Scaffolding: Giving our primary pupils the support they need

The following is an outline of the ideas and activities covered in my webinar on scaffolding at primary for Pearson Spain and Portugal on 20 February 2018.

Teaching primary learners can be rewarding and sometimes challenging. The enthusiasm and energy can be extremely satisfying and help keep us engaged as educators. To be successful, we often hear about providing support to help our students achieve success. Support can cover a variety of different aspects of our learners’ social and emotional development, their cognitive learning and their language needs. Unlike adults, who have experience we can draw on to create connections and foster learning, when we work with our primary and secondary students, we are often responsible for introducing students to new information for the first time. When this happens, the support that works best for success is referred to as scaffolding. Scaffolding helps us present new ideas and concepts while making sure learners have the tools they need to be successful.

That said, what is scaffolding and what does it really mean? When you think about how you first learned to do something you can get a sense of what scaffolding is all about.

Reflect on Your Scaffolding Experience

Take a minute and think about learning how to drive a car. Do you remember when you first sat behind the wheel by yourself?  Living in the United States this was with a parent of friend in my case.  In many countries this is more likely done with a driving instructor.  Did they point out buttons and have you click, pull and press a variety of levers and bars to make lights blink, or the horn sound. Think about the nervousness of turning the key for the first time and putting your foot on the gas pedal. Did the car shoot forward a great distance, or did is just move a little bit? In your first experience, think about where you were, probably in a parking lot or an open space far away from the road and other cars. How many times did you practice in that open space before your first short drive down a city street? How long did it take you, and the owner of the car, to feel comfortable letting you drive away on your own without support? And today, when you get ready to drive, do you feel any of that nervousness, or just confidence as you travel to school, a conference, or head home after a long day?

The experience you had when learning to drive is a great example of scaffolding. For most of us it was a slow and gradual process, with lots of guidance and support. As you gained confidence driving in the parking lot, your teacher slowly took you to small streets, and gradually to the road. When we learn how to drive we don’t start off by getting behind the wheel and steering onto a highway. We slowly build our skills until we can drive with confidence by ourselves.

Scaffolding in the Language Classroom

When we are teaching language to our students, every new set of vocabulary, each grammatical structure, all our various topics and dialogues, are like a set of keys we are handing to our learners. We, as teachers, are there to provide guidance as our students start the car for each new learning journey. And like the person who sat next to us and taught us how to drive that car, we need to provide small steps of gradual support until our learners can use their newly learned knowledge on any road they drive down, be it a future classroom, a trip to a foreign country, or the career they are working towards.

Providing support, and a safe place to make mistakes and learn, is how we bring scaffolding into the classroom.

Unlike driving, with language learning it is not always as easy to understand how simple or difficult the skill, vocabulary, grammar or concept can be for our students. We know now, as adults, that teaching someone new to drive is going to be a difficult and slow processes. Having that kind of knowledge about language teaching can help us plan the steps we need to achieve success in our classroom.

Planning for Scaffolding

One of the best ways to plan for scaffolding is to think about the overall objective of the lesson we are working with. With driving, the overall objective is that our learner will be able to drive the car without assistance or having an accident. In language learning, we can often find our objectives in the curriculum, syllabus, or teacher’s guide.

Here is an objective that you may have worked with before in one of your primary classes.

Objective: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to ask and answer questions about what someone looks like.

This objective is a great place to start, and aligns well with the course book I’m currently using as well. Since I know the objective and content align with my curriculum, and I can begin to work through the process of providing good support to my students.

What learners know and what is new to learners.

With my objective in mind, I can start to plan a scaffolded journey that will lead to success. To do this, I want to examine my objective for the new knowledge students will learn. In this example, I know students know how to ask and answer questions, as we often ask and answer questions in class. That means the new knowledge my students will learn is the language to describe what someone looks like.

Figure 1: What learners know and what is new to learners.

