6 Scaffolding Strategies & 16 tools to implement them during Remote Learning

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

I wish I could register every moment of confusion in my student’s eyes, peek over their shoulder at the passage they’re struggling with, and simply pull up a chair next to a student that needs help.

Instead, I’m scanning 25 miniature faces while squinting at tiny boxes of screens and frantically giving feedback as quickly as possible…all while also monitoring a chatbox and my inbox to troubleshoot inevitable tech issues.

Remote learning has turned my world upside down; some days I feel like I’m just treading water. 

I’ve used virtual station rotations, created discussion & debate groups, and utilized asynchronous instruction to alleviate some of the challenges of remote learning. However, even with creative lesson design, I feel that I’m leaving my struggling readers further behind because they don’t have the just-in-time support they have readily available in the classroom. 

So, in my never-ending attempt to reach all of my students, I began to look for strategies to scaffold student learning more effectively. I came across an excellent resource on Edutopia from Rebecca Alber, a literacy specialist and instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. I adapted her ideas by organizing tools I have used in the past to more intentionally scaffold student learning. I don’t use all 6 strategies during every lesson, but I felt they were worth sharing because they help translate the strategies you already utilize effectively in the classroom to an online setting in order to meet more of our students where they are at.

Here are Rebecaa Alber’s 6 Scaffolding Strategies and 16 tools to help implement them during remote learning: 
  1. Show & Tell: Model how to annotate and analyze a portion of the text, data, or documents through screencasting. Possible tools: Screencastomatic, Screencastify, Flipgrid Shorts.
  2. Tap into and build prior knowledge: Create spaces for students to share what they already know about a topic with their peers and build background by watching and discussing a video before tackling a difficult text. Possible tools: Loom, EdPuzzle, Padlet, Google Jamboard, Actively Learn Video Assignments
  3. Time to talk: Give students time to process new ideas and information. Also, re-introduce a vital component of the classroom– social interaction– by creating opportunities for student conversation while reading. Possible tools: Perusall, Actively Learn Notes, Google Doc Comments.
  4. Pre-teach vocabulary: Introduce words using visuals in the context students encounter them. Possible tools: Quizlet with images, Google Docs Explore and Define tools, Frayer model.
  5. Use Graphic Organizers: Help students visualize, connect, and organize new information. Possible tools: Kami, Graphic Organizer templates in Google Drawing
  6. Pause, Ask Questions, Pause, Review: Research shows that students who effectively use questioning strategies independently for informational texts are more likely to attain higher levels of academic success. Modeling effective questioning and providing students with sufficient time to prepare their responses can help them review critical ideas and deepen their understanding of challenging texts. Possible tools: Actively Learn, Pear Deck

Eggplants & ISIS: How to Fight Fake News

 “If you drink 3 glasses of eggplant juice everyday for 21 days you won’t have to ever wear contacts again!” Whenever an aunt shares such gems of nutrition advice, I don’t even have to ask where she got it from, the answer is always the same: WhatsApp or Facebook.

“We can’t let refugees into America because most of them are ISIS terrorists!” Whenever a student makes such sensational claims, I know he’s fallen for the latest story circulating on cable news, click-bait sites, or Twitter.

How could such well educated adults be victims of such clearly fake news?

I’m excited to report that Steve Edwards, Alden Loury & Odette Yousef of WBEZ and John Silva & Peter Adams of the News Literacy Project helped me start answering that question at the NewsLit Camp in Chicago and shared a number of practical strategies for combating fake news in the classroom.

Highlight of the Day: Nerding out with journalists I’d been listening to on WBEZ/NPR for the last 15 years!

Why do so many people consume & share fake news?

  • Financial Incentives: The more sensational and emotionally charged the content the more likely we are to click on it and share it. In a profit starved media landscape supported by advertising, click-bait sites and fake social media accounts have emerged with the sole purpose of attracting the most eyeballs & followers and selling them to the highest bidder.
  • Psychological Need: We get a dollop of dopamine when someone likes our tweet or post. We’re also hardwired to share whatever tidbit we know about a breaking story to see if it can be weaved into the broader narrative. (See: Shared Sense Making & Rumor Theory).
  • Prevalence: From talk radio to cable news and social media, we can’t escape it. Even if we abstain from all news media, stories find us via our family & friends.

What can we do about it?

