Scaffolding English Language Learners to Read as Writers

Babita Sharma (babitasharma34@gmail.com)

As I reflect on my own experiences with creative writing I still remember how I started panicking or my mind went blank when my English teachers asked me to write a story or a poem in English. Now I understand, as a teacher, that this is a common phenomenon among the students who are learning English as a second or additional language.  In a Creative Writing session when the students are asked to create a piece of writing such as a story or a poem, the students are often confused and do not know where to begin. Therefore, to make writing lessons interesting and productive, teachers can use a “mentor text” as a medium of teaching some aspects of writer’s process or craft. Using mentor texts is a powerful tool for scaffolding the writers in creative writing. Even if the teachers are not great creative writers themselves, they can scaffold their learners to become good writers with the use of mentor texts; as Katie Wood Ray says in her book Wondrous Words, “With a room full of authors to help us teach, teaching writing doesn’t have to be so lonely.” (Ray, 1999)

Here I am going to share some of my successful creative writing sessions where mentor texts were used as tools for supporting the learners creating their own stories.

A few months ago I had conducted a writing session for a group of thirty English teachers from public schools of Nepal who came to Tamghas, a small town of Gulmi district, to learn English. The lesson aimed to help the teachers understand the importance of using mentor texts to teach creative writing.

I showed them the cover page of the book ‘The Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. (Brinckloe, 1986 )

On a summer evening I looked up from dinner, through the open window to the backyard. It was growing dark. My treehouse was a black shape in the tree and I wouldn’t go up there now. But something flickered there, a moment — I looked, and it was gone. It flickered again, over near the fence. Fireflies! “Don’t let your dinner get cold,” said Momma. I forked the meat and corn and potatoes into my mouth. “Please, may I go out? The fireflies — “Momma smiled, and Daddy nodded. “Go ahead,” they said. I ran from the table, down to the cellar to find a jar. I knew where to look, behind the stairs. The jars were dusty, and I polished one clean on my shirt. Then I ran back up, two steps at a time. “Holes,” I remembered, “so they can breathe.” And as quietly as I could, so she wouldn’t catch me dulling them, I poked holes in the top of the jar with Momma’s scissors……….

 

After showing the cover page I asked if they knew fireflies. I showed the picture on the cover page again to those who did not understand the term. I stuck two different pieces of paper having written ‘fireflies’ and ‘feelings’ on the board,  brainstormed some words related to the terms ‘fireflies’ and ‘feelings’ and wrote them around the key words. I read a few pages of the book carefully with expressions and ask them to predict whether or not the boy would be able to catch fireflies. Some participants shared their prediction. I read the whole story showing them the pictures and asked them to think of a time when they had a similar or different experience when they were young, for instance they might have tried to catch insects like butterflies, tadpoles, etc. I asked them to note the incident and write how they had felt while they caught or tried to catch something or they saw other people doing this. The participants who said they had a story to tell were sent to the writing corner to write down their story.

I read another simpler story named ‘Mela’ to the teachers who stayed back because they hadn’t had any story to tell yet.

Mela

By: Babita Chapagain

It was Saturday. Sita went to the market to see a Mela. To her surprise, she saw lots of funny people there. There were five men dancing on the stage.  There were ten shopkeepers selling pets and toys. There were five mothers carrying their babies on their backs. There were thirteen children playing volleyball. There were two elephants with two children riding on each of them. There were ten jokers wearing masks. There was a woman singing a song. There was a man selling balloons. There were 15 children sitting in a circle and playing ‘Hot Potato.’ They all looked very funny. I could not believe my eyes.

Can you answer how many people and animals were present in the Mela?

 

 

Similarly we discussed if they have attended this kind of gathering in their town. They were asked to go to the writing corner to write if they have a similar or different story to share about any festival or fair they have attended. Some learners who were not sure what to write I read to them a very short story named ‘ Birthday Gifts…’ which they could easily relate to their life experiences.

Birthday Gifts

By: Babita Chapagain

Today is my sister Aruna’s birthday. I go in her bedroom with a green circular gift. Baba and Amma come in with a red square gift. My grandmother and grandfather come in with white beautiful triangular gift. My sister is still sleeping. We wait there until my sister wakes up. We wait there until Aruna wakes up with the gifts in our hands. Then she wakes up. SURPRISE!!! We all hug my sister. It is the most wonderful birthday my sister has ever had.

 

Now they were asked if they remembered someone’s birthday celebration and if they have a similar or different story to tell about them. Now they all went to the writing corner to write their story.

After writing the first draft they all sat in the groups of two and shared the stories with their partners. Some of the interested students read their story to the whole class. Then I explained that good readers think about what is happening in a story and they try to remember something similar that has happened in their own life. They do this to help them understand the story better. This is called a text-to-self connection.

I read all three stories again and we discussed the sequence of events and authors’ writing style/craft which they used to make the language interesting. For instance: a lot of repetitions, e.g.  “Fireflies! Blinking on, blinking off, dipping low, soaring high above my head, making circles around the moon, like stars dancing”; expressions, e.g. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” and other interesting language  used, e.g. “I can catch hundreds!”

Then we discussed “The Five parts to Reading like a Writer” from the book Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom by Katie Wood Ray, p. 120 (Ray, 1999)

 

The Five parts to Reading like a Writer From Wondrous by Katie Wood Ray, p. 120

 

1.    Notice something about the text.

2.    Talk about it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.

3.    Give the craft a name.

4.    Think of other texts you know. Have you seen this craft before?

5.    Try and envision using this craft in your own writing.

 

They wrote the second draft adding some more details and description about the character’s actions and feelings, trying to make their language more interesting. They shared it to the whole class and gave each other some productive feedback to improve their story. Then, they wrote the final draft and made a story book with some beautiful illustrations.

Finally, the participants reflected on the writing session. Our conclusion was that mentor texts can be used as a powerful tool for scaffolding the learners in creative writing. The trainee teachers were very happy being able to produce a story book and were determined to do this activity in their school. The books they developed and their feedbacks on the session made me feel like it was the most successful experience.

Looking back at my blissful experiences of teaching creative writing I remember what Katie Wood Ray wrote: “Everything we know as writers we know as readers first.” (Ray, 1999) I hope the trainee teachers, with whom I had spent so many hours creating stories for children, will continue to read children’s literature, develop reading materials for children and make an effort to help their students to read stories as writers and become more creative.

References

Brinckloe, Julie (1986) Fireflies, Aladdin Paperbacks, United States

Ray, Katie Wood (1999) Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom, National Council of Teachers of English

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4 responses

  1. ‘very beautiful and applicable idea for teaching creativity. a good teacher shouldn’t miss it. hope to get another in next issue.

    Like

  2. miss babita keep on posting such type of useful techniques of teaching ….it is applicable for all teachers who are teaching English all over the world as second language or additional language…….

    Like

  3. Hi Babita,

    I just read your article, very interesting and nicely written. I wish to read more…

    Like

  4. I enjoyed reading this Babita – and think it’s useful for teachers. It reminded me how engaging creative writing can be as an activity if it’s scaffolded well, like you do

    Like

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