Scaffolding learning

In this section, we adopt scaffolding as a standpoint for exploring diversity in the language of schooling classroom. Heterogeneity, naturally, adds to the need for learning support, but it is important to keep in mind that learner groups are always heterogeneous. Indeed, it is important to remember that the presence of second language learners (for whom the language of schooling is not the mother tongue) is beneficial as they challenge teachers to develop their teaching practices to be inclusive of learners with varying language skills, proficiency profiles and cultural backgrounds. One size rarely fits all in any classroom. Therefore, the ability to differentiate activities and content is a noteworthy skill in a teacher’s repertoire.

What will you learn in this section

The aims of the section are (see also Marille 2011, 33–36):

  • to be able to reflect on one’s own teaching and the teaching practices commonly adopted in one’s own region
  • to recognise scaffolding learning practices and to be able to apply them according to the learners’ needs
  • to get to know how to help students to learn effective ways for studying languages


Reflect on the key ideas

What is scaffolding? How is scaffolding applied in the teaching of language of schooling?

The term “scaffolding” refers to the support that enhances learners’ ability to develop new knowledge and skills that are transferable to new contexts.

Scaffolding is by definition temporary help that assists students to become more independent and capable of handling learning more on their own. What a student can with support today, (s)he will be able to do alone tomorrow. Scaffolding makes the students aware of how to do the learning tasks and how to learn new content, so that they will be better able to complete tasks on their own.

According to van Lier (2004: 158), scaffolding learning is not limited to teacher–student interactions. Other types of interactional dimensions can be identified in scaffolding:

  • Assistance from more capable peers or adults: a learner teaching another learner
  • Interaction with equal peers: collaborative problem solving for gaining new knowledge
  • Interaction with less capable peers: learning by teaching, opportunity to verbalise, clarify and extend one’s own knowledge of the subject matter
  • Working alone and using one’s inner resources: learning strategies, resources in the environment, inner speech, knowledge, experience, memory, strength

Overall, the ability to self-regulate governs all learning. Learning presupposes initiative and agency on the part of the learner.

1) Reflect on these definitions of scaffolding compared to language of schooling teaching practices in your country:

  • How is scaffolding applied?
  • What types of scaffolding are usually adopted in the most target-oriented way?
  • What types of scaffolding have a minor role in current teaching practices? Why?

2) Look at the basic tasks taken from language of schooling textbooks.

  • Keeping the three learner profiles in mind, consider what types of scaffolding can be linked to these tasks.
  • How would you develop the activity to provide further possibilities for scaffolding for all learners?

Scaffolding on macro and micro levels

Scaffolding ranges from macro-level (e.g.planned curriculum progression over time) to micro-level (the pedagogical procedures used in a particular classroom activity). Micro-level scaffolding is often improvised, as the need for it arises spontaneously during ongoing classroom interaction between students or between the teacher and the students.

Below is a list of characteristics related to macro and micro-level scaffolding and to how content-based language learning is made effective.

  • Do you consider these characteristics typical to teaching the language of schooling? What characteristics are better represented and which ones less?
 Macro-level, planned scaffolding
  • Weave new information into existing mental structures by building on students’ existing knowledge and current language skills in their mother tongue and second language.
  • Sequence the tasks so that each task serves as a building block in relation to the subsequent one.
  • Develop students’ metacognition by setting explicit learning goals and sharing and assessing them with them.
  • Provide effective participation for all students (work in pairs, groups, individually and with the whole class under teacher-direction).
  • Support effective student interaction in groups by providing a thinking sheet or set of instructions to help them stay focused.
  • Reintroduce concepts cyclically at higher levels of complexity and inter-relatedness and allow students time to develop their understanding of ideas and to self-correct their misunderstandings.
  • Do not simplify the curriculum but rather amplify and enrich the linguistic and extralinguistic context, so that students get many opportunities to come to terms with the information involved and may construct their understanding on the basis of multiple clues and perspectives encountered in a variety of class activities.
  • Model tasks, activities and anticipated language use. Provide clear examples of what a developing product looks like. Walk students through an interaction or first do the activity together as a class activity. Give examples of appropriate use of language in different genres but also of language functions, such as describing, comparing, summarising, evaluating and so on. 
  • Accustom your students to analyse and talk about language use. Draw their attention to differences and similarities between written and spoken genres, varieties and languages. Build on their metalinguistic awareness and help them develop it further. 


  • Listen to students’ intended meanings, not for an expected (right) answer. Try to reach their way of thinking.
  • Tap into students’ prior experiences.
  • Use think alouds, which model your thought process to students as you read a text or solve a problem.
  • Remind students of the key points by repeating regularly what has been said.
  • Re-word students’ responses in more academic or technical terms in order to highlight the key concepts and expressions to be learnt.
  • Provide opportunities for students to say more and rethink and modify their expressions.
  • Allow learners time to think and respond. Help them to extend their responses by asking further questions.
  • Use visual aids (e.g. graphic organizers, pictures, and charts) to represent ideas and organise information.
  • Repeat key information in many ways (orally, visually, in writing).
  • Check students’ understanding frequently and in multiple ways.
  • In your opinion, what characteristics should be better represented in language of schooling teaching practices?
  • Can you think of other ways of scaffolding learning, especially any relevant to the language of schooling classroom?


Walqui 2006. Scaffolding Instruction for English Language Learners: A Conceptual Framework. The International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism Vol. 9, No. 2, 2006.

Walqui & van Lier 2010. Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English language learners: A pedagogy of Promise. WestEd.


