What is scaffolding and how can we use it to support learning?

There has been a lot of interest in the topic of scaffolding in language education recently. Scaffolded learning is integral to the stages of language acquisition that we guide our learners through when they are taking on new language. So what is scaffolding, and how can we implement it effectively in the classroom?

Scaffolding vs support

The term ‘scaffolding’ comes from early modern educational theory, in relation to language acquisition, and takes the view that learning is best enabled when appropriate levels of support are provided at different stages of language development. Obviously, the ways that we can support learners in their study of new language are innumerable, but the way in which we deliver this support in a graded way across a lesson or broader curriculum can be defined more precisely.

There is a common misconception that scaffolding means simply giving learners support in order for them to succeed at a task or activity. However, as with the scaffolding that builders use to support the structures they create, the ultimate purpose of scaffolded learning is for that support to be withdrawn until the learners can apply what they are learning independently, without the support that they needed at earlier stages. After all, any scaffolding on a building is eventually removed, leaving the building standing strong on its own.

To take this analogy further, we would ask questions about a building that had scaffolding on its walls for a long period: ‘wow’, we might say, ‘that building must need serious amounts of work’, or ‘wow, whoever’s working on that church must really be having problems - it’s been under scaffolding for years’. Translate this into the language classroom, and the analogy holds: a teacher that is constantly providing support and correcting, explaining and re-instructing students is demonstrating that they are either working at the wrong level for the students (who are evidently having problems), or is not providing the skills that the students need to work autonomously and use what they are learning independently.

So scaffolded learning is a subtler methodology than it may first seem. We need not only to provide support to our learners as they learn, but to consider what kind of support we offer, and how much support we offer, at different stages of their learning.

Cognitive and metacognitive aspects of scaffolding

Learning, by its very nature, involves different kinds of cognitive work to be performed by students. They need not only to understand the specific language items that they are exposed to (linguistic processing), but they also need strategies to work with new language in ways that can be applied to any new form that they come across.

One aim of scaffolded learning is to develop cognitive skills which can benefit students’ independent learning. Learning to think differently in this way takes some support, but after some skills development, will result in a learner who is better equipped to learn independently. Inductive methods such as deducing meaning from context, applying known criteria to unknown language, applying patterns to new grammar, etc. all require some training at first, but can give students the strategies they need when they encounter new words or phrases in future.

This initial support can come in the form of metacognitive work, where learners take time to think about how they are processing language as they learn. Metacognitive activities can focus on strategies for success in reading, writing or listening by asking learners which sections of a text they needed to focus on more, and why, or focusing on how the organisation of a text can affect how we read it and how the information is presented to us. Reading tasks focusing on the purpose of skimming, scanning and detailed reading, for example, develop metacognitive skills rather than linguistic comprehension.

Ideas for metacognitive skills development

As these metacognitive strategies are non-linguistic, when we aim to support learners in their processing of language it is important to reduce the linguistic load of the language we present them with. By using texts which are well within the learners’ competence (ie which are graded at a lower level than their level of performance), the cognitive load of understanding new language will be reduced, to allow more mental space for learners to focus on how they are approaching a task.

A nice task for increasing reading speed when looking for main ideas, for example, is to select an easy text related to whatever you are teaching at the moment, and to set a ridiculously short time limit for them to read the whole thing. Instruct students to start with their eyes on the first word of the text, and finish with their eyes on the last word in the text (a single-page text of around 750 words works well for this). Hand out the texts face down on the desks in front of the students and instruct them not to look at their page until you tell them to do so. Tell them that they have ten seconds to read the entire text, then they can turn over their pages and GO!

At first there will be sighs and cries of ‘this is impossible’, with most learners getting stuck somewhere in the first quarter of the text. Tell the students to turn over their sheets again and that they don’t have to understand the whole text, they just have to pass their eyes over it from top-left to bottom-right. Set another 10 (or 15) second limit for them (15 seconds is much kinder!) and ask them to get their eyes to the end of the text.

Once they finish and turn over their sheets again, ask them to call out words and phrases that they saw in the text. They will give you mostly key nouns, verbs and adjectives from the text. List these to the board and ask them what they think the text is about. Remember that they have only been exposed to the text for around 20 seconds, so working towards an accurate view of the main ideas in the text in this short time shows how much can be gained without reading in detail through every paragraph.

Once the class is familiar with this strategy, try it again with another text in another lesson, and ask students to say where the words they picked out appear in the text - beginning, middle or end, or even which approximate paragraph they came from. This gives a further insight into paragraph main ideas and the flow of points through the whole text.

Scaffolding through lesson staging

Another way of providing (then withdrawing) the support that students need with new language is to stage your lesson to include different amounts and types of work to introduce, explore and then apply the language you are teaching. As a rule, early stages of a well-scaffolded lesson should include more teacher talk, more restricted tasks (where answer choices are given, or sentence examples can be used for learners to fill gaps), and less cognitive load (with you asking more closed questions and dealing with more language and content that is already known to the students). As the lesson progresses, the balance of interaction in the room should shift towards the students, with more student-student communication, freer tasks (i.e. where the learners have to construct more complete ideas on blank lines, or create their own sentences and integrate the language they are learning into their own ideas freely), and content should be more challenging and analytical (investigating how and why the new language is structured as it is).

This ‘drift’ from known, low-cognitive, teacher-controlled and restricted content to unknown, higher-cognitive, student-controlled and free content represents the teacher ‘handing over’ the language to the students for them to play with and apply independently, with less support from you and therefore in a more autonomous way. This is the essence of scaffolding, so the next time you plan out a lesson, think about it in terms of the activity that you and the learners are performing, the amount of talk required of you and the learners, and the types of thinking that you are asking of them. Aim for this ‘scaffolded drift’ through the lesson, and your learners will be more prepared to apply what they are learning independently (if not totally accurately).

However we support our learners, we must remember that our final goal is to enable them to work effectively without support. Give them strategies to take control of their own learning and deal with the language they work with in situations where you are not present, and you have done your job. With attention to the types of work that you and your learners are doing at different points in a lesson, you can build knowledge, skills and language in your learners more effectively.

Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification for online and classroom language educators with a language proficiency of CEFR B2 and above.

If you are interested to know more about these new qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.

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