  1. Get Nuanced: The more precisely we can help students label fake news, the more effectively we can help them fight it. Fake news take on many forms: manipulated content, satire, content, disinformation. (See this sample lesson from Checkology)
  2. Affirm but Probe: When students propagate ideas with little to no basis in fact, affirm their views and appreciate their willingness to share them. Then, help the student probe what may have shaped his or her views: Where did you hear that? What evidence supports that view? How might saying “X” make “Y” feel? What are other perspectives on the issue? What might lead people to feel that way?
  3. Uncover Bias: Our biases are rooted in race, class, political affiliation, and other identities. We often accuse various news sources of being biased because they threaten our worldview. (See: Hostile Media Effect).
    • Teaching Tip: Take the branding off of 3-5 articles on the same story from different news sites (e.g. CNN, Fox News, NPR, etc). See if students can identify which article came from which source. Discuss the extent to which the chart below is accurate or an oversimplification:


Too often journalists don’t belong to the communities they’re reporting on creating blind spots in their reporting. To help news organizations uncover them, ask students to contact local papers & news channels and ask them to participate in ASNE’s Newsroom Diversity Survey Have students share their findings by creating Wikipedia pages for local news organizations. Update their entry every year with the latest survey results.

4. Encourage Students to Take Action:

  • Ask students to reply to peddlers of fake news (and people who comment on it) with fact checks of their claims.
  • Show students how to do a reverse Image search to check the validity of suspicious pictures:

5. Get Grounded

5 Takeaways from ISTE 2018 for English/Language Arts Teachers

Here are some of the tools I came across at ISTE 2018 that seemed promising for English/Language Arts teachers. I especially appreciated that each tool kept the student  in the center while allowing teachers to provide critical support & feedback. No canned reading programs that students mindlessly click through here!

  1. READING: Activate, support, and reveal student thinking with Actively Learn.

 2. WRITING: Provide actionable feedback throughout the writing process with Writable.

 3. ANNOTATING: Students & teachers can organize annotations by color coded categories with Highlighting Tool, a free Google Doc add on.

 4. FLUENCY: Monitor student growth in pronunciation and support comprehension with a visual dictionary by using Fluency Tutor.

 5. SPEAKING & CREATIVITY: Break the ice and improve students’ speaking skills with an auto-generated slideshow of images based on a topic you choose in Pecha Flickr.

3 Takeaways from the 2017 SIOP National Conference

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend and present at the SIOP National Conference at the end of June. Although I gained a lot of ideas & strategies I can bring to my class, here are 3 things I hope to apply to my classroom this year:

1) Prepare students for a broader range of academic discourse

Most people believe there are two distinct modes of communication—how we talk with our friends & family and how we read and write at school & work. Conversational language (popularly known as BICS or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) versus academic language are false dichotomies. In schools, workplaces, and daily life, there are a range of settings that require some use of academic language.

As teachers, we must be aware of the academic language demands on our students and strive to prepare them from a wide variety of language needs. We can do this by not just assigning strictly academic papers by writing, reading, and speaking for a wider variety of authentic contexts.

2) Give students significantly more meaningful interaction with new words

Dr. Deborah Short shared research that shows that students need 12-15 meaningful exposures to a word before it becomes a part of their lexicon.

How can we create word-rich schools?

  • Create word walls so students can easily review and use new words
  • Collaborate with teachers across subject areas to coordinate which words are taught and deliberately design assignments that elicit the use of new vocabulary
  • Teach root words! Teaching a short list of root words (and reviewing them throughout the year!) can help students understand thousands of words that are unfamiliar to them.

3) Read aloud to students more often

In the book In Defense of Read Aloud Prof. Steven Layne argues that teachers should skillfully use their diction, volume, pace, tone and pitch to bring texts to life. Reading aloud helps students see and hear the narrative and appreciate stories in ways silent reading never could. Reading out loud for students has clear benefits:

  • Students can access texts that contain vocabulary, text structures, etc, more than 2 grade levels above their current reading level
  • Fosters positive attitudes toward books & texts
  • Exercises students’ imagination
  • Builds background knowledge
  • Reinforces & improves reading skills
  • Provides a model of prosody and fluency
  • Broader interests in genres
  • Increases cultural sensitivity (if the appropriate texts are selected)
  • Improves listening skills


Annotating for Critical Literacy

SOURCE: New York Times

One simple way to teach students to critically examine texts from various lenses is to utilize targeted annotation techniques.  There are numerous guides for how to increase students’ comprehension by previewing texts, actively reading, summarizing, etc. One especially useful guide is from Susan Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Writing Programs at Harvard University. Guides like this can be useful for showing teachers and students what approaches to use across all texts: underlining main ideas, circling key terms, etc.  However, when you want students to analyze texts more critically, it is vital to have students make more focused annotations which have the power to change students’ perspectives while they read.

