Classroom Strategies

Top 5 Questions About ELA Scaffolding in High School

What do we do when they “don’t get it”?

Recently, Aligned published a helpful post about the challenges and FAQs of ELA scaffolding in elementary classrooms. If you are anything like me, you are a high school teacher who has spent a lot of time at professional development meetings hearing passionate educators wax rhapsodic about learning strategies that sound perfect…for elementary students. I would say that the number one question I leave PD sessions with is “How do I make this great idea work with high school kids?”

With that in mind, I would like to share some of my thoughts about the five most common questions I hear with regard to scaffolding text with high school students.

1.What strategies do you use to address vocabulary deficits?

The sad reality is that “Weekly Vocab”- style lists tend not to work. Giving kids words for memorization without the aid of context is a fool’s errand. They will retain the knowledge just long enough for use on the quiz, and then it’s gone. The truly powerful strategies for vocabulary building and retention lie in context. With my students, I am very deliberate at building the skills to “figure out” the words given the context of the sentence or paragraph. Not only is this the way that vocabulary is usually assessed at the state level, but it also provides a road map for students to figure out approximate meanings of words “in the wild,” be that in a classroom setting or beyond. Even something as simple as understanding whether a word appears to have a positive or negative connotation can help with a student’s general understanding of a piece.

2. Teachers are concerned that students will become frustrated or disinterested when faced with challenging texts with which they may not initially be successful. How do you help students persevere? What strategies keep motivation high even when students struggle?

I believe the number one way to combat frustration and disinterest in challenging material is to help students see how the text is relevant, at least to some degree, to themselves. Relevance takes many forms, and is not just tied to their interests outside of school. For example, when my classes read Othello (a historically low-interest challenging text), I had them pair it with an ongoing blog that they wrote following the theme of jealousy. They were required to find articles that pertained to jealousy and its effects on people’s behavior, read and summarize the articles, and provide personal connections to the text. This allowed each individual student to find articles that best suited their reading skills without any kind of “call out” culture developing around lower-level readers. (See blog example below.)

I have also had success by pairing low-level/high-interest anchor texts with supplemental challenging texts to reinforce theme. When my classes read Unwind by Neal Schusterman (Lexile level 740), we often took real-world articles related to the themes of abortion and troubled teens and used them for comparison points. I paired these with writing exercises based on character. Usually we would select materials for this closer to the 1200-1400 Lexile level.

3. The reality is that many teachers are working with what they have: grade-level curriculum. How can they ensure students are supported in accessing these texts through supplemental approaches when they must use the reading supplied in their curriculum?

The best way to approach supporting and accessing various challenging texts is to stick to the old idiom: variety is the spice of life! Don’t ever let the kids get bored with one reading strategy or another; constantly shake it up! I have used several different methods within an individual text to great success:

  • Chunking
  • Simplified text that gets more complex as you go
  • Station work differentiated by ability level
  • Using film versions (before, after, or during reading…usually as a comprehension enhancer and helpful “author’s/director’s choices” activity
  • Combining challenging text with easier, more relatable material

4. How can teachers make scaffolding doable in a whole-class setting? It can be challenging to deal with a lot of different reading levels all at the same time. Additionally, pre-teaching and scaffolding is time-consuming. How can you make it all work?

While many teachers are forced to meet in the middle with their students’ skill sets, there are a couple of fine resources available to help address varying reading levels within one classroom. One of the most successful in my experience has been, which allows teachers access to the same article presented at several different Lexile levels. That way, once you have pre-assessed student skill levels, these varied versions can be discreetly distributed to students based on need. Reading the article at a lower Lexile level can serve as an introduction to vocabulary and content that will allow my struggling students to participate in class discussion, and eventually access grade-level complex text on the topic once they have a stronger foundation.

5. Do you have strategies for allowing students to work independently with complex texts they may need scaffolding support with?

The most successful independent strategy I’ve employed has been focused independent reading. The combination of student-selected material and standards-based daily activities tied to that reading allows each student to deal with high-interest reading while getting in the necessary reps to improve reading skills. (Attached is an example of a weekly reading log used in my classes. The “Caught Ya” portion is a daily grammar correction exercise. I convert the 4-point grading rubric to 100 point scores).

If you are concerned about the material selected for independent reading not being complex enough, you could always offer book selections grouped by reading level. This requires a lot of work on the front end, but can offer students some guidance on what kind of reading will increase their fluency.



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About the Author: Rob Woodworth has been a High School English teacher for ten years. He has worked as a PLC lead for English 10 accountability year teams for nine of those. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English & Creative Writing and a Master of Science in Secondary Education, both from Indiana University. His dog’s name is Phil, and there’s no teaching Phil.