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Business English, Professional English, Legal English, Medical English, Academic English etc.
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English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

ISSN 1682-3257

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Scaffolding Reading Activities in a Content-Based Course for Students of Engineering, Architecture and Design

Tom Salsbury

Washington State University


This paper outlines three extended scaffolding reading activities for a content-based course for university students of engineering, architecture and design. The author worked in close collaboration with faculty and students of the School of Engineering, Architecture and Design at a large Mexican university where roughly 80% of student content reading is in English. He then designed scaffolding reading activities that incorporate supplementary video clips, frequent discussion of the material in face-to-face encounters and Blackboard discussions, jigsaw readings and other group reading activities followed by summary poster sessions, reflective and summary writing, real-world writing tasks such as formal letter writing, and other activities in a hybrid approach to reading development (Gersten & Baker, 2000). The readings, all three of which were from introductory texts, deal with (a) ethics in engineering, (b) architecture and construction, and (c) creativity. The paper concludes with a discussion highlighting the importance of collaborating with content experts in the design of content-based courses as well as the collaboration with fellow language teachers in the design and instruction of content-based courses.


Scaffolding Reading Experiences and Content-Based Instruction

The primary goal of scaffolding reading for English learners is to help them better understand, learn from, and enjoy each and every text they read (Fitzgerald & Graves, 2004, p. 2). In its educational sense, the notion of scaffolding was first used to describe caretakers verbal interactions with their children when helping them learn how to read (Fitzgerald & Graves, 2004) and can be defined as a process that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976, p. 90). The term is generally applied to all pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities with both children and adults, inside and outside of the language classroom, that promote academic and general reading skills. A large body of research supports scaffolding reading for English learners, showing positive effects for (a) pre-reading activities that develop students background knowledge (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998) such as the pre-teaching of vocabulary (Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987); (b) during reading activities in cooperative groups, such as jigsaw readings (Johnson & Johnson, 1981; Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998; Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2004), modified texts (Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2004; Fitzgerald & Graves, 2004), learning new vocabulary from context (Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987) and individual teacher-student interactions (Rodgers, 2004/2005); and (c) post-reading activities designed to reinforce content and language (Fitzgerald & Graves, 2004; Beck, McKeown, Sinatra & Loxterman, 1991).

In this paper, scaffolding reading activities are set within the context of a content-based English course for students in the School of Engineering, Architecture and Design at a large Mexican university, where roughly 80% of the content reading is in English. Brinton, Snow and Wesche (1989) present three models of content-based instruction at the university level: (a) theme-based language instruction, (b) sheltered content instruction, and (c) adjunct language instruction. In theme-based instruction, the language class is structured around topics or themes, with the topics forming the backbone of the course curriculum (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989, p. 14). In this model, the language teacher is not a content expert, but he or she should have some interest, investment or expertise in the chosen themes and materials. The second model, sheltered content, delivers content instruction to a segregated group by a content specialist in the learners second language. Thus, not only does the instructor need to be well versed in his or her content area but also trained and experienced in working with English learners. The third model, adjunct language instruction, is where students are enrolled concurrently in two linked coursesa language course and a content coursewith the idea being that the two courses share the content base and complement each other in terms of mutually coordinated assignments (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989, p. 16).

The model chosen for the course described in this paper was a theme-based approach since I do not have academic or professional training in engineering, architecture or design. Working with content outside of ones training or experience, particularly in technical areas, can be difficult. I had to carefully select from material that I felt comfortable with and interested in teaching (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989). As such, the course reflects the more general content (as opposed to the highly specific or technical content) that students encounter in their regular curricular courses. Students at the Mexican university where this course was taught usually take the advanced English course early in their program of studies; thus, many (but not all) were only beginning to study core content areas at the university level. One positive student dynamic in the course was that students in advanced semesters of study were often better versed in the content area than me or their fellow classmates in the earlier semesters, thus providing opportunities for student-led presentations, demonstrations and discussions where genuine information exchange occurred.

