‘Scaffolding’ is help that we give learners by breaking down the task into manageable chunks.
The term itself is a metaphor for support - just as scaffolding is put around a building that’s being constructed, we provide support to learners while they work on learning.
By providing support, then gradually handing over more and more of the task to the learner, they will move from dependency to independence.
“What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.”
- Lev Vygotsky, psychologist
The idea of scaffolding came from the work of Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist in the early 20th century. He proposed a concept, illustrated in the diagram above, which is called the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’.
Despite the complicated name, it explains a simple concept - that with help, students learn better with guidance, and can learn more than if they were left to study by themselves.
Does Scaffolding Actually Help Learners?
Yes, but studies show that teachers need to have an accurate idea of what the current students’ level is. If you’re interested, example studies here and here and here show improvement in language learners’ ability when instruction has been scaffolded.
How is Scaffolding Different from Differentiation?
The goal for both is to better help learners move towards learning, by providing more customised support, so it’s easy to see why these concepts can get confused.
Scaffolding involves breaking up a task, skill or language point into parts, and then give support to learners to master each part, and then the whole.
Differentiation techniques are wider ranging, and could involve customising by time, task, topic or role - e.g. learners could be doing similar but different tasks, or using different materials.
Scaffolding is also viewed as a way keeping high standards for all learners, rather than ‘dumbing down’ the class for weaker learners, an accusation that’s been levelled at differentiation (when it’s done badly).
Examples of Scaffolding
A lot of activities that most of us do in a ‘controlled practice’ stage of the lesson would probably count as scaffolding. Controlled practice stages typically ask learners to practice a limited set of the target language, or to practice with the support of reference material. Then as we move to a freer practice in the latter half of the lesson, the controls on which language to use are dropped, or learners are asked not to refer to support material.
Some examples of TEFL scaffolding are:
Giving language prompts, or substitution drilling
Letting students use dictionaries or mobile phones to check language
Allowing students to check answers with a partner
Activating students’ prior knowledge and language related to the target topic
Allowing students a chance to plan an activity together
Giving specific models of language to use or work towards
Pre-learning or the ‘flipped classroom’ approach for new lexis or grammar
Does Scaffolding Have any Disadvantages?
Only if it’s misused. One way that this can happen is if the lesson and tasks are ‘over supported’, i.e. if too much help is given. If that happens, then you’ll most likely see learners get bored and start to rely on the support, rather than think for themselves.
How do you know if it’s too much? If your learners can’t answer a question without referring to support material at the end of the class, it’s too much.
Top Tips for Scaffolding
Know your students’ level
Monitor closely (you can keep an eye on the level of challenge)
Don’t offer too much help