The Importance of Scaffolding for ESL Learners

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; MA in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist

As an urban educator, scaffolding becomes a sort of basic unspoken need. It is a naturally assumed necessity when planning and implementing instruction. Speaking of planning and preparing for instruction — how can you do it well if you don’t know your students? In Pennsylvania, we follow the Charlotte Danielson Framework of Instructional Effectiveness. There is an entire strand of evaluation dedicated to “Knowledge of Students.” Charlotte Danielson and the State of Pennsylvania recognize that knowing your students matters. When you know your students, it is possible to identify their needs as they relate to scaffolding. This is particularly crucial as it relates to ESL learners, or ELs (English Learners).

What is Scaffolding?

In preparation to write this article, I researched many definitions of what the term ‘instructional scaffolding’ means. A concise but accurate definition of instructional scaffolding is “a teaching method that helps students learn more by working with a teacher” to enhance learning and assist in the mastery of skills and tasks. The teacher provides the students with supports that build on their knowledge and experiences as they’re learning new skills. As the students master the assigned skills or tasks, the teacher gradually removes the supports.

Why Scaffolding is Important for ESL Learners

As learners, we all come from different backgrounds. No one’s circumstances or experiences are identical. It’s what makes us uniquely ourselves and gives us each our own affinities for our individual gifts and talents. English language learners are no different, but they have even greater needs for scaffolding than most first-language English speakers. If systematically building on students’ experiences and knowledge is a key to scaffolding, knowledge of students is of even greater importance. How can we help our students get to where they need to be if we don’t meet them where they are in the beginning?

As adults, it is easy to become ethno-centric and see only through the lens of our own cultural experiences. Scaffolding can even the playing field for those who bring different background knowledge and experiences to the classroom. For example, the English language is packed with idioms, where the actual meanings of individual words do not add up to the meaning of the words collectively. Idioms are extremely difficult for English language learners to identify and interpret. This is because all language learners translate their second language back to their base/first language in order to comprehend meaning. Intention of non-literal meaning of words is nearly impossible to identify in a speaker or writer. To help English learners with this, educators must use scaffolding in every grade level and classroom.

ESL Scaffolding Strategies to Use in Your Classroom

Here are a few strategies to help you get started with scaffolding for students.

  1. Building upon prior knowledge and background:

Building means to expand, which means to grow. Growth is an important part of progressing toward understanding and proficiency in all things. Without something to build upon, students will struggle and drown by treading water without connection. Once background knowledge is built, the scaffold can be removed. A classic example of this is a math problem that uses the word “canoe.” Despite the fact that the problem could be solved without knowing that vocabulary word, most students will get stuck wondering what a canoe is and will not solve the problem. One way to build upon prior knowledge and background is through explicit vocabulary instruction.

  1. Explicit vocabulary instruction:

The example above using the word canoe is one reason that explicit vocabulary instruction is an important scaffolding strategy. This is not only important to use in English language arts classes, but also in vocabulary-heavy subjects such as math and science. An eighth grade English learner will most likely know how to add and find sums, but if they do not know what the word “add” or “sum” mean, they will most definitely be stuck.

  1. Use strategies that reach multiple intelligences:

As different as we look on the outside, we are also differently gifted and given strengths and weaknesses on the inside. Not all students learn the same way. Some can memorize a paragraph in 3 weeks, some can take a mental picture and recite the paragraph back immediately. Some are hands-on learners, while some students prefer to simply listen and digest information. This is the basis of work done by Dr. Howard Gardner and detailed in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. A quick outline of this can be found in this article from This is not only important to consider with English learners, but all learners. Keep in mind that graphic organizers are a great way to reach visual learners!

  1. Teach sentence structure:

Even if an EL is strong in writing in their home language and has an advanced English vocabulary, sentence structure is extremely important to teach. The reason for this is that before we put anything on paper, our writing is born in our thoughts. ELs most likely think in their first language, which is likely to have a different sentence structure than English. Creating sentence frames or anchor charts and having them posted in the classroom will be a good reference for ELs.

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