Examining Scaffolding: Providing support for learning challenges

You sit down at your desk to begin planning your course for the year. You have a good idea about what your students can do and how much they have currently achieved. As you begin to look through the course outcomes and expectations, you may feel a bit worried, possibly even concerned. Flipping through the course book you stop on a few pages and think to yourself “This is going to be very challenging for my students.”

It’s an experience many teachers have and how teachers address the experience can have an enormous impact on students learning. In teaching, our goal is to challenge our students. This helps students make progress, keep learners engaged, and can provide motivation through tangible success in the learning journey. However, when we can anticipate that content will be very challenging, it’s tempting to skip past it, or move on to something a bit easier as a way to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for the learners. In fact, when you see very challenging content coming up in your program, this is the perfect time to dig in and think about how you can scaffold difficult content in a way that will ensure learner success.

What is Scaffolding?

We can think about lesson planning and content development in much the same way we might learn to swim. A swimming instructor will start by having students enter the pool, keeping a hand on the sides of the pool and asking new swimmers to become accustomed to the feeling of being surrounded by water. As the new swimmers adjust, the instructor may ask the swimmers to pick their feet up and begin to kick the water while continuing to hold on to the ledge. This activity may be repeated in three or four classes before the instructor asks students to try kicking their feet and taking one hand of the ledge. As the swimmers get ready to progress to using hands and feet without holding on the ledge, the instructor may have students wear floats to ensure safety as they become more comfortable with swimming in the water. Once the swimmer demonstrate strength in swimming the finally enter the pool without floats and can move through the water with confidence that they understand the process of swimming and how to have fun safely. This gradual process is so familiar that the idiomatic expression “thrown in the deep end” is often used to indicate that someone has been asked to do something without preparation, as if rather than being gradually taught to swim the speaker was simply tossed into deep water with no instruction and hoped for the best.

Teaching with Scaffolding

When it comes to teaching challenging content, we want to think about how to provide the gradual steps as students begin to immerse themselves in language and avoid completely throwing our students into the deep end. Scaffolding is the process by which we can plan these steps and we can use this process to make sure that all of the very challenging content in our course books can be successfully navigated by our students.  In many ways, we can think of our courses and the content of our programs in the same way we may think of parts of a pool. Content that we expect our students to know or be able to do with ease is similar to the shallow end of the pool. It’s not going to challenge students. Content that will be a little difficult, but can be learned with help and support, is like the middle of the pool, it will be deeper and difficult, however my floats will keep me from sinking. Content that is too challenging is the very deep end of our pool, we may be able to manage it, but we will need floats and slow practice to be sure we can swim safely and successfully through the waters. Understanding which level of difficulty is being presented can help us plan accordingly.

How to tell level of difficulty?

This is another challenge with scaffolding a lesson. How can a teacher tell when something will be challenging for learners? There are a few tools that you can use to help you understand level of difficulty and begin to plan appropriately.

Program Outcomes

Program outcomes, those goals set by the institution, generally describe what a students will be able to do when they finish a course or level. You can look at program outcomes to have an idea of what your students cannot do but need to learn to do. Using program outcomes can give you an idea of what students may struggle with, but will be learning over the length of the program.

Lesson Objectives

Your book and your classroom resources often provide you with lesson objectives describing the goals of the content. As with program outcomes, a lesson objective describes what students will be able to do after learning. It can be useful to look at lesson objectives and compare these to program outcomes. If both are similar, a teacher knows that the content will be challenging because the objective/outcome points to knowledge and abilities students are developing. If an objective is familiar, or builds on a previous course objective, then your students will have some previous experience which can help to reduce the overall difficulty and allow you to plan according.

And more…

Scaffolding is a process and there are a number of elements we can incorporate in order to successfully support students success.  If you are interested in learning more you can join me for my webinar Scaffolding: Giving our Primary Pupils the Support they need on 20th February.  To register or for more information on the session or the other sessions in the series by Michael Brand and Elena Merino please go here.


Sara Davila is teacher, materials writer, researcher, and teacher trainer who has worked in a variety of contexts. She is a Learning Expert at Pearson education, a World Learning SIT/TESOL trainer, and an English Language Specialist at the US Dept. of State, and she continues to find time post free materials on her website saradavila.com.

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