Cheating? Or Scaffolding?


My six-year-old wrote this:


“I went to the National Arboretum with Mommy, Princess, and Destroyer.  I liked the gardens and I liked the yellow flowers; the Coreopsis flowers. There were a lot of them.  I would love to come back to see the azaleas bloom in the spring.

My favorite thing was the pillars.  They looked like giant beams and there was a pond with a fountain in the center with a stream leading down to the pond behind the pillars.  It wasn’t running.  The pillars came from the Capitol building.  They were the pillars from the Capital building and they got moved to the arboretum. 

I love the bonsai trees and I thought they were cool.  So we took some pictures so that we could show them to my dad because he couldn’t come.  They looked like bushes, one was tall with stones.  Some of them were really small.  They were miniature trees. 

I liked the infinity garden on the map, the herb garden.  I liked smelling the smells of the flowers at the herb garden.  I really liked the shape of all the flowers there.  We checked out all the grasses, one with an artificial turf.   The one for the golf course was really small and didn’t even look like grass.  I knew it was,­ it was just really small grass.”


Or did he?

I typed it for him.  He thought up the report about our field trip and dictated it to me.  His voice, his words.  My scribing.  So whose work is it?  His, or mine?


You probably already know what I think – it’s his.  The format doesn’t matter, only the creation does.  He could have written it out by hand laboriously, but he would have only gotten so far as his hands could deal with.  Then he would be frustrated and annoyed and tell me “I give up! It’s too hard.” and hate writing with a passion.

What do you do with a kid whose cognitive abilities outstrip their physical abilities?  Do you limit them to the desperate struggles of forming letters or do you set their brain free and give them wings?  Note that this report took all of 5 minutes and he was still restless and annoyed at having to do it.  One of his earlier works – an imaginative story about a volcano – is 3 pages in closely typed font.  Give his imagination freedom and watch him soar!


Sometimes our kids meet their limitations and get frustrated.  Should we ease that frustration and accommodate their needs?  Or should we be “fair” and force them to do it all themselves?  Some argue that letting them out of the mechanics is wrong: that constant practice will force them to improve faster.  Plus it’s their assignment – how is it fair if we help them?

I say accommodate.  After all, they’re doing handwriting practice in other things, they’re strengthening their fine motor muscles in other ways.  If the assignment isn’t about handwriting, then let them accomplish it in whatever way works best.  Talk to text – a scribe – teach them to type.  Do what works for them.


For kids with an IEP, having a scribe or writing accommodations is fairly common.  Have the child answer verbally and write it down for them.  Let them prove their knowledge without forcing a battle over something they can’t control.  Seems fair, right?  Why should we punish someone for not being able to accomplish the task because of a disability?  It’s not like you’re actually doing the work for them, you’re just recording it.


The Engineer has a massive, wide-ranging vocabulary.  He can’t spell any of it, let alone read most of it.  Should that hold him back?  No.  If he knows the word and can define it, then writing it correctly isn’t the goal here.  Do most six-year-olds know how to spell fountain, azalea, or arboretum?  Heck, I don’t know how to spell arboretum – I had to run spell check and fix it!  Should I be punished for that?


Scaffolding a child is not cheating.  It’s allowing them to reach their highest potential: like giving them a stepladder instead of telling them to grow up a bit. 


I’m sympathetic to his struggles because I struggle too.  I hate trying to write something by hand.  Either I scribble and no one can read it, or I slowly, painstakingly print each letter with cramped hands and aching fingers.  It takes forever and my brain can go so much faster.  I rage against my betraying body and fight to make my handwriting legible.  I joke that I have doctor grade handwriting: in truth, it’s much worse than that.

Learning to type saved me.  In a digital world of tools and aids, typing is the one thing that allows me to match my brain speed.  And it still holds me back – I slip, hit the wrong key, spell words wrong, and have to go back and edit.  My brain races ahead and as I tell the Engineer, “wait!  I need to catch up!” and then I’m off again, typing furiously and streaming words onto the page.

When he’s older, I’ll teach him to type too.  When his hands are bigger.  I used to play piano.  Now I play a keyboard full of letters, a plastic tray of electrical circuits capable of producing as much music and evocative imagery as any musical score.  I remember how it felt to stretch my fingers to reach keys on a keyboard not designed for small hands.  I don’t want him to feel the same – to feel that typing is just as much a struggle as writing.  So no typing for now.  Just mom.  Just scribing, helping, assisting.


Today it’s typing.  Tomorrow, it might be helping him control his emotions in a class where everyone else drops their kids off and leaves.  Tomorrow, it could be helping him navigate the maze of campus life at college.  If he needs help, it’s not cheating.  It’s scaffolding.











One comment

  1. You present an interesting point for consideration… and after some deliberation, I would agree with you that this is “scaffolding”. And it would be no different if a person, because of physical disability, dictated notes to a scribe.

    A person might well use “voice to text ” dictation Apps (Apple., for instance, has these features built-in to Apps integrated to both iPhone, iPad and Mac operating systems.)

    These Apps are fast, can be very accurate… and usually only a little text and format editing is required to produce a fine finished product.


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