The Scaffolding Map

In my lesson today, the new knowledge, and the information I need to scaffold, is the language to describe a person. This is the final goal in my lesson. Now, I need to plan for scaffolding. I can do this with a scaffolding map to help think about what I will need to do to help my students be successful. I use the scaffolding map to plan the stage of my lesson and figure out what I will need to do to help my students reach the goal. We know that to achieve success with our new language we will need to do something to introduce the new vocabulary (like pointing out the parts of the car), provide lots of practice and support (driving around that empty parking lot and slowly getting onto side streets) and finally reaching our goal where our learners can use the language on their own (driving on the road for the first time).

Figure 2: Scaffolding Map

Backwards planning to reach the objective

In my scaffolding map, I start with the objective (at the top) and finish with my final goal activity which is placed at the bottom. Now I need to think about what will happen in the steps that lead up to the goal. Since my final activity will include asking and answering questions, I will plan to have students ask and answer questions during both of my practice stages.

Figure 3: Backwards planning to reach the objective

Building in vocabulary activities to align to the goal and provide scaffolding.

In the final activity I know that students will be describing physical appearances. This helps me think about how to introduce my vocabulary. What is the best way to present this: pictures or words on the board? I could certainly write the words on the board, but this won’t help students visualize the meaning of the words. As we want students to achieve success in describing the appearances by the end of the lesson, visuals will be the best way to introduce the vocabulary to students. I noted that there are some visuals in my student book, but I want to spice up my lesson a bit and make it relevant. My final plan will be to use some pictures of popular actors or musicians my students know first, and then use the pictures in the student book to clarify.

Figure 4: Building in vocabulary activities to align to the goal and provide scaffolding.

Once we have had a chance to work with the vocabulary and clarify, I want to start practicing how to ask and answer questions. For this, I can use a practice activity that will support asking and answering and has pictures dedicated to the target language. This will allow us to build on what we learned when the vocabulary was presented to the students. To save time, rather than create new worksheets to practice asking answering questions, I can incorporate the student book activities that work along these lines. If time permits, I can use the pictures from the vocabulary activity for extra pair practice, and give my students a chance to talk about people relevant to their interests.  This activity will allow my students to practice and clarify in groups.

Picture 1: Student book activity to practice vocabulary (from Poptropica English Islands 5)

Figure 5: Building clarification and practice activities to help students achieve the objective.

Adding a freer practice activity that reflects the goal and further builds on the scaffolding of the lesson

From my first practice activity I can build my second activity. In my book, there is a great game activity that is not only fun, but perfect for additional practice allowing me to plan to use my book. I know the book has built in scaffolding and this will continue to build the skills of my students towards the goal.

Figure 6: Adding a freer practice activity that reflects the goal and further builds on the scaffolding of the lesson.

Picture 2: Game that practices asking and answering questions related to physical appearances. (from Poptropica English Islands 5)

Clarifying the goal based on the scaffolding provided in the lesson.

Now, I have reached my goal. I can clearly see how each of the activities have helped scaffold the students’ use of the target language towards the final goal. At this point I can think a bit about an exciting final activity that allows students to show how well they learned the language (or to drive the car without my help). Thinking about my previous activities that used asking questions and answering with information about pictures I can begin to plan my final activity. Rather than look at pictures, in this activity I’ll have my students work together in pairs to ask and answer questions to classmates in the room. This will allow students to demonstrate they have learned the language, encourages students to ask questions and answer questions, and is connected to the scaffolding we used to support learners throughout the lesson. It’s also a lot of fun to play various types of “I Spy” games, and this one is perfect for the objective of the lesson.

Figure 7: Clarifying the goal based on the scaffolding provided in the lesson.

With this, we can see from start to finish how I have scaffolded my lesson by using the goal to plan all the steps that will support learning and success.


Supporting our learners is one of the most important things we will do as classroom teachers. Our support provides the guidance and encouragement that students need to be motivated, engaged and committed to learning. By using clear, careful scaffolding we can make sure that every student will have a chance to achieve success by the end of the classroom. And, in doing this, we can feel confident that when our students take the language they have learned on the road we have prepared them for a fun, safe, and successful drive.

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

Sara devised this scaffolded lesson based around a unit from Poptropica English Islands, Level 5.

If you would like to read her previous post on Scaffolding for our blog you can find it here.


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