Education and Training

Senior 2 English Language Arts: A Foundation for Implementation

Implementation Overview: Senior 2
English Language Arts Content - Part 2

Promoting Strategic Learning

Many of the language tasks students perform are problem-solving tasks, such as finding sources of information for an inquiry project, making meaning of a difficult text, or organizing a body of information. To solve problems, a student requires a strategic mindset; when confronted with a problem, the student surveys a number of possible strategies, selects the one that seems likely to work best for the situation, and tries an alternative method if the first one does not produce results.

Strategic learners in the language arts need to have not only a strategic mindset, but also a repertoire of strategies for making meaning, for processing information, and for expressing ideas and information effectively. Whereas skills are largely unconscious mental processes that learners use in accomplishing learning tasks, strategies are systematic and conscious plans, actions, and thoughts that learners select or invent and adapt to each task. Strategies are often described as "knowing what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why it is useful."

Immersing students in language-rich environments and encouraging them to produce texts are essential in language learning, but these initiatives alone are not sufficient to ensure the development of proficient literacy skills in all students. Students also need methodical instruction in the strategies that adept learners use in approaching language tasks. The four-column section of this document includes numerous teaching, learning, and assessment strategies, and identified professional resources that elaborate additional strategies and approaches.

Scaffolding: Supporting Students in Strategic Learning

Many literacy tasks involve a complex interaction of skills. The most effective way to learn, however, is not by breaking down the tasks into manageable parts and teaching the skills separately and in isolation. In fact, this approach may be counter-productive. Purcell-Gates (1967) uses the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, a skill that requires children to develop an intuitive sense of balance at the same time as learning to pedal and steer. Children do not learn to ride a bicycle by focusing on only one of these skills at a time. Instead, they observe others who can ride a bicycle successfully, and then make an attempt themselves. In the early stages of learning to ride, a child counts on someone to provide support - to hold the bicycle upright while the child mounts, to keep a hand on the seat to stabilize the bicycle for the first few metres, to coach and encourage. Gradually, these supports are withdrawn as the rider becomes more competent. Eventually, the process become automatic, and the rider is no longer aware of the skills being performed.

Providing this sort of support in teaching has come to be called scaffolding, based on the work of Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). Teachers scaffold by

  • structuring tasks so that learners begin with something they can do
  • reducing the complexity of tasks
  • calling students’ attention to critical features of the tasks
  • modelling steps
  • providing sufficient guided and independent practice

In a sense, each learning strategy is an external support or scaffold. At first, working with a new strategy may be challenging and the main focus of students’ attention. Eventually, students use the strategy automatically and rely on it as a learning tool. Students gradually internalize the process of strategy. They begin to adjust and personalize the process and to apply the thinking behind the strategy automatically.

In strategic instruction, teachers observe and monitor students’ use of a strategy for a time, intervening where necessary. Students vary in the length of time they require scaffolding. In this respect, strategic instruction is also a useful tool for differentiation. Struggling learners may work with simplified versions of a strategy, and they may continue to use the supports of a strategy (e.g., a graphic organizer for essay organization) after the other students have internalized the process.

Strategic instruction works best when teachers pace the instruction of new strategies carefully, so that students have time to practise each, and when they teach a strategy in the context of a specific task of everyday literacy.


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