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Beyond the Formula: Using Strategic Scaffolding to Foster Critical Thinking and Authentic Writing

  • Author(s): Lonnecker, M. Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Scharton, Susan;
  • Forbes, Cheryl
  • et al.

Much writing instruction in high school is based on using formulas and templates, such as the 5-paragraph essay. Writing these types of essays does not necessarily give students the skills and strategies they need to be successful writers beyond high school (Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senate, 2002). Consequently, many students are graduating from high school unprepared for college and workplace writing tasks (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006; Kline & Williams, 2007). In addition, formulaic writing does not necessarily foster critical thinking skills (Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senate, 2002). Struggling students, specifically, often receive this kind of writing instruction based on templates because of the perception that they need remediation before they can compose more sophisticated texts (Brannon et al., 2008).

The Beyond the Formula (BTF) curriculum was designed to provide scaffolds that foster critical thinking as a foundation for composing texts instead of requiring students to adhere to a formula. With the BTF curriculum, students analyze information from various sources about current topics and then compose texts based on rhetorical strategies, instead of using a prescribed formula. BTF was implemented in a twelfth-grade English class in a Southern California public high school. The school is designated as a Title I school. The racial demographics of the students are: 13.5% African-American, 76.7% Latino/Hispanic, 7.4% Caucasian and 1.3% Asian. The activities were designed to provide scaffolds to struggling students in order to give them access to curriculum that promoted critical thinking. In addition, the curriculum topics were based on current events in order to foster student engagement and interest.

The teacher-researcher used rubrics, student interviews and essay excerpts for the evaluation. The data analysis indicates that strategic scaffolding can provide students with sufficient support to produce texts without using a formula or template. Additionally, students of all levels can participate in the prerequisite critical-thinking activities required for these kinds of writing tasks. However, struggling students need more guided instruction and practice with writing strategies and conventions to produce proficient texts. Overall, the data demonstrates that students of all levels can participate in higher-level thinking and writing activities with the support of effective scaffolds.

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