Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Slice of Life: Thinking About Scaffolding

I have been playing tennis for over a decade.  I still feel I have a lot to learn to improve my game, so about once a year, I sign up for a tennis clinic to get some tips on what could make me a better player.  I am always amazed at how well the instructors can pinpoint exactly what I am doing incorrectly after watching me hit just a few balls.  Just like what good teachers do, the instructors give me feedback – they tell me and then show me what I should be doing instead.  At one of the last tennis clinics, the instructor told me I needed to follow through with my racquet when hitting the ball.  He demonstrated how to swing the racquet from his right side, all the way around to the left where it contacted with his other hand.  When I still wasn’t doing it exactly right he went through the motions with me – guiding my arm with his as my racquet swung around my body and I caught it with my other hand.  As I ran through the practice drills he’d remind me, “Catch your racquet.” 

Other times, it’s been my feet that needed improving.  I’ve always run for the ball and swung, concentrating on reaching the ball and hitting it with my racquet, but with no regard for what my feet were doing.  According to my instructor, I was supposed to run, stop my feet, and then swing.  His teaching routine again consisted of explaining and showing me how it worked.  Throughout the follow-up practice he’d monitor the movement of my feet and if my technique was incorrect remind me of what I should be doing with, “Plant your feet, then swing.”

Throughout the tennis clinics, I see proof that these small changes to my technique can improve my game.  As I follow through with my racquet the ball has more force behind it and more often lands where I want it to on the other side of the court.  As I stop my feet and then swing, I’m more likely to hit the ball inside the opponent’s court rather than send it sailing out of bounds.  I always leave these tennis clinics knowing what I need to do to work on to be a better tennis player.  As I then play tennis matches in a non-instructional setting, I find myself repeating the words of my instructor.  I swing for the ball and the voice in my mind says, “Catch your racquet.”  I run up to the net for a short ball and hear myself say, “Plant your feet, then swing.”  When I swing, hit, and make an error, I think about what I did incorrectly – was I following through with my racquet, did I remember to stop my feet?  Whatever the error, I repeat the corresponding refrain in my head the next time I attempt to hit the ball.     

Following through with the instructor’s tips is much easier in the context of the clinic where someone is monitoring my progress, providing instruction and feedback, and reminding me of what I should be doing.  Repeating the phrases I’ve heard my instructor say to me, help me actually engage in the proper techniques when I don’t have a person to coach, guide, and support me along the way.  These phrases I repeat in my head and allow me to take what I’ve learned and do it on my own are similar to what Terry Thompson describes as “focus phrases” in his book The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers.”  A focus phrase is the goal for the student’s learning, but also serve as reminders that become the self-talk students engage in to become independent with the skill they are learning (Thompson, 2015).    

Using a focus phrase within instruction is just one way of scaffolding learning for students and keeping focused on the instructional goal.  Thompson has lots to say about scaffolding in his book, which is all so valuable, and I’ve begun to reflect on the effective use of scaffolding.  One of the important reminders I’ve taken from the book is that scaffolding is intended to provide supports, but temporarily, so that ultimately students can be independent.  My tennis instructor didn’t continue to do the work for me.  If he continued to hit the ball for me in demonstration or stand near me and physically help me carry out the motions I would never take on the techniques independently.  Instead, the responsibility for using the techniques I learned was released to me, as the simple reminders that were repeated often enough, became part of the inner conversation that accompanies me the next time I play on my own. 

No matter the skill or technique students are learning, the goal is independence.  The Construction Zone has helped to remind me to provide appropriate scaffolds and to be flexible in the their use so that students don’t continue to rely on the teacher, but instead take responsibility for their learning and become independent.  Thompson states, “If we truly expect readers and writers to take over, then we have to start shifting our teaching in a way that purposefully passes the instructional baton” (Thompson, 2015, p. 154).  Being mindful of scaffolding and how it is supporting students in taking on skills and strategies independently is essential.  Whether students have been taught a focus phrase or another strategy for scaffolding has been used, in the end, students should be doing the work.  This is when scaffolding is truly is effective because learning has occurred. 

Thompson, T.  (2015).  The construction zone: Building scaffolds for readers and writers.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


  1. I need to find this book. I'm intrigued by this focus phrase. Of course, we need to be writers and readers ourselves to give this kind of advice just like your tennis instructors are.

    1. Yes, so true, that we need to be readers and writers to be the most effective. It is a great book, you should definitely give it a read!

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