For example, if you would like students to analyze the economic, environmental and humanitarian benefits and costs of building the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, you could have students write econ +/-, env +/-, and hum +/- in the margin when they come across evidence that falls in one of those categories. Doing so would draw students’ attention beyond main ideas and supporting details the author used to support his or her argument to a more critical stance analyzing the issue from three different perspectives simultaneously.

After reading and annotating the text, students could be asked to summarize the various positives and negatives and come to their own conclusion as to whether the dam should have been built.  Through the strategic use of annotation techniques students ability to employ various critical lenses can improve significantly.


While reading, identify lines that show Economic, Environmental, and Social  positive (+) and negative (-) effects of building the 3 Gorges Dam.  

  •        Econ.: How will the dam help or hurt China’s economy?
  •        Env. : How will the dam help or hurt the environment?
  •        Hum.: How will people’s lives improve or change for the worse due to the dam?

This annotation technique was used with an edited version of the article The Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for their Human Cost

Critiquing Student Blogging, Genius Hour & Passion Projects

Students blogging about a topic they are passionate about is an example of authentic literacy pedagogy.  Instead of all students reading & researching the same topic, students have the opportunity to select a topic they are interested in and write periodic reflections on the topic.  This approach has become increasingly popular through various names such as genius hour, passion projects or 20% time. (NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about these types of projects, I strongly encourage you to follow @JoyKirr on Twitter, she’s an incredible resource!).   One of the major selling points of these projects is the incredible levels of student engagement seen through these projects. However, there can be significant drawbacks as well. 

The benefit of these approaches is that they maximize students’ intrinsic motivation and immerse them in a literacy rich environment that leverages their curiosity.   A potential drawback of this student-centered approach is that while students are engaged they may not become particularly skilled in evaluating sources, reading critically and thoughtfully organizing writing that generally occurs through more teacher directed projects. 

My students have been doing Passion Projects for almost 5 years and while I had this initial high of maximizing student choice and, in turn, engagement, I have found that every year  I need to tweak the amount of choice I give students. While I have increased student choice in the range of topics students research and formats for showing final learning, I have found that I need to limit the options they have for how they share their learning periodically via blog posts. 

First, I now require my students to connect the broad research questions and sub questions they develop with overarching course principles to guide their research instead of simply  exploring any topic that interest them. Second, I require students to write carefully organized blog posts with claim statements and supporting evidence so that students are motivated to read texts, watch videos and/or listen to podcasts not just for enjoyment but also with the critical eye of a detective looking for evidence.  

I have found that when students are asked to develop and and answer research questions their inquiries becomes more focused and fruitful. Students’ blog posts also become more organized because they now have to carefully provide evidence to support the answers to their research questions instead of just sharing what they learned in the past week.

Therefore, projects that incorporate 100% authentic literacy pedagogy may be highly engaging but not always effective for improving students’ literacy skills. There is a greater likelihood of students being motivated while learning fundamental literacy skills when the student-centered learning also includes challenging tasks deliberately designed by the teacher that push students to carefully organize their thinking & writing.

Rethinking the DBQ

Offering students productive diversity creates memorable learning experiences because they are tailored to students interests & needs. Productive diversity encourages learning activities in which students:

  • are designers of knowledge
  • work collaboratively to offer feedback
  • differentiate the process & pace of learning
  • reach similar but high goals

I recently tried to offer English Language Learners productive diversity while they studied the transatlantic slave trade. Instead of asking all students to analyze the same documents/primary sources and write the same Document Based Question (DBQ) essay, students worked in pairs to create first-person video stories about an African’s journey from Africa .  Students used a free online video editing tool (WeVideo), primary sources, and this rubric to create their videos.

For the most part, the project demonstrated productive diversity because

  • Students developed their own understanding of the slave trade by analyzing documents in order to come to their own conclusions.
  • They worked in peers to offer feedback on the storyline and historical details.
  • There was some differentiation of the pace but all students created a video.
  • There were different degrees of imagination, historical detail and audio & video editing students could tackle but they were assessed with the same flexible rubric.