In choosing materials for the course, I worked closely with faculty and students from the School of Engineering, Architecture and Design. Faculty recommended texts and were always willing to explain concepts that I could not grasp on my own. In addition, the scholarship students working with me on the course were students in the School, and they were skilled at helping me choose material to develop into lesson plans. Shih (1986) underscores the importance of careful material selection such that authentic readings and listenings are exploitable in a range of language functions and structures and that these should map neatly onto the language syllabus (Brinton, Snow and Wesche, 1989, p. 89). The materials that the faculty and students pointed me toward in the design of the content-based course were rich with comprehensible vocabulary and grammatical structures as well as interesting content that I could manipulate in the creation of engaging content-based English lessons.

Work with the reading and listening materials during class time consisted of individual and group work with frequent opportunities for students to talk at length with teachers and classmates. Gersten and Baker (2000) refer to this classroom dynamic as a hybrid model of instruction (see Fitzgerald & Graves, 2004, for a discussion of the hybrid model as it relates to scaffolding reading experiences). In-class discussions extended beyond the classroom via the learning space Blackboard where students posted discussion questions and received feedback from me and from their classmates. Oral and written group work was structured on a collaborative learning framework, as developed by Johnson, Johnson and Smith (1998), around base and formal groups for long-term projects and informal groups for in-class activities lasting only a few minutes. The language of choice for communication varied depending on the context: Student-teacher exchanges were always in English, but student-student exchanges were predictably in Spanish outside of class and in both English and Spanish during class. Written communication in Blackboard discussions was always in English.

Technological tools

Although the class met face-to-face on a daily basis, the course was developed and delivered via Blackboard. The institutions ability to effectively support Blackboard on its local servers had improved dramatically since the learning platform had first been introduced three years previous. Everything relating to the course (syllabus, content, assignments, readings, and discussions) were available on the platform. Students posted discussions, some of which were graded; otherwise, most of the work for grading was handed in to me during the face-to-face classes. In designing the course, I created two linked spaces in Assignments to organize the material: a thematic ordering of assignments that presented the content of the course and a chronological ordering of assignments that arranged material as it would be presented throughout the semester. Arranging the assignments in this way (thematic and chronological) simplified the navigation of the course since I could post a link in Announcements that took students directly to the days or weeks activities which were then linked to the documents in the thematic ordering of assignments. Creating the links between the two spaces in Assignments was time consuming, but with the increased benefit to the students and my ability to manage the course, I felt it was well worth the time that I invested.

As a supplementary tool to the course, a colleague and I compiled a million-word corpus of engineering, architecture and design texts from online journals, course textbooks and readings. Oral discourse samples were also included. The purpose of the corpus was for research in corpus linguistics (Salsbury & Crummer, 2005), but it was also for our students use in the course. I included various activities with the corpus analysis tool, WordSmith. Students downloaded a demo version of the program onto their laptops so that we could explore the corpus for in-class activities and homework. Occasional work with WordSmith and the corpus provided students with valuable information about word use, not just word meanings, crucial to vocabulary acquisition.

The classrooms were well equipped with a hook up for a laptop computer, a projector and screen, video playback equipment, and a quality sound system. I prepared PowerPoint presentations for students to follow and would alternate between short video segments, PowerPoint and other software (Word, WordSmith, Excel), and simple transparencies on an overhead projector. A crucial component in planning a lesson was being prepared with backup plans for when things went wrong. I never relied on access to Blackboard or other internet sites during class since even normal functioning tended to be slower than I wanted. Instead, I used screen captions to show the online content, thus eliminating wait-time. Transparencies of key PowerPoint slides were made in the event that the projector or computer hook up was not functioning properly.

Course Administration

Advanced English is a required material for all students at the Mexican institution where this course was taught. Students who score above 500 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are placed into an advanced English course; students below the 500 mark are placed into one of five levels of remedial English courses before taking their advanced English course. The current paper documents the first content-based course offered to students in the School of Engineering, Architecture and Design. Students from all ten programs in the School were enrolled in the course. This was done in order to simplify the administration of the course while still offering it to the largest number of students possible. Although some programs of study share several core courses (such as architecture and industrial design), others share few or no core materials (such as architecture and computer engineering). Thus, keeping the course restricted to more general topics found in the distinct fields helped ensure that the use of authentic materials did not overly favor one area to the exclusion of others.

