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At the end of the article are guiding questions for the educator.

Scaffolding is an essential element that can easily be overlooked when designing a lesson. There are so many aspects to lesson planning that it is often neglected, and that is unfortunate, because it such a powerful tool that it can sometimes mean success or failure in learning for the students.

Scaffolding is a concept proposed by Lev Vygotsky in his theory of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development). In ZPD, scaffolding refers to verbal instruction of a more knowledgeable person, usually the teacher, to assist a learner in achieving higher levels of understanding. Scaffolding is actually the key element to Vygotsky’s ZPD theory, but the theory was never fully completed or realized due to his death in 1934.

Consequently, Vygotsky’s untimely death has allowed scaffolding to be expanded to not only include verbal guidance, but any type of guidance that allows the learner to increase knowledge or understanding. Therefore, educators can assist students in learning not by mere words, but by various means and strategies.


Here are some ways scaffolding can be added to lessons and instruction to better assist students in learning target language and how to perform tasks as instructed.

  • Pre-teach vocabulary: Useful in any of the four skills being taught, but extremely beneficial with reading and listening classes or exercises. Reviewing key vocabulary will assist the student in understanding the general theme of what is being learned, but also dedicate more energy to focusing on details that relate to the key vocabulary.
  • Modeling: A very powerful scaffolding tool is modeling. Modeling is when the educator demonstrates what the students will have to do, and is most often used when giving directions or to convey concepts or situations. For example, the educator asks students to make a role play dialog on a certain topic. The educator can bring another student to the front and demonstrate how the role play will work and give an example of the type of language the students need to use. Other uses to modeling are demonstrating rules to games, activities, drills, or anything that can be acted out. Modeling helps students see what is being asked of them and is far more powerful than just words.
  • Activate schema: Activating schema is using the student’s prior knowledge or experience to help with learning. There are couple ways to use schema as scaffolding. One can be individual experiences with the topic being learned such as going to the doctor, telling someone bad news, etc… Another way schema can be utilized is when performing a variation of a previous activity, the educator can ask the students to remember the former activity while using some body language/modeling to demonstrate how this activity is different. Since students will already have experience with a variation of the current activity, the educator can save time by not having to model the entire activity, just the unfamiliar part. Study more about activating schema here
  • Hand/body gestures: Communication and understanding are profoundly increased with the use of hand/body gestures. For example, if the educator wants a student to leave class, but doesn’t want to speak because he is too angry and does not want to yell; all he has to do is point to the student and the door and the student will understand he needs to leave. Although this example does not increase learning, it illustrates how powerful hand/body gestures can convey thoughts and language. A more practical use of hand gestures is for educators to place their hands together and fold outward when telling students to open their books. Think of any kind of hand or body action that conveys the idea to be shared with the students and do it. Especially helpful with younger learners, but great for older students and adults at the same time.
  • Authentic materials: If the educator can bring in any kind of authentic material to show the students, then this is a great way to scaffold what the students are to learn or perform. For instance, if the students have to design a restaurant menu, bring in some take-out menus from various local places or chain restaurants like Outback. Provide these to the students, have them look over the menus, and then tell them to make their own menu. It depends on the menu, but students might be reminded to put appetizers on the menu, or receive guidance on how to write a description of dishes. Other materials such as pictures, video clips from TV shows, maps, audio conversations, etc… can be used depending on what the educator is trying to accomplish.
  • Use the whiteboard: Students really benefit from seeing information in writing. The educator should use the whiteboard as much as possible to write directions, key words, or information needed. If the students are performing a task in their book and there is a student activity following the task , the educator should write the directions on the board during task work so the students can utilize spoken word, hand/body language, modeling, and written language to understand the directions when the time comes. Also, write key information on the board throughout class. When students are trying to use the target language, even if the educator has erased the information, they will still look at the board where the information USED TO BE to assist with recalling information.
  • Group/pair work: The basis of scaffolding is to allow someone with more knowledge or expertise to assist someone with less understanding to help lift that learner to new heights. A great way to do this is to lesson plan group and pair work into the lesson as much as possible. The educator creates a scaffolding situation where the students are now assisting each other and not relying solely on the educator to provide the help. Students might be more comfortable asking peers questions than asking the educator in front of the class.
  • Seating arrangements: How the class is arranged can scaffold learning in the classroom. Proper seating in accordance to class objectives enables more opportunities to advance knowledge. If the educator wants the students to have discussions, then cluster seating or U-shaped seating will be preferred over traditional rows. If the educator wants the students to help each other during the learning process, then cluster seating with higher leveled students strategically placed will facilitate this goal. On the other hand, if the educator wants students to produce their own work, then traditional rows will be necessary. Find more about seating arrangements here

Final Thoughts

At Tesol Class, we try to provide information that educators may find helpful and use if they desire. However, scaffolding is an absolute must in the language learning class, and if an educator is not maximizing this area, then students are put at a disadvantage. Therefore, when lesson planning a class, the educator should always be thinking of how to present and convey information appropriately. Educators normally do some scaffolding, but many times we leave a lot of opportunities unfilled and this hurts the students. The problem is- it is so easy to overlook. If the majority of students are not doing the activity properly, then it was most likely not scaffold properly. On the brightside, educators can instantly recognize students are struggling and provide more scaffolding in the moment. It is easy to implement on the fly.

*Personal Note: Years ago when I was doing my graduate studies, I had my professor fly to Korea to observe my class and teaching. I had a well thought out lesson plan, but as I started to teach, I began to realize the lesson was missing something and the students weren’t performing like I had designed. The class was not a failure, but I did not consider it a success either. After school, my professor and I went to eat and talk about my classes that day. She asked me questions and helped me to dissect different aspects of that class, but when I struggled to pinpoint the exact problem, she pointed out where more scaffolding would increase what I was trying to accomplish. That lesson was the first of six that week, so I made some changes and used the whiteboard to further assist my scaffolding (with other things) and the lessons started producing the results I planned from the beginning. I became so consumed with the major aspects of lesson planning and materials that I overlooked the value of scaffolding. I have and will never forget that powerful lesson.

Questions to Think About to Help Teaching

  1. Do you actively think of scaffolding when designing your lesson plans? What techniques do you use?
  2. What are some techniques you would like to try and why?
  3. Write down three recent situations where your students didn’t understand. Could you have scaffolded it better? If so, how could you?