Language use and scaffolding writing

What follows is an excerpt from an article I wrote quite some time ago. It was published in an English journal that no longer operates, so I have taken the liberty to share this excerpt via this blog.

Mackenzie, N.M (2009).Becoming a writer: Language use and ‘scaffolding’ writing in the first six months of formal schooling. Journal of Reading Writing & Literacy, 4(2), 46-63.

This section from pages 53- 57, demonstrates the importance of using language in a way that is inclusive of young children. While this may sound simple, it is an art that takes a great deal of practice.

Language and Scaffolding

In the [first] three transcripts we meet some of the challenges for children relating to language or terminology associated with writing conventions.


In the first example below, one of the teachers is discussing ‘spacing between words’ with Andrew early in term 1.

Teacher: Where are you up to? Could you read me your story?…Could you read me your story please?

Andrew: I like to go to … [reads his story in a confident manner]

Teacher: What word’s next?

Andrew: My [confident response]

Teacher: ‘My’ … good boy, can you write ‘my’? I like the way you’ve got spaces between your words. ‘My’ … Okay, what’s next? Are you going to . . . what are you going to leave before you …?

Andrew: A space [confident response]

Teacher: You’re going to leave a space. Why do we leave a space?

Andrew: Umm, I don’t know [voice shows uncertainty]

Teacher: Do you think it could be to make it look good, or do you think it’s so we know when the next word starts, to make it easy to …

Andrew: So we know when the next word starts [confident response – sounds pleased]

Teacher: Yes, you are right . . . the spaces make it easier to read – look at them here in this book [shows Andrew the spaces between the words in a book that was on the table].

Discussion of the need for spacing is made in a number of ways, at the point of need, within the context of Andrew’s writing ‘work’. The ‘tone’ is positive and Andrew is given an explanation for a concept that he is already beginning to use but may not yet fully understand. His response to the teacher suggests that he is able to shift in his level of understanding in regard to one of the rules of the English language, that is, spacing between words. The teacher is able to assist the child to make this shift through her specific prompts. The researcher has classified this as an example of successful scaffolding.


In the second transcript a teacher is working with Beth, Byron and Ben on a shared story in the middle of term one, although Byron does not contribute to this part of the lesson apart from writing the ‘t’ on the board at the beginning on the interaction. The need for a capital letter at the start of the sentence is the teacher’s priority.

Teacher: Byron would you like to write the letter that makes the ‘t’ sound?

[Byron writes a well-constructed lower case ‘t’ on the board]

Teacher: Well done. . . fantastic. . . OK so Byron wrote the letter ‘t’ on the board . . . there’s something wrong with this letter ‘t’. . . OK – it’s the letter ‘t’ . . . what are those letters that we need to put at the beginning of a sentence? Who can remember what they’re called? . . . Beth?

Beth: A full stop? [confident response]

Teacher: We put a full stop at the end of a sentence . . . But our first letter at the beginning of a sentence has to be [voicegoes up – asking the question] . . . Ben?

Ben: The letter ‘t’ [uncertainty in his voice]

Teacher: Yes it’s the letter ‘t’ but does it have to be a big ‘t; or a small ‘t’? [the teacher’s voice sounds a little uncertain atthis point]

[Ben is heard in the background saying: ‘big . . . big truck? . . . big?]

Beth: Small ‘t’? [again sounding uncertain]

Teacher: Big ‘t’ or small ‘t’?. . . Beth? [the teacher sounds more definite at this point]

Beth: A big ‘t’? [voice goes up, asking a question rather than making a response]

Teacher: A big ‘t’. . . Would you like to come and write a big ‘t’ on the board for me

[Beth writes a capital T where the teacher indicates it should be]

Teacher: Well done – so we’ve got – oh – a big letter ‘t’. . . a capital letter – so we’re still looking at the word ‘to’ –‘today’. . . Byron – do you know the next letter in ‘to’?

[There is no response from Byron so the teacher moves to another child]

The lesson moves on with no further discussion of capital letters (or ‘big’ letters) as it seems the goal of a capital letter at the start of the sentence is achieved. The children’s ‘voices’ demonstrate confusion as they attempt to give the teacher what she wants. While the teacher is able to go back and forth between the two terms ‘capital’ and ‘big’ with ease this is not the case for the children involved in this lesson.