I team-taught the course with two colleagues at the university, both of whom were foreign language teachers and untrained, as I was, in engineering, architecture or design. Up to 100 students took the course each semester, with the spring class generally smaller than the fall class. As the course designer, my role was to meet with all the students twice per week in a large lecture hall. It was in this setting, with 50-75 students at a time, that I delivered listening activities (with video), lecture-type classes, student presentations (in poster sessions), organizational sessions, and exams. My team-teachers met with groups of 25 in smaller classrooms for discussions, speaking practice, focused writing and small group work. Both the lecture-type classes and the smaller discussion sections were 50 minutes in length. I regularly visited the smaller groups in order to gauge how my activities were working, and my team-teachers and I met weekly in order to debrief on student and course progress.

Scaffolding Reading Activities

Ethics in Engineering

As part of its 2005-15 mission, the institution had established that ethics in the professions would figure prominently into syllabus design across the curriculum. Faculty members were trained in some of the basic tenets of ethics, and online discussion groups were formed to further support teachers inclusion of ethics into their courses. I incorporated work with ethics into the syllabus throughout the entire semester; thus, the work on ethics that begins in the first midterm is built upon later in the course.

Student reading came from the text Engineering Ethics (Harris, Pritchard & Rabins, 2004). Rather than ask students to read entire chapters, I took an approach similar to what Echevarria, Vogt and Short (2004) describe as highlighting text. I modified the technique so that excerpts from the original, usually divided by the subheadings, were selected and formatted into a pdf file that students could download from Blackboard. Transitional paragraphs, including introductory information and conclusions were also chosen so that text flow was as smooth as possible. Thus, students were exposed to the content and flow of the original in a reduced format for length and readability.

The unit began with two famous case studies: The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and The Citicorp Building. The case studies demonstrate ethical behaviors on the part of engineers and their managers (demonstrated in the Citicorp Building case study), and unethical behaviors by engineers and managers (demonstrated in the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster case study). The rest of the highlighted text introduced the concept of conflicting roles (e.g. personal vs. professional ethics), a notion which figures prominently later in the semester when students learn how to analyze and solve ethical problems. Supplementary to the chapter reading is a short case study scenario that students worked on together in groups.

The purpose of the reading, both the chapter reading and the case study scenario, was to introduce important new concepts in ethics in engineering, architecture and design that students could work from in solving case studies and their own real-world ethical dilemmas. My team-teachers and I stressed that the text was written by and for North Americans, and we encouraged the students to interpret the reading for their own realities in Mexico.

The goal of including ethics in the course syllabus, apart from the institutional mandate on the instruction of ethics, was that students better understand not only new fundamental concepts but also be able apply these to their day-to-day work and school life. Students were presented with new vocabulary and concepts along with an exercise on paragraph structure. In addition, they were given opportunities to apply their knowledge through discussion, response writing, group work, formal letter writing and role play. Although ethics figured into the course of studies for many of the students, faculty reported that their students often struggled with the English-medium texts used in the ethics courses. Additionally, native English-speaking faculty frequently taught the courses. As a result, not only the text but the medium of communication in the class itself was challenging to the students.

Procedure. Students were put into pairs and told to make a list of everything they knew about the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded just after take off on a cold January morning in 1986. Students shared their lists with another pair, and then the group shared their combined list with the rest of the class. As each group presented, the teacher wrote key events and new vocabulary on the transparency. Students who were more familiar with the story and attempted to explain in English what they knew, struggled with the vocabulary for technical concepts such as O-ring, seal, and resiliency, which were written on the board and discussed as they came up. Thus, new concepts and vocabulary were generated and previewed, not only by the teacher, but also by the more knowledgeable students in the class. Students read the case studies for homework.

The next class period was in the lecture hall. I explained that they would first do a dictocomp from the reading. I followed Brinton, Snow, and Wesche (1989) in my design of dictocomps, where students are asked to listen to the text, listen again while taking skeletal notes, and then reconstruct the text as best as they can. They are encouraged to put ideas into their own words rather than copying word-for-word what they hear in the original. Students exchange papers and compare their partners dictocomps to the original, which was displayed after students finished their reconstructed text. I encouraged the students to comment positively on their partners dictocomps.

