Scaffolding Children's Writing in a Range of Genres
by David Wray & Maureen Lewis
University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

Our literate society demands that we read and write a wide range of texts. It is an observable fact that, as adult members of society, many of the texts we encounter everyday and need to deal with are non-fiction texts. Much of the research of the last few decades into the development of children's writing has tended to concentrate on personal and fictional texts whilst non-fiction writing has been relatively neglected. The demand that children 'read and respond to all kinds of writing' (Department of Education and Science, 1990) means that we need to look closely at how we can help students become aware of, and develop into competent writers of, differing non-fiction text types. Our work with teachers as part of the Exeter Extending Literacy (EXEL) Project (see, for example, Lewis, Wray & Rospigliosi, 1994) has made it clear to us that extending interactions with non-fiction texts is an area of current concern amongst many classroom practicioners and that widening the range and quality of children's non-fiction writing is part of this concern.

Genre Theory: New Insights, New Approaches

There has been an increasing interest in the idea of encouraging students to write for a particular purpose, for a known audience and in an appropriate form. However, what constitutes an appropriate form is often dealt with in very general terms such as the listing of different types of texts, for example, "notes, letters, instructions, stories and poems in order to plan, inform, explain, entertain and express attitudes or emotions" (Department of Education and Science, 1990).

This listing of text types implies that teachers and students know what distinguishes the form of one text type from another. At a certain level, of course, this is true - we all know what a story is like and how it differs from a recipe, etc. Most of us are aware that a narrative usually has a beginning, a series of events and an ending and many teachers discuss such ideas with their pupils. It is still relatively rare, however, for teachers of elementary students to discuss non-fiction texts in such a way - drawing on our knowledge of the usual structure of a particular text type to improve our students' writing of that form.

Recently it has been argued (e.g. by Martin, 1985) that our implicit knowledge of text types and their forms is quite extensive and one of the teacher's roles is to make this implicit knowledge explicit. Theorists in this area are often loosely referred to as 'genre theorists' and they base their work on a functional approach to language arguing that we develop language to satisfy our needs in society (Halliday 1985). They see all texts, written and spoken, as being 'produced in a response to, and out of, particular social situations and their specific structures' (Kress & Knapp, 1992, p.5) and as a result put stress on the social and cultural factors that form a text as well as on its linguistic features. They see a text as a social object and the making of a text as a social process. They argue that in any society there are certain types of text - both written and spoken - of a particular form because there are similar social encounters, situations and events which recur constantly within that society. As these 'events' are repeated over and over again certain types of text are created over and over again. These texts become recognised in a society by its members, and once recognised they become conventionalised, i.e. become distinct genres.

What does this idea of generic structures being determined by purpose actually mean? Let us take a text type we are all familiar with - instructions (or procedural genre). The purpose of procedural texts is to tell someone how to do something, as in recipes, instruction leaflets and so on. This purpose gives rise to the particular form of procedural texts - they have to make clear what it is you are doing or making, what materials you need to achieve this aim and the steps you need to take to reach a successful conclusion. It would not make it easier to achieve the purpose if, for example, the instructions were given first, then you were told the list of materials you needed at the end of the instructions and finally you were told what it was you were making. The schematic structure of a procedural text helps achieve its purpose and is therefore usually: - goal - materials - steps to achieve the goal (usually in temporal sequence).

You will be aware of such a structure in recipes and DIY guides. You may not have been explicitly aware of this structure but if you examine procedural ('how to') texts you will see that, on the whole, they follow the pattern outlined above. You will also be using a similar generic structure when you give any spoken instructions. If you imagine giving instructions to a class at the beginning of a session you might say something like this:

Today we're going to finish writing our stories, (goal) so you'll need your jotters, pencils, line guides and best paper. (materials) When you've got those sorted out, get on and see if you can finish your first draft. Then you can share it with your writing partner or with me and discuss any alterations you think need to be made. Don't forget to check spellings at the end. OK, off you go. (instructions)
It is highly unlikely that you consciously planned to use, or were even aware of using, this schematic structure but your purpose (to tell the children what to do) meant that you 'automatically' used the appropriate structures - using such a structure came 'naturally'. When we look at how the schematic structure of a text helps it achieve its purpose we are considering its genre.

