What Are We Asking Students and Why: Exploring the Difference Between a Prompt and a Scaffold

Last week I raised some questions about text dependent questions, the instructional approach approved by the Common Core Standards authors, which many states and school districts are starting to adopt. Clearly I worry that this approach may decrease, not increase, students’ ability to truly become independent, as College and Career Ready Students should be, because the method hinges on us directing students to what we, from our own reading of a text, have determined to be important.

At its heart, the text dependent question approach seems to embrace the ‘straight road’ vision of reading that I looked at in my post on teaching uncertainty, with the questions acting as signposts that tell students what to pay attention to in order to reach a designated and pre-determined meaning. And it puts us, as teachers, back in the authoritative role of  the “curator or gatekeeper of content,” as Randy Bomer puts it in his great book Time for Meaningrather than in the role of a facilitator who’s, “less concerned with what students are supposed to get and more concerned with what the students can make with the materials they already have.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t ask questions. But if we truly want our students to be independent meaning makers, we need to think about what we’re asking and how we can craft questions that are open-ended enough for students to find their own way into a text and are framed in a way that makes them transferable from one text to another. And here’s where I think it’s useful to explore the difference between a prompt and a scaffold.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I spelled out what we see as the difference between the two in a chart that looks like this:

To make these concepts more concrete, let’s return to the excerpt from the Curriculum Exemplar on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave that I shared in last week’s post to see the differences in the teaching moves and outcomes more clearly. Here, for example, is the first question the Exemplar directs teachers to ask, with the aim—i.e., the answer—printed below it:

The question leads students to notice what the teacher (or in this case the Exemplar writer) has noticed and to draw the same conclusion from that detail that he or she did. It also anticipates what some students might miss (that this is, in fact, a slave narrative), and it seeks to ‘correct’ that by directing those students to the title in a way that solves a problem for the students rather than letting them solve it themselves as they keep on reading. The question also does nothing to teach the thinking around the text in a way that might be transferable to other similar texts, all of which makes it a prompt.

A scaffold, on the other hand, teaches the thinking around the text by offering students some instruction on how texts like this generally operate and what readers do because of that, along with a more open-ended invitation to notice what there is be noticed and consider what that might mean. That kind of scaffolded question, introduced by what I call a teaching point, could look and sound like this:

One of the things readers always do when they read a first-person narrative is to try to get a first impression of the narrator and his situation. And they do this by paying close attention to the details the narrator gives them in order to begin to get a sense of who he is and what’s going on with him. So take a look at these first few sentences. What kind of person might do and say the things that this narrator does? And what might we begin to understand about his situation from the details the narrator gives us?

Unlike the more tightly focused prompt which aims at a single answer, this scaffold might allow students to not only think about the world Douglass is describing but, depending on the details different students latched on to and what they made of them, to develop a first draft impression of Douglass as someone who’s industrious, persistent, generous or even crafty. They might also begin to question some of the assumptions they might have about slaves—such as slaves live only on plantations or slaves don’t speak to whites unless they’re spoken to—in a way that might position them to be more open to whatever Douglass might be saying overall about slavery. And they’d come away with a way of thinking they could apply and transfer to almost any first-person narrative they read.

Creating a scaffold instead of a prompt requires us to consider the knowledge and experience we have with texts and reading, which I believe we automatically—and often invisibly—draw on to make meaning of what we read. Then we teach to that underlying knowledge, sharing what we know about the act of reading and texts, rather than to the specific meaning we make of a given text. Thus we teach what we know about first-person narratives and the role that details play, not the particular importance of any single detail. (See “What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum” along with What Readers Really Do for more examples.) The scaffold method also means trusting that there’s more than one way to think deeply about a text and that students don’t need to catch every detail that we do.

Text-based Know/Wonder charts also act as scaffolds, and they’re always a good place to start as they’ll give you a sense of what students can do with a minimum of support. The teaching point behind them is that readers keep track of what they’re learning from a text while holding on to details and a slew of questions that they expect they’ll learn more about as they actively keep on reading. And this knowledge about what readers do yields the questions “What are you learning from the text?” and “What are you wondering about?”

All of this makes me think that the difference between a prompt and a scaffold is a bit like the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a student a prompt and he feeds you an answer. Teach a student through a scaffold and you build a close reader—often for a lifetime.