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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Scaffolding Literacy - making the invisible visible, enhancing success for Aboriginal students

Kate Mullin
Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia

The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools in Western Australia are addressing the literacy needs of their students through the Scaffolding Literacy Pedagogy and the Scaffolding Literacy Teaching Sequence.

The Aboriginal Independent Community Schools (AICS) in Western Australia are addressing the literacy needs of their students through the Scaffolding Literacy Pedagogy and the Scaffolding Literacy Teaching Sequence (known as Accelerated Literacy in the Northern Territory). Both the Pedagogy and Teaching Sequence developed by Dr Brian Gray and Ms Wendy Cowey, at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, have been refined and enhanced by working with teachers over a period of years.

Several AICS schools have been involved in the Scaffolding Literacy Project, some since 1999. The Pedagogy and its Teaching Sequence have provided AICS with a highly supportive and systematic approach to the teaching of reading and writing in academic contexts.

One of the most distinguishing features of the Pedagogy is its focus on language at the level of Discourse (Gee, 1990). Student attention is directed towards the ways of talking/thinking/reading/writing valued in academic contexts, and through which teaching and learning are mediated in schools.

Everyone has more than one Discourse at their disposal and Discourses transcend culture. There is nothing incongruous with being an Aboriginal person and a doctor. The aim of the Scaffolding Literacy Project is to add academic literate Discourse to a student's existing range of Discourses, thereby enhancing educational outcomes for such students

In contrast to Child Centred Pedagogy, Scaffolding Literacy Pedagogy does not focus simply on developing the existing resources a child brings to school, but on teachers successfully orienting students into academic literate Discourse. Students entering schools without the resources on which academic learning is built are often significantly disadvantaged. Scaffolding Literacy seeks to redress this balance. It aims to develop language in the context in which it will be used.

The texts used in the Project are all high quality literate texts, which are available in any bookstore throughout Australia. They are specifically chosen for the language resources they contain, and which teachers want their students to develop. Students are able to develop reading skills to the point where they can 'read like a writer' - appreciating both the author's intentions and his/her language choices in realizing such intentions, while using simple sentence readers.

A second distinguishing feature of the Scaffolding Literacy Pedagogy is that it takes an accelerated approach to student learning, bringing them up to age appropriate level within a short time frame. Results in some AICS classrooms show an improvement of up to five grade levels in students' reading ability within one academic year.

To make this kind of leap in attainment, the project works with students at two levels, an independent level and an assisted level. The most significant work is done at the assisted level, where teacher and students jointly construct meaning. The teacher orchestrates interactions so that everyone in the class has access to the same understandings of, and orientation to, the text.

This leads to the third distinguishing feature of the Scaffolding Literacy Pedagogy - its distinctive and systematic, but not rigid, Teaching Sequence. In its initial stages there is no emphasis on prediction, a feature of Big Book work in primary classrooms. Instead the teacher gives a literate reading of the text. This stage of the sequence is based on the premise that when readers are under stress they can't attend to both meaning and decoding. The scaffolding teaching sequence gets to decoding through meaning.

At all times, the Pedagogy focuses on students being invited into the Discourse. By sharing and building on common understandings, exclusion is made less likely. In some instances, there is a link between problematic student behavior, and students are marked as being outside the Discourse.

The Pedagogy's theoretical underpinnings are different to those given prominence in some teacher training establishments. As a result, AICS schools have had to make a considerable investment in teacher professional development and upskilling. All are agreed that this investment has, and continues to be, worthwhile. The improvement in student outcomes in AICS schools is testimony to the effectiveness of Scaffolding Literacy.


Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies - Ideology in Discourses, Taylor and Francis, 1990.


Subject Headings

Aboriginal students
English language teaching
Language and languages
Professional development
Teaching and learning
Western Australia (WA)