Written Genres in the Classroom

Different theorists have categorised the types of written genres we commonly use in the classroom in different ways. Collerson (1988), for example, suggests a separation into Early genres (labels, observational comment, recount, and narratives) and Factual genres (procedural, reports, explanations, and arguements or exposition), whilst Wing Jan (1991) categorises writing into Factual genres (reports, explanations, procedures, persuasive writing, interviews, surveys, descriptions, biographies, recounts and narrative information) and Fictional (traditional fiction and contemporary modern fiction).

There is, however, a large measure of agreement as to what the main non-fiction genres are and during our classroom work with teachers we have taken as our model the categories of non-fiction genres identified by the Sydney linguists (Martin & Rothery, 1980, 1981, 1986). As part of the work of this group non-fiction texts were collected and analysed, including many examples of students' school scripts. From this they identified six important non-fiction genres which we use in our culture and discovered that in school one of these genres was overwhelmingly predominant.

The six main types of non-fiction genre they identified were recount, report, procedure, explanation, argument, discussion and of these, recount was overwhelmingly the most widely experienced by students in school. Students spend a lot of time telling the story of what they did or found out.

The Language of Power

Imagine you are the inspector appointed to review the proposed route of a new road and you have invited written evidence. You receive a great many letters from the general public all wishing to put forward arguments in favour of or against the road. Some letters make their case clearly - arguing a point, elaborating on it before moving onto another point and ending with a summary, others although obviously deeply felt are rambling, move randomly from point to point, are at times incoherent, and leave you with no clear idea of the arguments being expressed or the evidence to support them. Which letters are you more likely to take account of when making your decision?

This imaginary situation is just one example of how important being competent in the use of non-fiction written genres is in our society. Persuasion, explanation, report, explanation and discussion are powerful forms of language that we use to get things done. They have been called the 'language of power' and it can be argued that pupils who leave our classrooms unable to operate successfully within these powerful genres are denied access to becoming a fully functioning member of society. This suggests that it is not sufficient for us simply to accept the overwhelming dominance of recount in our students' non-fiction writing. We have to do something about broadening their range.

The Problems of Writing Non-fiction

Insufficient experience with a range of genres is only one of the difficulties students have in writing non-fiction texts. One reason often given for some of their difficulties is that they are sometimes unsure about the differences between speech and written language. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1985) point out the supportive, prompting nature of conversation, for example 'turn taking' - somebody speaks which prompts someone else to say something and so on. This reciprocal prompting is missing from the interaction between a writer and blank sheet of paper. Bereiter and Scardamalia's research has shown that a teacher's oral promptings during writing can extend a student's written work, with no drop in quality. The prompts act as an 'external trigger of discourse production' (1985, p.97) and Bereiter and Scardamalia suggest that students need to 'acquire a functional substitute for ........ an encouraging listener.'

Other problems often mentioned in connection with students' reading and writing of non-fiction text are the complexity of the cohesive ties they have to recognise and use, the use of more formal registers, and the use of technical vocabulary (Halliday and Hasan, 1976; Perera, 1984; Anderson and Armbruster, 1981).

An Approach to Helping Students

Vygotsky proposed the notion that children first experience a particular cognitive activity in collaboration with expert practitioners. The child is firstly a spectator as the majority of the cognitive work is done by the expert (usually a parent or a teacher), then a novice as he/she starts to take over some of the work under the close supervision of the expert. As the child grows in experience and capability of performing the task, the expert passes over greater and greater responsibility but still acts as a guide, assisting the child at problematic points. Eventually, the child assumes full responsibility for the task with the expert still present in the role of a supportive audience. This model fits what is known theoretically about teaching and learning. It is also a model which is familiar to teachers who have adopted such teaching strategies as paired reading and an apprenticeship approach. An adaptation of this model to the teaching of writing can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1 here

In busy, over-populated classrooms, however, it can be difficult to use this model as a guide to practical teaching action. It is constructed around an ideal of a child and an expert working together on a one to one basis, which is rarely feasible, of course. In particular it seems that students are too often expected to move into the independent writing phase before they are really ready and often the pressure to do so is based on the practical problem of teachers being unable to find the time to spend with them in individual support. What is clearly needed is something to span the joint activity and independent activity phase.

We have called this additional phase the scaffolded phase - a phase where we offer our students strategies to aid writing but strategies that they can use without an adult necessarily being alongside them. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 here

At the scaffolded phase strategies are needed that can be used by students without the teacher necessarily being alongside them. One such strategy that we have been exploring is that of writing frames.

