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Scaffolding language

By scaffolding learning, teachers give guidance and support to students as they progressively develop independent use of the new knowledge or skill.

Scaffolding requires careful analysis (review closely) of the learning focus.

Scaffolding also requires teachers to use a variety of instructional strategies to provide their students with support, guidance, and opportunities to practise working with the new learning.

About Scaffolding

Zone of proximal development

The concept of scaffolding comes from the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978 and 1986) and his notion that learners learn most productively with support in the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

This zone is where learners cannot yet complete work fully on their own but can complete work if they have suitable support. Vygotsky saw learning as an intrinsically (naturally) social process that happens through the relationships between people. He observed that what people are able to do and learn with the support of others exceeds what they can do on their own.

Scaffolding in early language development

In their early language development, children begin by taking part:

  • in limited communications
  • in specific contexts
  • with the adults or children they are close to.

Their language develops only through social interaction.

Gradually, they add to these limited communications, internalise them, and widen them into a whole language system of inner speech. Drawing on this inner-speech language system, they express a wide range of concepts to themselves and to others. 

Scaffolding of learning also occurs in familiar, non-academic contexts, such as when young children are being taught skills such as how to dress and feed themselves.

It also occurs when people of all ages are being taught a physical skill such as how to play a sport or use new equipment.

Scaffolding continues for adults. For example, those who are being taught the processes and particular knowledge required in a new job.

How language-learning tasks can help language development

To make the best possible progress with language development, students must engage in activities that focus on both language forms and language meaning.

In terms of second-language learning, a task is a learning activity that is structured so that students engage actively with meaning through working with input and processing meaning to produce output.

Most curriculum learning activities also involve input from the teacher, and students engaging with meaning and processing it to produce a planned outcome.

Curriculum and language objectives can therefore often be addressed together through the same learning tasks.

Exploring your practice

How we scaffold language

  1. Read one or more of the passages listed below under “Further reading”. If possible, discuss them with colleagues who have also read them.
  2. Note down three ideas in the passage that could be used to scaffold bilingual Pasifika students’ English-language learning or other ideas that could enhance teaching of these students.
  3. Comment on what these ideas may imply for your teaching and discuss how they might be used with your bilingual Pasifika students.
  4. List up to three ways of scaffolding your bilingual Pasifika students’ development in English and any ideas for encouraging them to use their Pasifika languages in their learning.

Further reading

  • Chapter 4 of both Effective Literacy Practice books (Ministry of Education, 2003a and 2006) discuss a number of instructional strategies (such as modelling, prompting, and giving feedback) that teachers can use to scaffold learning. These are not restricted to Years 1–8 but are important strategies for teaching learners from early childhood to adulthood. (Reference copies of these books are available to secondary schools.)


  • Ministry of Education (2003b, pages 73–78) discusses the research evidence on scaffolding learning for diverse students.


  • Franken, May, and McComish (2005, Section 5.3.4, pages 65–66) discuss language scaffolding for Pasifika students.


  • Gibbons (2002) looks at how mainstream teachers with little or no specialised ESL training can meet the challenge of teaching linguistically diverse students.

A framework for scaffolding language

Scaffolding in language learning has specific focuses.

The table below provides a framework to help you decide what aspect of language learning you want to focus on during a particular learning activity.

To move from defining the focus to scaffolding language development, you also have to think about:

  •  the purpose of your focus
    • For example, do your students need to develop more complex language for a real communicative purpose?
  • the methods that can be used to support and scaffold the students’ learning
  • the students’ goals and associated success criteria.
Language focus Components of language
Students need to learn to use: Sounds Words Sentences Texts
More complex language        
More fluent language   X    
More accurate or correct language   X    
  How language is used
Focus Speaking Listening Reading Writing
More complex language        
More fluent language X      
More accurate or correct language X      

Using the table

Focus: The four marks (X) in the table show that at a particular time, you have decided to focus on developing students’ skills in speaking sentences more accurately and fluently.

Purpose: The purpose could be for students to learn to produce fluent spoken sentences in accurate English when contributing to class discussions.

Method: You might scaffold this learning by modelling two or more sentences that comment on a specific subject and draw students’ attention to their features. Then, have students work in pairs to:

  • construct a similar sentence using their own comment
  • check the accuracy of the English they have used
  • practise saying their sentences fluently to their partner before contributing them to a whole-class discussion.

Criteria for success: The content criteria could be that the students produce a relevant, meaningful sentence.

The criteria for fluency could be appropriate phrasing with no hesitation or unplanned repetition.

The criteria for accuracy could be that the students produce a sentence with correct and clearly spoken words in an English sentence structure that is appropriate for the informal discussion context.

Tips and suggestions

Working with a colleague, write several examples like the one above, specifying the purpose, focus, method, and criteria for some language learning as part of your teaching in a particular curriculum area.

An important part of scaffolding language is making explicit to your students the things they need to learn. Express these goals in ways that engage your students’ interest.

Work out ways of providing support so that all students can meet the criteria for success.

Try out what you have planned with your students.

Observe and evaluate the students’ work.

Watch the video Secondary curriculum and vocabulary, which shows teachers carefully scaffolding aspects of vocabulary learning.