them. This sort of reading is hard work, so novices definitely need the scaffolding you can supply.