A writing frame consists of a skeleton outline to scaffold students' non-fiction writing. The skeleton framework consists of different key words or phrases, according to the particular generic form. The template of starters, connectives and sentence modifiers which constitute a writing frame gives students a structure within which they can concentrate on communicating what they want to say whilst scaffolding them in the use of a particular generic form. However, by using the form students become increasingly familiar with it.

How Writing Frames Can Help

The work of Cairney (1990) on story frames and Cudd & Roberts (1989) on 'expository paragraph frames' first suggested to us that children's early attempts at written structures might profitably be scaffolded. Cairney describes story frames as 'a form of probed text recall' and a 'story level cloze', whilst Cudd and Roberts claim that expository frames 'provide a bridge which helps ease the transition from narrative to content area reading and writing'. Cudd and Roberts' frames, however, were largely in recount genre and we were concerned to introduce students to a wider range of genres. As a result, we have evolved and developed a range of writing frames for use in the classroom. These frames were all developed in collaboration with teachers and have been widely used with children throughout the elementary and middle school years and across the full range of abilities, including students with special needs. On the strength of this extensive trialling we are reasonably confident in saying that not only do writing frames help students become familiar with unfamiliar genres but that they also help overcome many of the other problems often associated with non-fiction writing.

There are many possible frames for each genre and we have space here for only two examples.

Recount Genre

Using the recount frame given in Figure 3 nine-year old Rachel wrote about her trip to Plymouth Museum (Figure 4). The frame helped structure her writing and allowed her to make her own sense of what she had seen. It encouraged her to reflect upon her learning.

Figure 3 here

Figure 4 here

Discussion Genre

Using the discussion frame in Figure 5 helped eleven-year-old Kerry write a thoughtful discussion about boxing (Figure 6). The frame encouraged her to structure the discussion to look at both sides of the argument.

Figure 5 here

Figure 6 here

How the Frames Might Be Used

The use of a frame should always begin with discussion and teacher modelling before moving on to joint construction (teacher and students together) and then to the student undertaking writing supported by the frame. This oral, teacher modelling, joint construction pattern of teaching is vital for it not only models the generic form and teaches the words that signal connections and transitions but it also provides opportunities for developing students' oral language and their thinking. Some students , especially those with learning difficulties, may need many oral sessions and sessions in which their teacher acts as a scribe before they are ready to attempt their own framed writing.

It would be useful for teachers to make 'big' versions of the frames for use in these teacher modelling and joint construction phases. These large frames can be used for shared writing. It is important that the child and the teacher understand that the frame is a supportive draft and words may be crossed out or substituted. Extra sentences may be added or surplus starters crossed out. The frame should be treated as a flexible aid not a rigid form.

We are convinced that writing in a range of genres is most effective if it is located in meaningful experiences. The concept of 'situated learning' (Lave & Wenger, 1991) suggests that learning is always context-dependent. For this reason, we have always used the frames within class topic work rather than in isolated study skills lessons (Lewis & Wray, 1995). British primary school teaching is still largely based on this model of curriculum planning and we would argue very strongly for its potential effectiveness.

We do not advocate using the frames for the direct teaching of generic structures in skills-centred lessons. The frame itself is never a purpose for writing. There is much debate about the appropriateness of the direct teaching of generic forms (e.g. Barrs, 1991/2; Cairney, 1992) and we share many of the reservations expressed by such commentators. Our use of a writing frame has always arisen from students having a purpose for undertaking some writing and the appropriate frame was then introduced if they needed extra help.

We have found the frames helpful to students of all ages and all abilities (and, indeed, their wide applicability is one of their most positive features). They have been used with students from ages 5 to 16. However, teachers have found the frames particularly useful with students of average writing ability, with those who find writing difficult and with students with special needs in literacy. Teachers have commented on the improved quality (and quantity) of writing that has resulted from using the frames with these students.

It would, of course, be unnecessary to use a frame with writers already confident and fluent in a particular genre but they can be used to introduce such writers to new genres. Teachers have noted an initial dip in the quality of the writing when comparing the framed 'new genre' writing with the fluent recount writing of an able child. What they have later discovered, however, is that, after only one or two uses of a frame, fluent language users add the genre and its language features into their repertoires and, without using a frame, produce fluent writing of high quality in the genre.

The aim with all students is for them to reach this stage of assimilating the generic structures and language features into their writing repertoires. Use of writing frames should be focused on particular children or small group of students, as and when they need them. They are not intended as class worksheets, for within any class there will always be students who do not need them.