After finishing the dictocomp activity, I told students to take out their assigned readings and follow along as I read four excerpts out loud to the class. I also displayed the paragraphs one-by-one in PowerPoint. The paragraphs highlighted the design features of the building, pointing out that in the actual construction, bolts instead of welds were used on the joints. Students were partnered and asked to write one sentence in their own words for both of the features in the original design and construction of the building that when combined, and under certain weather conditions, could have caused total collapse of the building. I moved about the room to work with individual pairs, then as a whole class, I reviewed answers. Because the exercise asked for students to use their own words, I called on several different volunteers so that students heard and received feedback from a variety of model answers. I then displayed in PowerPoint my answers to the activity for students to check against their own.

Continuing with the same reading, I displayed three true/false items on another section of the text. I asked students to work together as partners to answer the questions. The activity was designed both as a check to see whether the class as a whole had done the reading and as a way to make sure that key points of the case study were highlighted for the weaker students. The most important information for understanding the case study in the context of ethics in engineering was that the architect realized his mistake, informed Citicorp of the error, and Citicorp agreed to fund the proposed modifications even though it cost several million dollars more.

The lesson learned from the Citicorp Building case study is fresh in the students minds when their attention is turned to the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster case study. I had carefully chosen two paragraphs about a technical concept: the seal around the booster rockets known as O-rings, and I read out loud while the class followed along either in their own text or on the screen. Students paired off to answer in their own words what purpose O-rings serve in the space shuttle and what correlation there is between the O-rings and the ambient (outside) temperature. I took responses from several different student-pairs before showing my responses to the items.

Next, students were given the challenging task of going back through the original text to find the reasons why the vice-president of Morton Thiokol, the NASA contractor, told his senior engineer the now infamous and tragic line, Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat. (Harris, Pritchard & Rabins, 2004, p. 5). Students worked together in small groups, and after several minutes, I reviewed the answers as a whole class activity.

Next, again as a whole-class activity, I went through three true/false items regarding the ethical implications of the case. The final question was actually an open-ended item, which asked the students whether Roger Boisjoly, the O-ring specialist, had failed as a professional engineer because he was unable to prevent the launch of the shuttle and the tragedy that followed. The discussion that ended the class was lively as students generally argued that it had not been his fault and that he had tried to prevent it. I played devils advocate arguing that he should have done everything he could to prevent the launch, to the point of resigning and going to the press. Students left the class not only having touched on many new vocabulary items and reinforced their own understanding of the two case studies but also with questions about higher order issues regarding the meaning of ethics, responsibility and courage to do what is right.

The homework for the evening was to practice with the corpus analysis software, WordSmith. Students were given the task of finding the concordances for the item tuned mass damper, which was a new technical expression from the Citicorp Building case study. In addition, they were asked to attempt to provide an explanation of a tuned mass damper based on what they found in their corpus and in their dictionaries. A search of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a required text for the course, did not reveal a definition. However, when students searched the corpus that I provided them, eight occurrences of tuned mass damper appeared, and in one of these concordances, the item is explained in detail.

The next class period was in discussion sections. At the beginning of the class, the instructor reviewed what the students had found in their corpus analysis of the expression tuned mass damper. She then shifted the focus of the class back to the issue of ethics, namely what happens when the roles that one assumes are in conflict. The assigned reading, punctuated by the Citicorp Building and Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster case studies, dealt with the issue of conflicting roles as well as introducing the concepts of professional ethics, personal ethics, and general morality. I had posted a document in Blackboard for students to download and bring to class showing two consecutive paragraphs from the reading and illustrating two distinct ways to organize paragraph writing (supporting details and anecdote). The paragraphs were the same ones used for the dictocomp activity in the previous days lecture class.

Using the two paragraphs as models, students worked individually to compose paragraphs of their own. Students were provided with the topic sentences, and they then completed the paragraph. The first paragraph began One may find himself or herself forced to lie in order to resolve conflicting roles that he or she occupies, and the second paragraph started, Whether one is straightforward (direct) or not in their interactions with others is often a result of a conflict in the roles that person assumes. Students spent much of the class period writing their paragraphs, and for the last ten minutes of class, they exchanged papers with a partner for peer-review comments before turning them in for evaluation.

On the fourth day of class with this particular unit, students were introduced to a base-group project (see Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1998, for a discussion of collaborative groups). The teacher read to the class a very short case study from their ethics text about a young computer programmer, named Derek Evans, who had developed a software program while working for Company A that he now wanted to use for a new job at Company B. The ethical issue for Derek (and for the students) is whether he needs permission from Company A to use the software at Company B. First, students prepared a short dialogue between Derek Evans and two other friends while at a party. The topic of the dialogue is whether Derek should seek permission to use the software at Company B. The students recorded the dialogue on a cassette tape and handed it into the teacher at the end of class. Under the assumption that Derek decides to request permission from Company A to use his software at Company B, the students were then given the task of writing a formal business letter to Company A. They were given several days to work together as a group to write the letter. The assignment required the students to include all the elements of a real business letter, which were modeled to the students in class. Finally, the students wrote a 1-page reflection paper in which they commented on how real they felt the case was (was it a feasible case in Mexico or was it culture-specific to a North American audience), what they would have done if they had been Derek Evans, and how they thought Company A would respond to their letter.

Architecture and Construction

For this particular unit on architecture and construction I adapted graphic organizers, outlines, highlighted text and jigsaw reading as discussed by Echevarria, Vogt and Short (2004) to scaffold extended listening and reading selections. The unit on architecture and construction was suggested by one of the mechanical engineering faculty whose course functioned as a core material for several different programs of study. One of the class texts, The Art of Construction (Salvadori, 1990), is a content-adapted book for North American high school students. The Mexican faculty used the texts illustrations during classroom demonstrations with realia (sponges, rulers, string) in order to introduce students to basic concepts such as tension and compression as well as more complex concepts such as the properties of building foundations and frames. Interestingly, the professor found the realia demonstrations useful for his university-level class, but he reported doubts as to whether his students were actually reading the assigned portions of the text.

I chose four chapters from the text and adapted them as discussed in the section on ethics: copying and pasting text into a pdf file that overviews the most important content without losing too much of the flow of the original. I also previewed new vocabulary and concepts through an extended video activity; thus, the video and text complement each other. My goal was that students get practice in note taking, information organization, synthesizing and summary writing. Students would be able to express attitudes toward the new information, both orally and in writing, through debates, group discussion (in class and online) and a final poster presentation.

Procedure. The extended pre-listening came from the video Skyscrapers: Art and Architecture published by the Discovery Channel. In fact, it was a scholarship student, highly proficient in English and mid-way through her university studies, that had come across the video while watching the Discovery Channel at her home in Mexico City, and who then suggested using the video for the class.

In the class period previous to watching the first segment of the video, students were put into small groups and asked to make a list of the famous skyscrapers that they knew and whether they thought that the skyscrapers made any symbolic statements? The teacher then directed the students attention to the course on Blackboard and showed them where to download and print a partial outline of Part 1 of the video. She explained that in the next class period they would watch the video (20 minutes) while completing the outline. The students were asked to review the partial outline before the video in order to be familiar with its content.

The next class period was with me in the lecture hall. Students watched the video, completed the outline, and reviewed their outlines with a partner. One core concept from the video was the role of the elevator and high-strength steel in the development of high-rise buildings. I asked the students to review this concept with their partners and to share with their partner one other interesting new thing that he or she learned from the video. For homework one member of the pair was to enter the discussion board in Blackboard and post a summary of the in-class discussion.

The next day in the discussion section, the teacher showed a list of new vocabulary words and expressions from the first part of the video. This list of vocabulary words was available to students to download and bring to class. The first exercise was to work with a partner to identify words that students already knew and could explain to another student. The teacher then guided the students through an exercise at narrowing possible meanings of a new word. For example, the word lavish in lavish resorts appeared on the list. As a whole class, the students first guessed that lavish was probably something expensive and for rich people since resorts (a word that students already knew) were not for poor people. Students identified expensive resorts in Acapulco and Cancun, both well known resort cities in Mexico that they knew first hand (or knew of) and to which the adjective lavish could be attached. Before going to their dictionaries, the teacher worked with the students on identifying parts of speech in helping to narrow possible meanings of words. For example, students encountered the metaphorical expression steel and glass fireworks display used to describe the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. As a whole-class activity, the teacher elicited from the students that display was a noun. Then, students were reminded of the impressive images of the Towers, with their gold tinted windows (glass) and shining metal (steel) beams. Imagery and metaphor were more important for understanding this particular expression than the literal meaning of fireworks or display. Students spent the remainder of the class working with a partner to find definitions for the rest of the words on the list. For homework, students worked individually on the vocabulary list, modeling the strategies that they had practiced in class.

Whereas new vocabulary from the first video segment was handled as a post-listening activity, the vocabulary from the second segment of the video was dealt with as a pre-listening activity. The teacher pointed students toward the expression, 400-ton counterweight, asking the class if they remembered what a tuned mass damper was from the ethics reading. She whetted students appetites for the second part of the video by explaining that the segment for the next day would have a clip of the Citicorp Building that they had read about in the ethics case study. Students previewed the vocabulary in much the same way that they had reviewed the vocabulary from the first part of the video. At the end of the class, the students also previewed the partial outline for the second part of the video.

In the next class, students watched the second part of the video (20 minutes) and completed the accompanying outline. They compared outlines with a partner and helped each other with sections of the video they did not understand. I then showed five debate topics related to skyscraper construction and asked the students to familiarize themselves with each topic in preparation for the following days informal debates. Students handed in their outlines at the end of the class to be graded.

At the beginning of the next class, students were put into random groups of three. Each group was given a color-coded (by topic) debate card and allowed 15 minutes to prepare their arguments. The teacher then called two opposing groups to come to the front of class to debate the topic. For example, the teacher called out for the yellow debaters (debate topics on yellow-back paper), and the group with the argument It is disgraceful that cities and corporations spend so much money on skyscrapers when there are greater social needs was countered by the group with the argument Skyscrapers are significant symbols of power and prestige, which bring in more foreign investment. Each side presented its arguments and counter arguments before the discussion was opened up to the rest of the class. No formal evaluation of the debate was made and no winning side was selected.

The video segments served as an extended pre-reading activity for the following weeks text on materials and construction. The reading would take them further into issues of tension, compression, foundations, and building sway mentioned in the video. In the first class period in the lecture hall, students were led through a dictocomp, again following the procedures outlined by Brinton, Snow, and Wesche (1989). The two paragraphs chosen for the dictocomp introduced the concepts of tension and compression; thus, students were exposed to new content and language that would be vital to the rest of the weeks discussion. Students peer-reviewed each others dictocomps.

Next, I explained to the class that they would be doing a jigsaw reading. Each group would become expert in a given section of the text although the students were all expected to read the entire text regardless of the section they were assigned. Groups would collaborate during an entire 50-minute class period in order to make sure that every member of the collaborative group understood the assigned section of the text. In the next class period, students would work together to summarize their assigned text in the form of a poster. The poster should use graphics that illustrate the new concepts and vocabulary presented in the reading. Students were encouraged to be creative as well as comprehensive in their choice of relevant information to include in the poster.

Students completed their team posters outside of class and brought them to the next lecture period for display in a poster session. One student from the group stayed with the teams poster to explain the concepts illustrated (This student rotated with the other two group members). Each individual had an opportunity to circulate around the room to see other posters as well as to review with other students the poster that his or her team had designed. They were instructed to take careful notes from other teams posters for use in a summary writing activity the following day. I also circulated around the room, asking specific questions about the content of each poster and clarifying some of the ideas that students may have had difficulty with. I took notes on language and content issues that students struggled with in order to review at a later time with the whole class.

The day after the poster session, students went to their discussion class with their notes from the previous days poster activity in preparation for a summary writing activity. They were instructed to write one summary paragraph for each of the four sections of the assigned reading. The teacher emphasized that they should not refer back to the original text but rather use only their notes from the poster session and their individual reading. Students worked individually for all but the last ten minutes of class before exchanging papers for peer review and then handing their work to the teacher for evaluation. For homework, I made available a document in Blackboard for students to download that functioned as a final follow-up exercise. It consisted of four summary cloze passages that I had written for each of the four sections of the reading. Students were instructed to fill in the blanks with the words from the list of new vocabulary items from the reading.

