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Scaffolding the Reading of Seventh-Grade English Learners: How Much is too Much?


First, make sure the kids know what you are up to, that they have English dictionaries, and that they recognize what the challenge is. Rereading and background knowledge are particularly important scaffolds. 

Teacher question

I currently teach English as a Second Language to grades 6-8. Next year I will have high beginners, many of whose spring MapR reading scores are in the K-1 range (153-165), and many of whom had interrupted education in their home countries. Where I teach your work is cited as the basis for a requirement that we give all students, regardless of their ESOL level, grade-level texts in English in ESOL class.

While I am OK with scaffolding up 3 or 4 grade levels, I think the gap between readers at a K or 1 level and a 7th-grade text is too great to help advance the students’ reading, particularly when the reading is in the students’ second language.

I found in one of your blogs that you recommended staying with relatively easy books with older readers who are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level; the response from my county’s staff when I showed them your blog was that it can be difficult for teachers to adjust their paradigm. Can you please clarify about how many grade levels above an ESOL students’ English reading level a text in English should be?

As a novice skier, I’d freak out if someone put me on a black slope. I could get down the mountain, but I’d be on my fanny most of the way, and I don’t think my skiing would improve overall. Thanks in advance for your time in responding.

Shanahan’s response      

This would be an easier question if you were asking about native speakers. With them, the idea would be to give the decoding parts of literacy a chance to get a firm footing before you worry much about providing kids with linguistically and substantively challenging text. You would do that by starting with simple texts with consistent spelling patterns and easy to see sound-symbol relations (e.g., lots of CVC, that is, consonant-vowel-consonant words) and with lots of repetition (e.g., using some words over and over, making sure the nascent readers saw the letter “d” as the first letter in lots of words or the letter “a” as the medial letter in lots of words).

Once the firm phonic footing was accomplished, say by the time the kids could read a beginning second-grader reader, then scaffolding a 7th-grade book wouldn’t be as big a deal — at least it wouldn’t mean you’d be trying to scaffold most of the decoding, too.

But with English learners that advice might be incorrect.

English learners come in different flavors. For example, some English learners can already read in their home language and that can change the situation, especially if those students read an alphabetic language with a lot of shared commonality with English. If the student can’t read in any language, then the English learner is no different from children who grow up in homes with only English. They need to learn to decode, so I’d start them with beginning reading books.

If they could decode, but in a language like Arabic, that shares little similarity to English, I’d still start them with the beginning reading books, to get the beginnings of that decoding system in place. 

But if they could read Spanish or French or other languages with great similarities to English, I wouldn’t be so careful about starting with easy, beginning texts.

I can turn your question around a couple of ways: You could be asking me (1) is it possible to scaffold a student through six grade levels of text — my kids are in grade 8, but read like second-graders? (that would be the same distance as from your seventh-grade to first-grade question but without the decoding confusion) or you could be asking (2) is it possible to scaffold a beginning reader (K-1) to any higher level, like grade 3 or grade 7?

If it is the latter of those queries — the one about scaffolding beginning readers up, I’ve answered it. It doesn’t make sense to me to try to scaffold over any appreciable distance when a youngster is trying to figure out how to decode basic text. With those kids, I would teach phonics, I would engage them in reading easy texts, and I would read the seventh-grade texts to them with all of the scaffolding needed to keep their heads in the game about the ideas in those texts.

If it is the former of those queries — the one about scaffolding a great distance, like 6 or 7 grade levels, then I have a different answer for you. In fact, it is possible to scaffold that kind of distance, as long as the readers aren’t beginners. I’m saying that It is possible to scaffold the reading of an eighth-grade book for a student who now can only read at second-grade level, and there are benefits to doing this (though I’m certainly not claiming it to be an easy way to go).

The benefits of scaffolding over that distance is that the students who I presume are 12- or 13-years-old are allowed to focus on topics and treatments that match with their intellectual and social levels (just because someone reads like he is six-years old doesn’t mean he has the interest and intellectual apparatus of a 6-year-old).

When I taught myself to read a foreign language, I usually read two texts per day. One was a primary grade text (usually magazine articles because that was what I could get my hands on), and one was a grown up text (books, magazine articles, etc.).

I would suggest the same pattern with the students that you work with: two texts per day, one on grade level (maybe the social studies book or the literature anthology if your school has one), and one text that could be a beginning reader or slightly higher than that. Both texts will need scaffolding, at least initially. Both texts will benefit from oral reading (for awhile). Obviously, one text is going to require greater support, so I would suggest adjusting their lengths … thus, if you read a page of the seventh-grade reading book, you might read the entire story in a second-grade reader.

