Photo Pam Spycher

Scaffolding Science Learning and Science Writing with a Little TLC

by Pam Spycher

September 26, 2017


Honeybees are in the news a lot lately. Suddenly, people everywhere are realizing how critical these insects are to their ecosystems and to our survival. Bees pollinate the plants that grow the food we eat, and in California, where I live, the agricultural economy would collapse without them. They are a "keystone species," animals that play such an important role in maintaining the ecosystems in which they live that their removal or significant decrease would result in a dramatic shift in their environments.

But something is seriously wrong. Honeybees are dying, their colonies disappearing at an alarming rate. Children have the power to do something about this crisis. But why should they care about bees?

For one thing, honeybees are a fascinating animal to study. They can communicate with one another through intricate dance moves, they live in an amazingly engineered hive where each member does its part for the survival of all, and they have a special stomach just for storing nectar so they can make honey! When children are intrigued by the natural world, they are curious and motivated to learn more about it. Deep learning about science topics is satisfying in its own right, but there is also an (often untapped) opportunity for children to develop agency. As they learn about the environment, they can develop a sense of responsibility for it and advocate for its protection, which cultivates their sense of themselves as being capable of making a difference in the world. This aspect of global competence can be cultivated in the earliest years of schooling.

Global competence is the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.

The four pillars are:

  • Investigate the World
  • Weigh Perspectives
  • Communicate Ideas
  • Take Action

Asia Society & CCSSO, Asia Society & Longview Foundation, U.S. Department of Education

Yet, in the elementary grades, science learning is not universally viewed as a priority. This is a shame since science is a captivating subject through which children can simultaneously develop content knowledge and language. Through quality science teaching and learning tasks, grounded in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), children have continuous opportunities to engage in scientific thinking and practices. They learn to ask questions and define problems, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, engage in complex scientific reasoning, and construct explanations and evidence-based arguments. Importantly, they obtain, evaluate, and communicate information to others. For all of these tasks, language is central.

For children learning English as an additional language, or English learners (ELs), the opportunity to engage in rich science learning is an issue of educational equity. More science, please! However, even when rich science learning occurs, teachers often express that they are unsure about how to support their students to write academic science texts, such as informational reports, explanations, or evidence-based arguments. What students write may be less coherent and more fragmented than what teachers hope for. In addition to rich science learning, ELs also need an opportunity to develop the language of science, including writing science genres. This is a situation in which a little TLC is in order.

What is the Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC)?

The TLC Cycle Graphic The Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC) is a process for scaffolding deep content learning and high-quality writing. The process was first developed in Australia in the 1980s by teachers partnering with linguists who were working from the lens of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a sociocultural theory of language that emphasizes language and literacy development in the context of deep and intellectually stimulating content learning. The TLC process supports students to write a text in a particular genre, or text type, through a series of interconnected pedagogical approaches that deliberately build competency with the genre. It is especially powerful for interdisciplinary and integrated units of study that focus on the simultaneous development of content knowledge and disciplinary language and literacy. 

Using the TLC process, teachers guide their students through five Stages of Learning: (1) Building the field (building content knowledge through language-rich experiences), (2) Exploring the language of text types, (3) Jointly constructing texts, (4) Independently constructing texts, and (5) Reflecting on one’s own written texts. The stages are not meant to be approached in a lockstep, prescriptive manner. In fact, teachers and students go through quite a bit of back and forth between stages. In addition, Stage 1 does not end; it continues throughout all stages of the process.

How is the TLC different from what teachers are already doing?

StudentsIn those elementary classrooms where science teaching and learning is emphasized, teachers typically focus on engaging their students in highly interactive science tasks and using science language language authentically — as they should. This is Stage 1 of the TLC, and it can include reading and discussing lots of science texts, inquiry-based approaches, and project-based learning. At the end of a unit of study, students will usually be asked to write something (Stage 4 of the TLC), such as an information report or argument. However, when there is no scaffolding between Stages 1 and 4 to ensure that students are successful in creating this type of writing, the quality of the writing product often falls below teachers’ expectations. At the same time, students have missed the opportunity to develop as science writers.