Do the children understand that in this lesson ‘capital’ and ‘big’ are synonymous? One wonders what is going through their minds as they grapple with the teacher’s notion of ‘big’ and their prior to school understanding of ‘big’.

This may be what Ben is trying to resolve when he talks to himself about the ‘big truck’. Why doesn’t Byron contribute to the conversation? Are the teacher and students on the same wavelength?

There is such a lot to learn about written language when you have only just started school


In the third example, a teacher is working with Carly, Caitlyn and Cody in a small group lesson also in the middle of term 1. The convention the teacher is emphasizing in the closing part of this lesson is the need for a ‘full stop’ (period) at the end of a sentence.

Teacher: Now you know what? . . . I’ll tell you a secret . . . none of the other Kinders [sic] know it. . . . a big secret . . . at the end of every sentence – and we’ve written a sentence here ‘I can see a school’. . . We’ve written a sentence haven’t we?. . . ‘I can see a school’ . . . at the end of each sentence we have to have something special. [The teacher speaks very quickly]

Cody: I know it [voice displays an eagerness to please]

Teacher: Cody . . . do you know what it is?

[Cody does not respond to the teacher’s request]

Teacher: Does anyone else know what we have to put at the end of a sentence to know . . . yep [sic] that is the end of the sentence?. . .think about our cut out sentences that we do – in our book. . . . and there’s always something at the end of the last word. . . can anyone think what is always at the end of the last word? What is it? [the speech is quite rapid]

Caitlyn: ‘a’ [a confident response]

Teacher: Nope [sic] . . . not an ‘a’. That’s not the end of every sentence

Carly: school? [voice going up as in a question]

Teacher: That’s the end of this sentence . . . that’s the last word but there’s something that is at the end of every single sentence. . . it’s called a full stop. . . it’s a dot next to the last word. And it’s called a full stop. . . A full stop – right at the end

[speed of speech seems to indicate a need to move on – that enough time has been spent on this]

Cody: A dot? [voice going up as in a question – very uncertain]

Teacher: Yes it’s just a dot – like that [voice sounds pleased and she demonstrates a full stop and the children all do one]. Perfect – well done all of you. . . That’s fantastic . . . That tells us . . . That’s what we have to put at the end of every single sentence. . . Not at the end of every word… never at the end of every word. . . Just at the end of a sentence [voice very authoritative]. Let’s read our sentence – to get it all together.

There is no further discussion of the ‘full stop’ or ‘dot’ as the lesson finishes and the children move to other tasks. This may seem a simple concept to those who are familiar with ‘full stops’, but to kindergarten children who have come to school having learned different meanings for ‘full’ and ‘stop’ to that inferred by the ‘dot’ placed at the end of a sentence, this can be confusing. While there was no fear in any of the children’s voices throughout the above lesson, there was a definite switch from the beginning of the transcript to the end: from confident to uncertain. In contrast, the teacher’s voice remained confident, strong and authoritative. In these last two examples it is not clear if any of the children involved have been able to move forward in their knowledge or understanding of the concepts being discussed.”

I wonder if these excerpts will help you reflect on your own use of language when you teach young children? A big thank you to the teachers who allowed me to record and transcribe their teaching. We cannot learn more about teaching without the generosity of teachers who welcome researchers into their worlds.

Published by nmackenz

My name is Noella Mackenzie and I am an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at Charles Sturt University, Albury-Wodonga Campus in NSW, Australia and a Senior Fellow of the Australian Literacy Educators' of Australia. I also work as an independent education consultant. I am also a daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother who loves to read, garden and travel. While my career has always been in education, there have been four distinct phases. The first phase was that of classroom teacher – teaching children from 5-12 years of age in a number of primary schools. The second phase of my career saw me working as a specialist professional development provider working with teachers in early intervention and special education. The third phase had me working as an academic at Charles Sturt University. That role involved me teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, researching and continuing my work with teachers and parents of young children. The fourth phase sees me working as an independent education consultant, supporting school systems and schools with professional learning input for teachers. I am passionate about teaching and in particular early literacy development. I am proudly the product of public education. I grew up on a farm and went to the local primary and high schools where I was fortunate to have some fabulous teachers. My Diploma of Education (Early Childhood) was earned at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in Wagga Wagga NSW. My Bachelor of Education, Master of Education and Doctor of Education qualifications were all earned at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Vic and were spread out over a number of years as I studied part time and worked full time. I completed my doctorate in 2004 and started work at CSU in the same year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: