Supportive Language Instruction: 5 Scaffolding Strategies for ELL Students
Imagine that you and your family recently moved to a new country. You’re trying to learn a difficult language that everyone around you already knows and adjust to a school culture that’s much different than what you’re used to.
You’re already feeling overwhelmed, but to top it off, your teacher asks you to read a three-page article that’s written in gibberish and complete five short-answer response questions all by yourself. Nervously, you get to work, but you aren’t feeling very confident in yourself.
Unfortunately, the lack of support in this scenario is a harsh reality for many English learners.
English language learners (ELLs), like all students, certainly don’t benefit from this type of “sink or swim” teaching. Rather, to be able to acquire new content knowledge and cultural understanding, English learners (ELs) require intentional and strategic instructional scaffolding. In this blog, we’ll explore what scaffolding instruction means and provide five scaffolding strategies for ELL students that you should use in your classroom.
What is Instructional Scaffolding?
Before we answer this question, let’s first consider what scaffolding is used for in construction. Scaffolds are temporary structures that construction workers use to support themselves and heavy materials as they complete a project, such as constructing a building or repairing a bridge. It helps crews access heights that they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own and serves as somewhat of a safety net.
Educational scaffolds provide a much different type of support, but similarly to construction, they help students reach new heights that they can’t do alone (metaphorically speaking).
In education, scaffolding is a teaching method where the educator helps support students to complete tasks just beyond the level that they could achieve by themselves. This technique stems from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed a theory that children learn best when an adult helps them expand upon what they already know and can do.
His theory birthed the concept of a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)—the area between what is known and unknown where students can achieve a task with guidance from a knowledgeable teacher. Over time, the teacher can gradually reduce their support until the students master the task themselves (like how the scaffolding around a building is torn down once a project is completed). Then, they’re ready to move on to the next concept.
Rather than teaching concepts that are well beyond your students’ understanding and simply pulling them along, your instruction should take place within their ZPD with appropriate scaffolds.
How Does Scaffolding Help English Language Learners (ELLs)?
Scaffolding instruction is beneficial for all students, but it’s particularly essential for English language learners.
By breaking up new concepts into smaller chunks and using scaffolding strategies for ELLs, you’ll make learning the English language less intimidating and help increase their understanding by gradually building upon what they already know. It also reduces frustration and helps ELs become more confident, motivated, and independent learners.
Let’s look at some simple scaffolding strategies for ELL students that you can use to support your students’ language proficiency.
5 Scaffolding Strategies for ELL Students
There are many techniques that you can use to support the English language learners in your classroom. Here are five of our favorite scaffolding strategies for ELLs.
Most people learn best when they see or experience something rather than just hear about it.
Think about when you learned how to change a tire. Someone likely walked you through how to do it step by step while getting their hands dirty. Well, imagine instead that they just wrote out the steps on a piece of paper, or worse, just rattled off what to do and set you off on your own.
Learning words and concepts in a new language is a lot like changing a tire for your ELs. Therefore, whenever possible, you should explicitly show your students what they’re expected to do rather than just telling them.
A think-aloud session is a great technique to demonstrate how good readers make sense of a text and monitor their understanding as they read. Before having students read a passage themselves, the teacher should first read the passage aloud, stopping along the way to model their thoughts at points that may be difficult or confusing.
Some questions that you can encourage students to ask themselves during a think-aloud include:
- What do I already know about the topic?
- What do I think I’m going to learn?
- Do I understand what I just read?
- What more can I do to better understand?
- What new information did I learn?
- What were the most important points?
While you read, be sure to model how you’re working with and thinking about the text to answer the above questions, such as rereading a tricky sentence or using context clues to make predictions. From there, you can have your students read the passage with a partner and practice the think-aloud strategy. Then, once they understand the process, ask the students to read the passage once more individually so they can process it internally.
Modeling for your students how to approach their thinking before, during, and after reading a text will not only help them become better readers but also become self-regulated learners.
2. Activate Prior Knowledge
For new concepts to sink in, they must be built upon prior understanding.
Think back to the tire scenario. To teach someone how to change a tire, you expand upon their previous knowledge of how a tire works. So, before you dive into a new topic or text, ask students to share their ideas and experiences related to it. This helps them connect content to their own lives and increases engagement.
Some commonly used scaffolding strategies for ELLs that activate prior knowledge include:
You may need to drop hints and lead students to make connections at first, but once they see the relevance in what they’re learning, it’ll start to become easier.
3. Promote Classroom Interaction
Like all students, English language learners need time to verbally process new information. Therefore, as an ESL teacher, it’s important to incorporate frequent opportunities for your students to engage in structured peer discussions during your lessons.
Turn & Talk
Turn and Talk is a simple and effective scaffolding strategy for ELL students that promotes classroom interaction. Simply ask your students a question or provide them a prompt, then have them discuss with a partner. Give them enough time for both partners to contribute to the conversation and be sure to roam around the room, assisting as needed. Here’s a short video that further explains how the Turn in Talk technique works.
The Turn and Talk is a total participation technique, where instead of calling on a few students to share their thoughts with the whole class, you’re encouraging all students to think and share their thoughts. This technique also helps ELs feel more comfortable and confident sharing, as it’s less intimidating than speaking in front of a large class.
There are several other total participation techniques that you can use, such as
- Numbered/colored heads
- Fishbowl discussions
- Concentric circles
- I have, who has?
- Clock partners
- Wrap-Ups: 1, 2, 3 o’clock
By providing ample opportunities for students to interact and use the language they’re learning, you’re helping your students boost their language proficiency and their confidence.
4. Pre-Teach Vocabulary
Pre-teaching vocabulary, or frontloading vocabulary, is an incredibly effective scaffolding strategy for ELLs to help them tackle difficult texts.
Before your students read something new, you should always dedicate time for explicit vocabulary instruction of important terms within the text. By that, though, we don’t mean simply asking students to pull out a dictionary, copy the definitions of ten words, and begin reading. This happens way too often in classrooms and, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lasting impact on language acquisition.
Vocabulary Gallery Walk
Instead of relying on memorization, introduce vocabulary terms in a way that captures your students’ interest and allows them to make connections. Print out photographs for each word and place them around the room, then have students do a gallery walk and use context clues to determine what they think each one means. After they’re done, give them time to share their thoughts before providing the actual definitions.
To help them better understand each definition, you can also have students create drawings, make a short skit in groups, or simply get with a partner and take turns using each word in a sentence. Not only does pre-teaching vocabulary support your ELs’ reading comprehension, but it also helps them learn how to use new words naturally.
5. Use Visual Aids
As we mentioned above, people often learn better by seeing rather than just hearing. This is especially true for English language learners, as visual aids help them contextualize information and build upon their prior knowledge. For that reason, you should use visual representations of new concepts as much as possible in your classroom, including:
It’s important to note that visual aids should serve as a tool for learning rather than a product of learning. For example, a graphic organizer is often used as a scaffold to help students gather their thoughts (tool) to then write an essay (product). Over time, they won’t need the visual aid to understand a concept or complete a task—sort of like training wheels for riding a bike.
Learning a new language is hard enough without having to do it alone. To ensure that your students achieve language proficiency and become well-adjusted to their new school culture, you must use scaffolding strategies for ELLs within your classroom.
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Thank you to Melissa Miller, an ESOL teacher in Howard County, Maryland for consulting on this blog post.
This blog was originally published on March 8, 2022. It was updated on March 10, 2023.