Scaffolding Reading with Instruction in Grammar

The choice of content and example sentences for the grammar work done in the course came directly from the readings and other content material. For example, the textbook reading on collaboration had a high frequency of modal auxiliaries with which students could work. Similarly, I chose logical connectors from the introductory reading on ethics and highlighted these in order to focus learner attention to both meaning and use. A third textbook readingthis one on creativity in engineering and designmodeled examples of the passive voice, which is what this section of the paper turns to now.

The selection comes from a textbook called Engineering Design (Dieter, 2000) and functions as the main text for a core course that brought together most of the students from the School of Engineering, Architecture, and Design . I again modified the text as I had done with the ethics and architecture units by pulling out sections of the original and pasting them together so as to conserve as much as possible text flow and readability. The exercises on the passive voice employ sentences directly from the original. As with the activities developed for the unit on architecture, the unit on creativity was introduced with a very short video, and then another extended video segment is presented as a post-reading activity that builds on the concepts presented in the text and gives students hands on practice with a design technique for industrial designers called concept engineering. Instruction in the passive voice is secondary to instruction in the content of the reading.

The purpose of teaching the pre- and post listening activities and reading itself was to expose students to a wide variety of applications of their own creativity. I deemed that regardless of their discipline, students would find the techniques for promoting and utilizing their own natural creativity to be invaluable both academically and professionally. I chose to highlight sections of a text that students would be expected to read in their regular content courses, and I supplemented this reading with video segments in order to make the concepts and language more comprehensible. The final product of the two weeks that we spent on learning how to promote ones own creativity was another poster, this time illustrating the process and final outcome of redesigning a product using the technique of concept engineering.

Procedure. Students were introduced to the topic of creativity via a 5-minute video segment from a network news program, the premise of which was to show how companies were encouraging their middle and upper management to be creative in the development of innovative new products. Students were helped with new vocabulary in a simple matching exercise and then guided in their comprehension of the video through a true/false main idea question followed by ten multiple choice items. Most of the class time was dedicated to an activity with a partner where they were asked to imagine themselves as various body parts, such as a strand of hair, and in this example, explain what kind of shampoo they would prefer. For homework, students summarized their creative ideas in Blackboard. Later that week, after reading their posts, I started the class with my favorite top three ideas for each body part (a strand of hair, the heel of a foot, and the bridge of a nose) that the students had provided. Also for homework, I assigned the reading on creativity, and students were told to begin reading the 10-page text.

Over the next two days, students worked with the content and organization of the reading prior to instruction on the passive voice. Most of the work was aimed at personalizing the material. For example, one section of the text presented positive steps to enhance creative thinking, and students worked individually and then in pairs to rate each step on a scale of 1-4 for how frequently he or she engaged in the activity. Another activity asked students to decide whether they personally felt they were left, right or whole brained, building off the explanation provided in the text. In another example activity, students paired off and then told of a time when they experienced mental block. The other student diagnosed the kind of mental block his partner had suffered, adhering to the terminology from the reading, and then suggested ways to overcome similar mental blocks in the future.

Instruction in the passive voice began after students had reviewed and worked with the content and new vocabulary from the reading. The passive voice constructions found in the reading had already been marked (with a yellow background). The students first task was to find three of the constructions and write them down, then with a partner discuss what the form of the verb was (auxiliaries and main verb) and whether they felt the subject of the sentence was the doer or receiver of the action of the verb. The teacher went through the students examples together as a class, introducing the grammatical terms agent and recipient. She then built on these terms in the next exercise with three consecutive paragraphs from the text. Ten subjects were underlined, and students worked together in pairs to decide whether the subject was an agent or recipient of the action of the verb.

The third activity with the passive voice was a traditional task in which students transformed active voice sentences into passive voice sentences. The purpose of the activity was to remind students of the form of the passive voice verb though most students were already comfortable with the BE + past participle construction in addition to marking the auxiliary for person and tense. The class then moved to a more challenging activity where students identified reduced relative clauses, as in (1), and full relative clauses (relative pronoun + auxiliary) as shown in (2). The students worked together in pairs to identify the reduced relative clauses and then rewrite the clause to include the relative pronoun and auxiliary for the passive construction.

