Scaffolding for Independence (and Avoiding Acronym Overload)

Scaffolds are temporary structures intended to support and extend learning and move novices toward mastery. Effective scaffolds don’t substitute a simpler task for a more complex one; they support students in developing the procedural and conceptual knowledge that enables them to grapple with complexity. Over-scaffolding, on the other hand, undermines students’ autonomy by telling students what to do and how to do it.

What does over-scaffolding look like? It might look like a few too many acronyms. I’ve been thinking about what our students see—and what they learn—when we fill our curriculum or classroom with mnemonics for teaching literacy skills. Try making a list in your head of all the reading and writing acronyms you’ve seen over the years: TPCASTT, SOAPSTone, OSCAR, RAFT, DBQ, CER, DIDLS, SQ3R. The list goes on and on.

I proudly decorated my first classroom with colorful TPCASTT and OSCAR posters I made on my home computer. A quick search on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers yields thousands of charts for displaying popular teaching acronyms. It can almost seem like we can’t teach a concept or skill unless we encode it in an abbreviated form first.

But here’s the thing: These kinds of acronyms are often just a list of directions. They tell students what to do with the texts they’re reading or composing without developing their understanding of why they should be doing these things or how to change their approach when circumstances demand. A literacy strategy such as RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) or DIDLS (Diction, Imagery, Details, Language, Structure) unaccompanied by any exploration of underlying principles and purposes is just a mandate to do what the teacher says.

We can’t call this modeling expert thinking if we’re not also modeling the deeper concepts, practices, and provisions that experts draw on in doing their work. Too often, the acronym becomes just a shortcut to mimicry—a way to superficially imitate what experts do without engaging in the recursive, interrelated processes that characterize expertise.

What matters is not whether students know what’s a FATT sentence or a DOK question but the extent to which students can activate appropriate strategies and draw on principles as the situation warrants. It’s the questions students learn to ask about concepts such as audience, language, and structure that are important:

  • What are the audience’s values, needs, and interests?
  • How do the writer’s language choices affect the mood and tone?
  • How do the writer’s organizational choices shape the reader’s experience?

If students can’t unpack the questions and principles behind the acronym–principles such as academic discourse being characterized by a shared set of language conventions–the acronym may be getting in the way of deeper learning. The group of letters can seem like just one more thing students have to remember for school that they’ll never use in the real world.

Here’s my other worry about acronyms: they can trick us into thinking we’ve taught a literacy strategy when we haven’t yet. We introduce OSCAR, pass out some OSCAR graphic organizers, put the OSCAR poster up on the wall and believe we’ve taught a revision process when we’re really just getting started. Students learn to revise their writing by revising their writing. OSCAR might help make a few aspects of this process visible, but there’s no substitute for getting into the weeds with writers’ choices and readers’ reactions.

I’m guessing you probably don’t have a RAFT or SOAPSTone poster hanging in your home office or wherever you do your own reading and writing. And why not? Because when you have a deep understanding of literacy principles and processes, you don’t need an acronym to tell you what to do.

And that should be our goal for our students: the kind of expertise that lets them do their own work as readers, writers, and thinkers. Literacy instruction might start with modeling the practices of fluent readers and writers, but it shouldn’t stagnate there. Effective literacy instruction needs to move students beyond just copying someone else’s approach.

Expert learners have their own flexible processes for doing—and enjoying!–intellectual work.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

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