Here is a sample video of the final product:

Can blogs kill textbooks?

The textbook is a peculiar knowledge artifact according to Dr. Cope at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

  • For efficiency’s sake, it summarizes the world; it is synoptic. There is no need for learners to discern what is more or less relevant knowledge, because this has been decided for them.

  • One author or group of authors does the summarizing; it takes the form of monologue. The textbook purports to be a complete and definite statement of what is to-be-known.

  • Facts, definitions and theorems are laid out in a strict order, from the simpler to the more complex, to optimize retention of the knowledge being transmitted. Students are positioned as knowledge consumers, consuming that knowledge step by step in the order that has been deemed correct for them.

21st century digital media can overcome the shortcomings of textbooks.

Using Blogger , WordPress or other blogging sites to structure student inquiry projects can be an effective way to leverage digital media. Blogging creates an authentic audience for student work, allows them to link to and analyze various digital sources and invites students to comment on their classmates’ work.

By blogging, students become knowledge creators because it allows for multi-modal, multi-directional inquiry where students’ curiosity fuels the learning. If you are interested in using blogger with your students, you may find this video to be helpful:

Strategies for Teaching Social Studies to ELLs

As we near the beginning of the school year, I thought it would be helpful for me to brush up on some strategies and develop a few more tools for the teaching toolbox this year. Below are some guides that I found helpful, see links below. 

  • ELLs and Social Studies (NYU) 
    • Analyzes difficulties with multiple meanings of common social studies words
    • Provides strategies to deepen students comprehension of challenging texts with examples of application: T-Notes, analogies, cause-effect chains, concept circles
    • How to brainstorm to activate prior knowledge 
    • Previewing content vocabulary 
    • When, if ever, to use multiple choice questions 
    • Teaching students to self-assess
SOURCE: http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/


    • Making Social Studies Meaningful for ELL Students (Long Island University: Szpara & Ahmad) 
      • An academic paper but contains a number of research-based specific suggestions for teaching ELLs: 
        • Develop a Socially Supportive Classroom Environment: 
          • Learn students’ given/ethnic names 
          • Learn basic greetings in various languages 
          • Explicitly voice high expectations for all students 
        • Explicitly teach Cognitive Academic Language 
          • Give instruction in literacy skills
          • Teach how to decode new terms 
          • Teach how to skim & scan 
        • Reduce Cognitive Load and Increase Accessibility of Complex Content Knowledge: 
          • Translate key words in English instructions for DBQs 
          • Utilize visual supports 
          • Use graphic organizers—write down all important information 
      • Visualizing Social Studies Literacy 
        • Excellent specific examples of how to incorporate visuals that will increase accessibility for ELLS: 
          • Picture Dictionaries & Picture Books 
          • Historical Photographs 
          • Paintings & Illustrations 
          • Propaganda Posters 
          • Charts & Graphs 
          • Realia 
          • Timelines 
          • Graphic Organizers 

Don’t (just) Write for your Teacher

Want students to write better? Have more clear organization and forceful arguments? Want them to proofread more carefully?

Have them write for an audience:

“When students were asked to write for a real audience in another country, their essays had better organization and content than when they were writing for their teacher. When asked to contribute to a wiki—a space that’s highly public and where the audience can respond by deleting or changing your words—college students snapped to attention, carefully checking sources and including more of them to back up their work. Brenna Clarke Gray, an instructor at Douglas College in British Columbia, had her English students create Wikipedia entries on Canadian writers, to see if it would get them to take the assignment more seriously. She was stunned at how well it worked. “Often they’re handing in these essays without any citations, but with Wikipedia they suddenly were staying up till 2 am, honing and rewriting the entries and carefully sourcing everything,” she tells me. The reason, the students explained to her, was that their audience—the Wikipedia community—was quite gimlet-eyed and critical. They were harder “graders” than Gray herself.
Interestingly, the audience effect doesn’t necessarily require a big audience. This seems particularly true online.
Many people have told me that they feel the dynamic kick in with even a tiny handful of viewers. I’d argue that the cognitive shift in going from an audience of zero (talking to yourself) to an audience of 10 (a few friends or random strangers checking out your online post) is so big that it’s actually huger than going from 10 people to a million.”

This is why my students blog.  

Read the entire article on Wired.

What are other ways we can provide students an audience and help improve their writing?