Friday, September 9, 2016

Give students a hand: scaffolding WL writing activities to lower filter and increase success!


Providing on-target scaffolding to promote student success


This week marked the apertura de clases at my school.   I was very excited to get to know the students. I had already prepared this "I want to know you activity" and these "Spice it up writing prompts" to thoroughly engage my upper level Spanish class. I just knew everything was going to flow so smoothly the first week right before we jump into the real learning;  I was wrong.

The first day as students started to introduce themselves and I probed them with extremely basic questions with the dual purpose of getting to know them and surmising their potential placement on the language continuum To my surprise, some upper level students students showed difficulty in responding to novice-low and mid questions. One student in particular, struggled to understand a very basic question such as ¿Tú trabajas?  I was baffled, even more so when he told me "Spanish 4 is like Spanish 1 all over again,"referring to the perceived  level of his classmates (some students are in the class because they want to improve their language level before going to AP; others  were not eligible for AP hence a negative outlook on their ability).  One thing was clear,  prior to giving the first fun writing activity, I had a lot of work to do.

Languishing Language Skills 

As I conferenced with students asking them about their summer, I noticed that many students had a uphill battle speaking the target language, using simple albeit accurate structures. The issue was pervasive.  This got me to thinking about the nature of input. When you think about input and learning a language, it is comparable to building a muscle; you use it or lose it. I then realized that many students inaugurating the school year:

  • Have been two and a half months removed from the language context
  • Their language skills atrophied over the summer 

Pass me another brick

In a sense, my student was correct. Students have returned to the embryonic stage of learning a language. I suspect that as the year progresses and they"ll start registering rich, and robust input and coincidentally; the language acquisition device in their minds will start to receive, perceive and reactive again. Until then, I have to proceed with caution and make sure my teaching is supportive, not presumptive and that for the next month or so I need to come along side them to pass them another brick and help them rebuild.

So back to the writing prompt 

Instead of giving them solely the writing prompt, which I'd use to collect soft data on their writing skills. I created the writing scaffolding practice below with the goal of:

  • Engaging students and lowering their affective filter
  • Allowing them to use each other as resources 
  • Helping them to identify their strengths and weaknesses so they can start mapping them out


The document reviews the basics of the present tense before they began writing. We spent about 20 minutes reviewing and working in pairs.  I have never felt a class be so calm. There was an uptick in participation (the first day they were understandably timid). The class was highly engaged and productive. 

I was glad I had done this because as I walked around I noticed students struggled with the present tense and ser/estar usage. We discussed it and they were allowed to use that along with a sheet I had compiled from online resources to guide their first writing. It was a great lesson!

Download the updated writing prompt and scaffolding activity here. 



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