Imagining the wind blowing through their hair as they coast down a hill or picturing themselves racing after an older sibling makes many young children eager to ride bikes without training wheels. However, few are prepared for the abrupt tilt of an unsupported bicycle seat. This wobbly sensation quickly transforms thrill to fear. Why? Because it makes children realize they can fall. Unfortunately, falling seems like the only way to teach children how balance feels, whether you are talking about riding a bike or learning to read complex text “independently and proficiently.”
The bicycle analogy has become cliche for the gradual release of responsibility. The teacher supporting readers through shared and guided reading—letting them “fall” just enough, but not too much—is the metaphorical equivalent of a parent running alongside a novice cyclist holding him or her up.
We found the actual process of teaching our children to ride a bike in this way horrifying, however, as did the children. The tricky part, is that there is such a wide gap between us holding onto the seat and sustaining balance for the rider and us letting go long enough to let our terrified son get a feel for balance for himself. There is was always blood and there were always tears. We assumed this was a rite of passage. We have lived and relived this process with one son after another, as we have lured our boys, bedecked with enough padding to play NFL football, to empty parking lots and dead end streets. With a few good falls, they each decided that cycling just wasn’t for them; then, we resorted to bribery and other forms of coercion.
Dreading this inevitable process with her third son, Natie, Jan did a little research to explore alternate ways to learn to ride a bike. As it turns out, there are scaffolding options for the parents of aspiring cyclist. Interestingly, the balance required for riding a bicycle is the same as that required for riding a razor scooter. Scooter riders, however, are much closer to the ground, and consequently less likely to incur injury. They can quickly put down a foot and catch themselves. Balancing on the scooter isn’t easier, but it is easier to avoid a painful spill in the process of learning, and the other aspects of riding, such as steering and braking, are easier.
So, Jan got a razor scooter for Natie and let him practice. He wasn’t any faster at learning to balance than his older brothers had been, but he could practice independently, he was motivated, and he wasn’t afraid. There was little risk and the “work” was mostly fun. Gradually, Natie was able to keep both feet on the scooter for longer and longer periods, eventually learning to lean in on turns and to brake slowly. Most importantly, a few weeks later, Natie got onto a bicycle and was immediately successful. He never fell, but was soon riding all over the parking lot.
The prominent difference in the two forms of scaffolding—letting a parent hold up a child vs. selecting equipment that better supports the learning process—is that the latter allows the learner to be in charge, develop agency, and learn even when the parent/teacher is not around. It lets the child learn without the parent shouldering the weight of a critical part of the work.
We think this analogy works for teaching children to read, as well. Instead of preteaching all the vocabulary, prompting them when they should be self-correcting, or teaching them basic processes in books that don’t fit them, could students prepare to read harder books by first reading easier books on the same topic?