Stages 2, 3, and 5 of the TLC are an enhancement to traditional teaching, as they scaffold students’ academic writing by intentionally building their abilities to explore, analyze, and evaluate the use of language in complex texts.

TeacherIn Stage 2 of the TLC, students explore how language is used in complex texts, including the texts that they are already reading (or listening actively to through teacher read-alouds). They may also analyze other mentor texts, which are examples of effective texts written by students or teachers. This discussion-based language analysis is enacted once students have built up some content knowledge and have been exposed to discipline-specific language in Stage 1 of the TLC. It involves a lot of talking and charting and messy hands-on work with texts. For example, students might mark up copies of a short text and write notes in the margin about the text’s main stages and what they think the author intended to accomplish with the stages. (Teachers in the primary grades might facilitate this process as a whole class.) Students might reassemble a text that has been cut up into individual sentences or larger sections in order to practice assembling a cohesive and coherent text. Students might work together to identify specific language moves in a text that are powerful for persuading readers, such as adjectives that reveal the author’s evaluation of something (e.g., a devastating effect on the environment). These experiences exploring and discussing the language in complex texts and the meaning it is making places students in an informed position about how language works. They can draw on this language awareness when they are writing their own texts.

Honeybee drawingIn Stage 3 of the TLC, students have an opportunity to “rehearse” successful writing with help from the teacher. The teacher supports the class to co-construct short texts by inviting their ideas and offering suggestions for wording, asking probing questions to prompt students to use newly learned language, or recasting what students say. For example, if students write something like, “Bees go to the flowers and help make fruit,” their teacher might validate this thinking and follow up with a question that stretches their language, such as, “That is true! Can anyone think of a scientific way to say this?” Children may respond by using the domain-specific term “pollinate.” When students have the opportunity to rehearse their writing collectively, with expert coaching from their teacher, they are better prepared to write their own texts independently. This process is asset-based and additive, as it both validates what students bring to the writing task and stretches them to write in a way that is just beyond what they are currently able to do independently.

In Stage 4 of the TLC, students are now ready, through these intentionally sequenced scaffolding experiences, to write their own texts independently. But wait… there’s more!

Honeybee and stinger drawingStage 5 of the TLC provides critical scaffolding for students to become reflective writers. In this stage, teachers guide their students through the evaluation of their own writing products, using tools such as success criteria, language analysis frameworks, or rubrics. Before students evaluate their own writing, teachers support them to use the tools effectively. For example, the class might first work together to practice using one of the tools to evaluate a sample text (perhaps an anonymous student). Then, the students might work in pairs to evaluate additional writing samples before using the tool to reflect on their own writing and provide feedback to their peers on their writing. The goal is for students to become more reflective about writing in specific areas, such as clarity, cohesion, or other areas of writing in which the students are trying to improve.

Want to learn more?

Explore our white paper, Scaffolding Writing through the “Teaching and Learning Cycle”.

Also see the California ELA/ELD Framework’s Vignettes for examples of the TLC in action.

Global Competence References

Monthey, W., Singmaster, H., Manise, J., & Kreamer, K. B. (2015). Preparing a globally competent workforce through high-quality career and technical education. New York: Asia Society and Washington, DC: Longview Foundation.

Mansilla, V. B., & Jackson, A. (2011). Educating for global competence: Preparing our youth to engage the world. New York: Asia Society, and Washington, DC: CCSSO.

U.S. Department of Education. (2012) Succeeding globally through international education and engagement: U.S. Department of Education International Strategy 2012–16. Washington, DC.

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Voices From the Field

I am most excited about how everything that we do for kids is focused on making meaning. Those practices that are designed to require collaboration are particularly exciting to me as they also require that we foster a culture of respect for self and others and those conditions that are necessary for a risk-free learning environment. This project has provided new learning for teachers that provided opportunity for an equal playing field as we were learning together—coaches, principals, and teachers—which created a community of learners rather than a community of experts telling teachers what to do.”

– Leading with Learning Coach