Teaching Technique: Scaffolding

ScaffoldingWhat is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a model for describing an effective form of instruction. Taking theories of child development as its basis, the term “scaffolding” seeks to describe the interaction between a learner and teacher in relation to the learner’s developmental process. Although specific techniques for applying a scaffolding model will differ from instructor to instructor, the overall pedagogical pattern will remain roughly the same.

Scaffolding is best understood in relation to Lev Vygotsky’s theory of child development. Taking a child’s current independent abilities as a starting point, there is a certain range of tasks that a child can perform on his own, and a certain range of tasks that the child cannot perform, no matter what assistance he gets from adults. Between these two extremes lies the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. Within the ZPD, a child can, with help from adults, perform certain tasks he cannot on his own. In Vygotsky’s view, this is where development occurs. Learning leads to development.

Within this context, psychologist Jerome Bruner coined the term “scaffolding” to refer to the help an adult gives to a child within the ZPD. The adult provides a structure of assistance in the form of direct instruction, hands-on help, and guidance, which she slowly pulls back as the child becomes more competent and able to complete the task on her own. The metaphor of a scaffold refers to a structure that aids in building, but which must be removed in order for the construction to have meaning. Thus, a teacher provides a student with assistance initially, then gradually reduces his role until the student is capable of performing the task unaided. A teacher can thereby expand the student’s skillset in a systematic way.

Cummins describes a framework for applying scaffolding to a bilingual model, charting tasks in terms of their cognitive demands and the amount of contextual support a student receives. A cognitively demanding task requires a deep level of mental interaction with the material. The teacher should provide contextual scaffolding by speaking simply and clearly, paraphrasing, and otherwise enhancing the input. He can also adjust the lesson to draw on the students’ own experiences and knowledge, thereby providing an internal context to the task. By gradually reducing contextual support, a teacher can take away the scaffolding and have students perform cognitively demanding tasks on their own, thereby contributing to their development.

How Can Teachers Scaffold?

Techniques for providing contextual support are numerous and varied. Overtly pre-teaching vocabulary can be a good starting point for moving on to work with challenging texts, and the teacher can maintain this scaffold through the use of a word wall, where key vocabulary are displayed for the entire class to use in working through class work. Graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, story maps, and timelines, can help to clarify complex interactions. Modeling can provide students with techniques they can apply to their own work.

The teacher then moves onto a guided activity. For instance, she may ask students to work in small groups, moving between groups to provide support as needed. This is often referred to as the “turn-and-talk”, in which students engage the material in discussion with their peers. In a writing task, the teacher could begin by collaboratively writing a model essay, involving ideas from students and the teacher’s own guidance, before moving on to individual or small-group writing tasks. In a bilingual classroom, it is key that the guided practice step respect all of a student’s linguistic tools, allowing them to contribute in whatever language or form of expression is most comfortable to them.

From a guided activity, the teacher directs students to take up the work on their own. Here they may produce their own work, react to the material, and discuss their own ideas. In text work, a simple technique like dual-entry journals may be used, asking students to write out an author’s idea on one half of a page and react on the opposite page. Thereafter, the teacher then brings the students’ ideas together, and discusses them as a class, thus celebrating students’ contributions and fostering interaction.

Using Scaffolding to Teach English

In my previous job at an Eikaiwa, the process of scaffolding was held up as a model for class organization, although I was unaware of the term at the time. Each adult grammar class, called “Round-up” in the AEON jargon, progressed from instruction, to guided practice, to freer interaction, although in practice freer interaction often got short shrift.

An AEON grammar lesson begins with a pronunciation warm-up, in which the teacher directs the students in pronouncing a target sound. Thereafter, the teacher leads students in a short activity meant to showcase a real-world use for a target grammar structure. The teacher models, and then asks students to practice in pairs. Once finished, the teacher directly instructs the students in the lesson’s target grammar structure and leads the class in substitution drills. The lesson then moves on to a listening activity, a dialogue practice, a fill-in-the-blanks pair-work activity, and a teacher-directed “freer practice”.

The overall lesson structure seems sound, although I’m not sure that the substitution drills, fill-in-the-blanks activities or dialogue practices were particularly valuable uses of interactive class time. In practice, teachers were discouraged from granting much autonomy to students, even in later sections of the lesson. “Freer practice” often consisted of a few set phrases, into which students were encouraged to insert their own words. To me, this sort of activity seems to fit more into the “guided practice” sort of activity framework, and could easily replace the substitution drills. To develop real, autonomous use of the language, students need to have some practice using it without overt guidance, with the scaffolding peeled back. I do think overt instruction, even of grammatical structures, can be facilitative in a language classroom, but only as an advance organizer to help students effectively process later input, and it should ideally be presented in the student’s native language.

Given a chance to design my own English-teaching curriculum, I would probably continue to use some of the techniques I learned at AEON, but effective scaffolding would take a much higher priority. I’d like students to learn grammar in their native language and study vocabulary on their own, as preparatory work for effective classroom interaction. Rather than focusing each class on a particular grammar structure, I’d prefer to organize classes in terms of “can-do” skills and themes. For beginners, we could adopt travel as a year-long theme, providing a contextual scaffold for the language. Each class could then focus on a task—using transportation, for example. We could begin with a model interaction, perhaps using video, of an advanced L2 English speaker hailing a taxi and directing the driver to go to a hotel. The teacher could then go over any unclear vocabulary or structures, and explain the interaction bit by bit. Students could then split into pairs and try to recreate the interaction, with the teacher moving from group to group to offer assistance. We could then brainstorm other important kinds of transportation tasks as a class, allowing students to use English, their native language, gestures, or pictures. Finally, the teacher would ask students to produce a short skit, demonstrating how they would get from point A to point B in a foreign country, and we’d discuss each skit as a class. The teacher would lead class discussion by asking questions like, “What other phrases could Masakatsu use in this situation?” Discussion could then move in a more abstract direction, asking students about their experiences with transportation overseas and their opinions about transportation, before moving to a free “turn-and-talk”. In this way, we’d progress from a high degree of teacher and contextual support to a freer sort of interaction, gradually reducing teacher involvement until students are able to perform a complex task on their own.

I’m drawn to the scaffolding model out of a strong conviction that learning is an active process. Rather than seeing myself as a provider of knowledge, I hope to support, encourage, and guide learners in constructing their own knowledge. In my experience, students do not learn what they are taught. They learn those things they want to learn, when they are ready to learn them, when presented with the opportunity to do so. In this context, a teacher’s role is to motivate the student to want to learn, prepare the student so he is ready to learn, and provide timely, student-oriented input and materials.

Further Reading:

Walqui, A. (2006). Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A conceptual framework. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 9(2), 159-180.

English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Teaching Tips
One comment on “Teaching Technique: Scaffolding
  1. […] we provide guidance, and scaffolding, and advice and so on, but if your goal is to move a list of facts from one brain to another, a […]

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