What you — and the students — will be able to see as you progress is that the easier texts (that were pretty unreadable originally) become easier as you work with them, reading them and rereading them along the way. You will also see that the seventh-grade book is still far out of reach for independent reading, but that, over time, it is becoming increasingly attainable. That means that you will be raising the level of the easy book frequently, but you probably won’t be raising the level of the higher reader (you’ll raise the lengths of those harder texts, you might raise the portion of time devoted to it, but you won’t be looking for an eighth-grade book very soon).

How can you scaffold this?

First, make sure the kids know what you are up to, that they have English dictionaries, and that they recognize what the challenge is. Teaching someone to read in a language that is foreign to them is something that takes a lot of effort on the part of the learner (they need to figure the language out, and your instruction can help them to do that).

Rereading is a particularly important scaffold. Working over a selection 2-3 times can be a big locus of learning. It is demanding to do this, I can’t even always get myself to reread, even though I know that I learn from it. Don’t worry about perfection with this rereading, worry about making each re-reading better than the last. Whether students recognize the meaning of words that were unknown the first time around sound more like English readers on the reread, the improvement from reading-to-reading needs to be obvious (one thing a teacher can do is to help make these improvements obvious).

When I was starting out the most useful scaffold I had was the dictionary; looking up words that helped me to figure out the sentences. The difference between the beginning books and the adult books was that I had to look up more words in a sentence to figure out the adult one. With the children’s books, I could sometimes (especially as I progressed) look up a word and guess the meanings of some others to make sense of a sentence. Be prepared to be the children’s dictionary for a while. Tell them the meanings of words (and supplement the text reading with working with those word meanings — vocabulary instruction — even flashcards for a period of time).

Background knowledge is a great scaffold. I found that I could read the articles about Britney Spears and American politics more easily than I could read the ones about French politics or certain French historical events (for which I had no background). Again, with no teacher, I would zip off to look up a topic in Wikipedia to see what I could figure out — and then would go back and read the French, usually doing a better job, with the new information fresh in mind. As you can be the dictionary at first, you can also be the encyclopedia.

Grammar was harder. I didn’t have a teacher like you who could get me going with French grammar, so that languished for some time — with all the problems that poses for meaning. Once I had mastered a basic vocabulary (I still had to look up words in the beginning books, but not as many as initially), I started to either impose English grammar rules (like that subjects proceed verbs) or I had to use devices like Google Translate to tell me what sentences meant — no, that doesn’t always work — and from that I would then try to figure out what the meaning revealed about unique French grammar patterns (like tucking the direct object between subject and verb, boy is that confusing).

I get your skiing analogy and definitely understand the insights and appreciations that they express. Learning is scary (you won’t fall down and break your leg because the book you are reading is too hard, but you can be embarrassed or overwhelmed by it). Skiing breaks down as an analogy (at least for me — I don’t ski) because I can’t imagine a trainer going down the hill with you, adding balance or reminding you to keep your knees bent.  In reading, that is exactly the kind of thing that I am suggesting that you scaffold — helping the student break down a sentence, showing him how to make cohesive links or to pull in background information. 

Theoretically, there is no distance that cannot be scaffolded successfully when it comes to language learning and reading texts across grade levels. However, the greater the distance the more impractical this kind of scaffolding becomes.

There is so much I don’t know about your teaching situation: how much conversational English your kids have, how motivated they are, how many minutes per day they are with you, what materials are available, what the size of the groups and diversity of attainment that there is. Obviously, the more difficult the situation, the less of what I have described you will be able to do easily.

I suggested the importance of varying text levels — working with both easier and harder texts. I don’t know what resources are available to you, but I would suggest that you consider working with more levels than I did. Perhaps working with the seventh-grade book sometimes, but with a third- or fourth-grade book in place of that as the hard book on other occasions. Make sure the kids know what you are up to, and listen to their feedback and watch their progress. You are not trying to get the kids to a seventh-grade reading level this year (not from a second-grade level), but you are trying to get them to the highest level possible as quickly as possible, and I don’t believe that using fourth-grade books sometimes as the hard text is going to slow that progress down appreciably

If your district is saying that students should only be taught at grade level, I think they are going to slow student progress. If you are saying that six grades are too impossible to scaffold, I think you will be doing the same. However, teaching these kids with a mix of texts, including the seventh-grade target texts … is likely to be the best prescription.

Make sure the kids know what you are up to and what the text levels are. That way they can manage their own progress a bit, and I think you’ll find they’ll work harder at becoming more proficient English readers if they understand what is going on. They’ll be more willing to work hard on the hard texts and won’t be particularly insulted when you drop to the easier ones. In athletic training, strength comes from varied practice (intermittent intensive work under the greatest demands for brief periods, punctuating more extended but easier practice times). There is some evidence that varied difficulty matters in intellectual learning as well. If you are allowed to — and inclined to — follow this advice, I hope you’ll keep me posted as to what you and your students figure out.