1.      The figure shows a mind map or concept map [created for a project on the recycling of steel and aluminum scrap.]

2.      The U.S. culture currently is one which avoids problem solving around issues [that are termed politically incorrect.]

A final challenging activity asked students to extend their knowledge of the form and meaning of the passive to the pragmatics of the passive voice. They worked together to choose the most appropriate sentence, as in (a) or (b), to follow the previous sentence, such as (3).

3.      To achieve a truly creative solution to a problem a person must utilize two thinking styles: vertical or convergent thinking and lateral or divergent thinking

a.      Vertical thinking is the type of analytical thought process reinforced by most engineering courses.

b.      Most engineering courses reinforce the type of analytical thought process called vertical thinking.

Following the work with the passive voice, the unit wrapped up with a video about concept engineering as illustrated by the design team at LL Bean in the making of their hunting boot and winter sports jacket. First, students were guided through the video content with vocabulary and multiple choice items followed by discussion questions. In the next two class periods, students actually engaged in the process of concept engineering. First, they chose a product to redesign and then interviewed classmates who used the product (the expert customer). They turned the customer stories into customer requirements for their redesigned product, which they wrote on Post-it Notes (as had been demonstrated to them in the video). As a team, they silently arranged and rearranged the Post-it Notes into clusters of customer requirements, and then prepared a poster that summarized the customer requirements for their redesigned product. Finally, students presented their posters in class for comment and evaluation by classmates. The evaluation rubric for the poster included an assessment of language, focusing on correct usage of the passive voice (e.g. Customers want a pen that can even be used while writing upside down.).


This paper detailed the development and instruction of three extended scaffolding reading activities that incorporate speaking, listening and writing as well as explicit instruction in grammar all developed from academic readings that engineering, architecture and design students are assigned in their university-level content courses. These were only three such activities in a semester-long, content-based course which also included individual and group library work leading into a final semester presentation as well as focused work in specific areas such as AC/DC current in electrical engineering and the concept in industrial engineering called Just in Time, among others. Future modifications to the course will incorporate more work with robotics and computer engineering, which were two programs of study with very high enrollment.

The key to the success of the course lied in the continual communication and feedback between me and the faculty and students in the School of Engineering, Architecture and Design. The content-area experts provided all of the reading material, and scholarship students from the School previewed all of the activities that I developed. This process of review by students who were advanced both in English proficiency as well as content knowledge was an invaluable step in the design of the course, allowing me to re-evaluate the tasks and presentation of activities before they were taught. In addition, these same faculty and students promoted the course informally with other students and faculty in the School. Such support cannot be downplayed: Nearly every facet of the course broke with the mold of university-level language courses as they had been previously taught at the institution, and garnering strong public relations for the course, so to speak, was instrumental in gaining the eventual institutional support, both within the department as well as across departments and campuses within the institutions 33-campus system.

Of equal importance was the collaboration with other language teachers in the team-teaching scheme. These teachers collaborated in the teaching of the course out of their own interest. Each of us assumed an individual role and there was mutual respect for each others part in the teaching of the course. For example, as the course designer and lead instructor, I had the major responsibility for the creation and organization of the syllabus, course goals, activities, exams and midterm and final grades. The team-teachers did the bulk of teaching of the activities that I designed, and their feedback was critical in assessing how the course was progressing as a whole. After the first midterm during the first semester that the course was taught, my team-teacher colleague and I made important changes to the course organization as well as the class dynamic during the lecture hall classes. This major tweak to the course was thanks to my team-teacher colleagues observations and her sharing of comments from students. Subsequent midterm periods, and of course, the next semesters class, benefited from these minor but important modifications.

The impact of the course, quantitatively, on the students language skills, literacy skills and success in their content courses has not been measured. Anecdotal evidence for the impact of the course is available through student evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive, as well as comments from students. My future work with content-based instruction will identify long-term measurable outcomes in both language and content.


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