Scaffolding instructions and the language learning process.

Scaffolding instructions and the language learning process.

Do you learn best by seeing, hearing or doing?

As a tutor and curriculum specialist, I strongly believe some of the most effective ways to inspire students is by guiding, modelling and involving them more via instructional scaffolding ~ a process by which a teacher adds supports for students in order to enhance learning and aid in the mastery of tasks. But how do teachers optimize learning and why is scaffolding important in the language learning classroom?

I remember the first day of my CELTA (teacher) training at Saxoncourt, a University of Cambridge approved training centre in London, UK. It was a balmy, sunny day in August, 2008. In the very first class, right after self-introductions, we were assigned a task and then divided into 2 groups afterwards. Both groups were given measuring tools and the task was to measure the distance between 2 points on a map. Our tutor, a brilliant, 6” 2’, lanky man with a ginger beard in his late 40s, due to unknown reasons, left us on our own while he attended to the other group, providing them with more detailed explanation and assistance. Unsurprisingly, they completed their task effortlessly. Lo and behold, we could not. We were told later of the motives behind his ‘unfair’ treatment of our group.It was a well intentioned one though and since the reasons do not fit in to the scope of this article, I will have to reserve it for another day. 

Anyway, the assistance and instruction provided for the other group which can be likened to different kinds of wooden or steel supports used by builders at a construction site, is known as scaffolding pedagogy in language learning. As soon as the works are completed and the building can stand on its own, the scaffolding is removed. In a similar vein, the beams and supports in instructional scaffolding are taken away once a student has gained competency or mastered a language skill.

 Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), a psychologist and one of the earliest proponents of scaffolding instructions, believes educators should give top priority to the ZPD zone simply because it can encourage and advance individual learning skills and strategies. In order to reinforce understanding, enhance mastery and build skills, I make it a point of duty to incorporate some scaffolding strategies in my lesson plans. Below are some of the most common ones I have employed when teaching IELTS, TOEFL, Language Arts, English for Specific Purpose (ESP), Cambridge TKT and other teacher training courses.

Show & Tell

Show and tell – I do, We do, You do: This is the most common form of instruction in scaffolding, and it is commonly referred to as gradual release of responsibility.

Typical steps are as follows: 1. Teacher shows what to do by demonstration: “I do it.” 2. Teacher and student go through together : “We do it.” 3. Student practise doing it: “You do it.” 

In one of our IELTS classes, a student in a mini VIP group was finding paraphrasing statements from given prompts in writing task 1 overwhelming even after explanation, instruction and drilling. As a consequence, this prompted reviewing the steps involved with the student twice. To prove that paraphrasing is indeed not as daunting as what he thought, I had to write the first few words of the topic sentence on the board. I could see how delighted he was seeing it is not that hard. I encouraged him to come up with the remaining part which he did with some assistance in the form of eliciting and concept checking. I did the same with the rest of the sentences in the first paragraph. After a few more practice, he became proficient at penning complex sentences, and 6 months later, he aced his IELTS with an impressive 7.0 average (achieving 6.5 points in writing).

Guided practice: It is highly imperative for language educators to not only provide opportunities for students to practice, but also to do it correctly so they can internalize what has been learnt. One way to do is to provide focused support for learners who need extra assistance so they can reach the learning goals. Guiding instructions can be in form of reminders, questions, cues, prompts, explanations and modelling. While providing guidance, teachers should try as much as possible to elicit, concept check and correct students’ mistakes as this fosters skills development and mastery.

Pre-teach vocabulary: The traditional way is to explain or have students look up difficult words in the dictionary. This can be confusing as well as frustrating for learners, If for instance, a word has several meanings or the L1 (Chinese) translation is not accurate. The good news is, with scaffolding instructions, the teacher can make understanding words’ meanings more fun through contexts. The teacher can also use a spider-gram. For example, teacher writes one of the key words in the spider-gram on the board and then have students brainstorm other words that come to mind. This way they can learn other related words via synonyms, antonyms, prefixes and suffixes thereby expanding their vocabulary and understanding the words in depth. Plus, it’s more fun!

Personal connections : Teachers can help students take advantage of the concepts and skills they have previously learnt to complete a task that has to do with their personal experiences. For example, a teacher can encourage students to use a grammatical structure (e.g past simple tense) and relevant vocabulary studied in a previous class to describe a memorable holiday before teaching another grammatical item (e.g present perfect). This kind of instruction helps students to build on their prior knowledge and as a consequence, increases competency. Moreover, by incorporating personal interests and experiences in a lesson, learners can connect what has been studied to their private lives.

To wrap up, I strongly believe classes filled with very diverse learners warrant different scaffolding instructions, and if properly administered and monitored, students stand to gain a lot as most will thrive in this sort of learning environment mainly because they can take charge of their learning process with time. However, it is imperative to observe and ask questions of your students to really determine their amount of comfort in order to know if they require additional support / scaffolding in order to be successful.

Sources: ,

***EAP – English for Academic Purposes ***ESP – English for Specific Purposes  ***CLIL – Content Language Integrated Learning ( science, geography, maths taught in English)

Aceish Education (

Jack is the D.O.S at Aceish Education, an edtech, language training and consulting start-up in China. He’s a passionate educator, IELTS tutor, curriculum specialist & e-learning enthusiast with a penchant for success. At Aceish Education, we provide personalised online tutoring in IELTS, TOEFL, EAP, ESP,general English and CLIL subjects. We are also into e-learning course designing and packaging, teacher training, curriculum development and overseas education services.

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