In this article we have argued that we need to give greater attention to teaching students to write effective and well structured non-fiction texts. The concept of genre gives a useful framework for thinking about the range of such texts.

We have outlined some of the thinking behind our use of writing frames to scaffold students' non-fiction writing. Readers interested in finding out further information about our approach or with any comments of the use of writing frames (or examples of students' work using them) are invited to contact us at the University of Exeter.


Anderson, T.H. & Armbruster, B.B. (1981) Content Area Textbooks. (Reading Education Report no. 24). University of Illinois: Center for the Study of Reading.

Barrs, M. (1991/92) 'Genre Theory What's it all about?' in Language Matters. 'Thinking about Writing'. CLPE No.1. London.

Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987) The Psychology of Written Composition Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum

Cairney, T. (1990) Teaching Reading Comprehension Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Cairney, T. (1992) 'Mountain or Mole Hill: The genre debate viewed from 'Down Under''. Reading. Vol. 26, No. 1.

Collerson J. (1988) Writing for Life Newtown, NSW: PETA

Cudd, E.T. & Roberts, L. (1989) "Using writing to enhance content area learning in the primary grades". The Reading Teacher, vol 42 no.6

Department of Education and Science (1990) English in the National Curriculum London: H.M.S.O.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London. Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R. (1976) Cohesion in English, London, Longman.

Kress, G. & Knapp, P. (1992) 'Genre in a social theory of language'. in English in Education. Vol.26.No.2

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lewis, M. & Wray, D. (1995) Developing Children's Non-fiction Writing Leamington Spa: Scholastic

Lewis, M., Wray, D. & Rospigliosi, P. (1994) "'In your own words please': Helping children respond to non-fiction text", in The Reading Teacher, Vol. 47, No. 6

Martin, J. (1985) Factual Writing: Exploring and Challenging Social Reality Oxford: Oxford University Press

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1980) Writing Project Report No.l. Department of Linguistics. University of Sydney. Sydney.

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1981) Writing Project Report No.2. Department of Linguistics. University of Sydney. Sydney.

Martin, J. & Rothery, J. (1986) Writing Project Report No.4. Department of Linguistics. University of Sydney. Sydney.

Perera, K. (1984) Children's Reading and Writing Oxford: Blackwell

Wing Jan L (1991) Write Ways: Modelling Writing Forms Oxford University Press: Melbourne


Figure 1: An apprenticeship model of teaching writing

  1. Demonstration (Teacher Modelling)
  2. Joint activity (Collaborative writing)
  3. Independent activity (Independent writing)

Figure 2: An revised apprenticeship model of teaching writing

  1. Demonstration (Teacher Modelling)
  2. Joint activity (Collaborative writing)
  3. Scaffolded activity (Supported writing)

4. Independent activity (Independent writing)

Figure 3: A recount frame

Although I already knew that 
I have learnt some new facts. I learnt that 
I also learnt that 
Another fact I learnt was 
However the most interesting thing I learnt was 
Figure 4: Rachel's framed recount

A trip to Plymouth Museum

Although I already knew that they buried their dead in mummy cases I was surprised that the paint stayed on for all these years.

I have learnt some new facts. I learnt that the River Nile had a god called Hopi. He was in charge of the River Nile and he brought the floods. I also learnt that sometimes people carried a little charm so you tell a lie and you rubbed the charm's tummy and it would be OK. However the most interesting thing I learnt was they mummified cats and sometimes mice as well.

Figure 5: A discussion frame

There is a lot of discussion about whether _____
The people who agree with this idea, such as _____ claim that _____
They also argue that _____
A further point they make is _____
However there are also strong arguments against this point of view. 
_____ believe that _____
Another counter argument is _____
Furthermore _____
After looking at the different points of view and the evidence for them I 
think _____ because _____
Figure 6: Kerry's framed discussion

There is a lot of discussion about whether boxing should be banned. The people who agree with this idea, such as Sarah, claim that if they do carry on boxing they should wear something to protect their heads. They also argue that people who do boxing could have brain damage and get seriously hurt. A further point they make is that most of the people that have died did have families.

However, there are also strong arguments against this point of view. Another group of people believe that boxing should not be banned. They say that why did they invent it if it is a dangerous sport. They say that boxing is a good sport, people enjoy it. A furthermore reason is if this a good sport, people enjoy it. A furthermore reason is if they ban boxing it will ruin people's careers.

After looking at the different points of view and the evidence for them I think boxing should be ban