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The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers

reviewed by Nina L. Nilsson - July 11, 2016

coverTitle: The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers
Author(s): Terry Thompson
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, ME
ISBN: 1571108696, Pages: 200, Year: 2015
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In The Construction Zone: Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers, author Terry Thompson maps out his four part scaffolding model to guide novice and experienced teachers alike in their conversations and social interactions with students to build independence in reading and writing. Each section of the book unpacks one of the four components of Thompson’s framework. Thompson explains that focus, flexibility, feedback, and responsibility are components applicable for any scaffolding situation. To help teachers understand and implement each of these components from his framework, Thompson introduces a variety of principles and instructional strategies supplemented with supporting charts and graphics, student examples, analogies, questions for teacher self-reflection, and additional readings for extended learning. A more detailed discussion of the structure of the book follows below.


Thompson’s opening chapter provides an important foundation for the others that follow. At the outset, he defines scaffolding in terms of four factors: a more knowing other (the teacher), a novice (the student), an educational outcome the student could not accomplish alone, and support provided by the more knowing other that is both constructive in nature and temporary. As the author explains, his model extends the theoretical ideas of Piaget (constructivism), Vygotsky (social constructivism and the zone of proximal development), Bruner (scaffolding), and Pearson and Gallagher (the gradual release of responsibility model). The construction zone, a term coined in the book’s title, is the place where the teacher (or the more knowledgeable other), and the student (or the novice reader or writer) co-construct knowledge. The scaffolding the teacher provides is temporary and decreases as the student moves toward the desired educational outcome. This is an end that the student cannot reach without assistance. In this initial chapter and throughout the book, Thompson reminds us of the critical roles of intentionality and reflection in effective scaffolding and introduces questions (“Constructive Reflection”) at the end of each chapter as ways of initiating the reflective thinking process.



As previously mentioned, each section of The Construction Zone features a different component of Thompson’s four part scaffolding model. For example, Chapters One and Two offer principles and strategies to enhance teachers’ focus to help them set learning goals, design instructional plans, and keep their aims in sight. Thompson uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) analogy to help teachers distinguish between unclear instructional goals and exact addresses and provides a chart with examples falling into each category. As a pattern, the author introduces strategies and follows up with supporting charts and/or schematic diagrams and practical examples. For example, Thompson introduces the concept of focus phrases, which are short, student-friendly statements of the goal to be repeated by teacher and learner throughout the scaffolding process (e.g., “I make a movie in my mind as I read,” and “I use capitals only when needed”) to help teachers and students keep focused on their instructional goals. In time, these focus phrases become the student’s self-talk when working independently. Following this discussion, Thompson provides a chart with common instructional goals paired with suggested focus phrases. In Chapter Three, Thompson introduces his 5S Progression, an expansion of Pearson and Gallagher’s gradual release of responsibility model, which names each action a teacher takes in guiding a student to independence (show, share, support, sustain, and survey).


Chapters Four and Five feature flexibility in instructional design and delivery. For example, in Chapter Four, Thompson cautions against thinking in absolutes (e.g., always, only, never), and advocates thinking flexibly with regard to resources (e.g., choosing the goal before the resource), group size (e.g., using the 80/50/10 approximation to decide if scaffolding should be implemented whole group, small group, or individually), and time (distinguishing between short- and long-term scaffolds). I especially like how Thompson organizes his discussion of scaffolds around learning modalities (e.g., auditory, kinesthetic, and visual) and provides supporting photos and charts full of examples of common learning goals teachers are likely to identify for their students in class. In Chapter Five, the author addresses challenging situations where scaffolds may need to change, provides questions to help teachers gain insight into why instruction may not be working, and suggests ways to adjust the scaffolding as needed. This includes changing the teacher-to-student ratio, the degree of support offered, or the wording of the verbal instruction provided.


Chapters Six and Seven provide concrete examples of constructive feedback for students at various points in the scaffolding process. Wisely, Thompson suggests using the feedback examples generously provided in this chapter as a springboard rather than as something to memorize. Readers will learn critical features of constructive feedback (e.g., feedback is timely, process driven, useful, and stimulates thinking), the range of feedback types (e.g., feedback that questions, demonstrates, prompts, names, and/or affirms), and general principles of giving feedback including verbal and nonverbal communications. Examples take the form of teacher-student dialogue, bullet points with samples of constructive feedback versus feedback that is not helpful, and a chart comparing and contrasting process-oriented feedback (constructive) with person-oriented feedback (unhelpful).


Chapters Eight and Nine, perhaps the most powerful in the book, elaborate on important principles and practical strategies for teachers to apply in conjunction with critical shifts in roles and responsibilities that occur as they move through the 5S gradual release progression with students, as explained in Chapter Two. This involves the five actions teachers take across the gradual release process (show, share, support, sustain, and survey). A chart in Chapter Eight illustrates how the roles of the teacher and student compare, contrast, and change over the course of the 5S gradual release progression. The chapter also examines how teachers shift their response time; reduce visual, auditory, and physical scaffolds; wind down their physical presence; and change the language (from I to we to you) in their feedback as students move from the place where they cannot do to can almost do to finally where they can do the targeted reading or writing behavior. In Chapter Nine, Thompson draws an important distinction between scaffolding and rescuing with a helpful chart contrasting specific behaviors falling into each category. The chapter also includes questions for teachers to ask themselves in order to identify important patterns in their teaching.


Thompson’s four part framework for scaffolding provides the principles and instructional tools needed for classroom teachers and reading specialists who work with children to deepen their understanding of this complex concept and become more experienced in shifting responsibility for learning from themselves to their students. Thompson includes tools he has used in his professional development work with reading and writing teachers in grades K–8 (e.g., a Case Study Data Chart in Chapter Two for teachers to use in discussing student cases with professional peers). As such, reading specialists and coaches engaged in planning professional development for teachers will also most likely find The Construction Zone valuable.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 11, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21373, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:05:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Nina Nilsson
    Saint Joseph’s University
    E-mail Author
    NINA L. NILSSON is an Associate Professor in the Teacher Education Department at Saint Joseph’s University. Her work focuses on issues related to struggling readers and the preparation of teachers and reading specialists. Dr. Nilsson’s work appears in a number of scholarly books and journals, including Reading & Writing Quarterly, The Reading Teacher, and Critical Issues in Teacher Education. Dr. Nilsson’s most recent book co-edited with Sandra E. Gandy is Struggling Readers CAN Succeed: Targeted Solutions Based on Complex Views of Read Kids in Classrooms and Communities.
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