  • Scaffolding reading
  • Scaffolding writing
  • Scaffolding literacy skills through literature
  • Scaffolding literacy skills through news texts
  • Scaffolding web search


Scaffolding reading

Part 1

Read the guidelines for scaffolding reading. What principles do you adopt on regular basis? Which ones are part of current language of schooling practices in classrooms in your region or country? What would you like to learn more about?

Part 2

Choose a reading task typically used in your country and expand on it following the guidelines presented above.


Scaffolding Writing

Part 1   

Go back to your own school and teaching experiences with writing:

  • How is writing usually supported in the language of schooling classroom in your country? What kinds of pre-activities are typically used? What kind of help is provided during the writing process? When do the students get feedback, from whom and in what ways?
  • How do students feel about writing in school?
  • What writing instruction issues require development in your opinion?

Part 2

In a linguistically and culturally heterogeneous group, it is not enough to provide topics to write about, students need extensive scaffolding and genre modeling. Writing activities should not be separate but should be integrated into curriculum content focused on language use and teaching. The writing process integrates all the language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). It also requires some research and study skills. It is crucial that the scaffolding is provided before students are expected to write by themselves.

It is not enough to teach writing skills in the language class but they should be explicitely taught across the curriculum and integrated into content studies. Writing skills can be used across different languages. Therefore, it is useful to learn about students’ language and literacy backgrounds and draw upon resources in the mother tongue during the writing process.

Scaffolding writing requires a teaching sequence that provides support but aims at developing independence. As genres are socially constructed, it is natural todevelop writing skills through joint practise. Using a social approach to learning, the teacher can assist students to compose texts that they could not compose independently.

The following approach to scaffolding writing draws from various genre-based writing models and describes a series of scaffolded developmental steps in which teachers and peers play a major role. It sequences teaching in such a way that teachers can model both writing product (the genre of focus) and writing process to their students.

Part 3

Evaluate the above approach to developing writing skills:

  • What are the pros and cons of the approach?
  • Have you tried this kind of approach yourself or experienced something similar as a student?
  • Could the approach be adopted in your context?

Choose a writing task typically used in your country and expand on it following the guidelines presented above.


Scaffolding literacy skills through literature

Part 1: Science fiction short story

Keeping the three learner profiles in mind, read the short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long

  • How will the students find the text?
  • What kind of support might they need for reading the text?
  • What kind of tasks might be useful for them?
  • What kind of activities could be done prior to reading, during reading and after reading the text?
  • What vocabulary could be taught before or during the reading of the text?

Part 2: Language of schooling textbook in your country

Explore some textbooks used in the teaching of the language of schooling.

  • What kind of literature is introduced in them? What types of fiction?
  • How is the reading of literature supported in them?
  • How would the activities cater for the students in our example?
  • Are the tasks engaging or solely focused on information retrieval?
  • Do students need really to understand the text to answer the questions?

Part 3: A language of schooling textbook in focus

Consider the task types of a Finnish language of schooling textbook.
Re-read the short story that is this time presented with tasks that guide students’ reading in a Finnish textbook. Focus now on the questions raised during the process of reading it. Keeping our three student profiles in mind, weigh up the pros and cons of the approach adopted and activities used in the textbook.

  • Which elements support the learning of students with weaker skills in the language of schooling?
  • Are there some problematic elements that require further development?

Supertoys Last All Summer Long (with guiding questions). 

(Source: Mikkola, Luukka & Ahonen 2006: Voima. Äidinkieli ja kirjallisuus 8. WSOY.)

Ideas kit for follow-up activities



Scaffolding literacy skills through news texts

Part 1: How is news dealt with?

  • Have a look at the textbook(s) used in your language of schooling classroom. How are news or other media texts presented in the book?
  • Are there any instructions for reading (e.g. reading strategies)?
  • What issues are explained in the book and what are students expected to infer or analyse?
  • What are the pros and cons of the approach that the textbook adopts? What aspects should be developed for the benefit of learners with varying language skills?

Part 2: A news article as an example

  • Take a look at a news article about football player Zlatan Ibrahimović in  English, Finnish and German
  • Use the internet to search for this news item in some other language(s) you are familiar with. The same news itemwas published in many countries on  12 June 2013 – try the search words: Zlatan & the Faroe Islands. How does the version in a different language differ from the English version? Identify the facts that are highlighted or those not mentioned at all when compared to the English version.
  • How could this text be used in language of schooling learning and teaching in order to support plurilingualism and students’ first languages?
  • What kind of topics and themes does the text offer for classroom conversation? (students’ opinions, values and attitudes)

Part 3: Developing skills in the language of schooling

Keeping the three learner profiles in mind, develop tasks related to the Zlatan text for each of them. Pay attention in particular to the following points:

  • How to supervise learners’ reading and develop their reading strategies?
  • How to make them learn more about news as a genre?
  • How to make use of their language repertoire?
  • How to improve their  information searching skills?


Scaffolding web search

Part 1: Strategies for efficient web search

  1. How would you guide the students through the process of searching for information on the web? Create brief guidelines in small groups and then in larger groups. Decide what the five most important pieces of advice are. Share.
  2. Look at an example of practice : tips for using Wikipedia and two tasks that deal with finding important information. These activities are targeted at lower secondary school students. Try these tips out with a Wikipedia article.
  3. What are the benefits of this type of activity? How would you develop it further?
  4. Does this kind of instruction meet the needs of our three learner profiles? Give reasons.

Part 2. Using plurilingual resources in web search

Your students are given the following task:

Use different kinds of resources to find out

  • What is the European Union (EU)?
  • How has the EU affected peoples’ lives in Europe?

How would you collaborate with the teachers of history, social studies and other languages to help your students carry out the task?

How would you help your pupils to:

  • collaborate during the task
  • use resources to find relevant information
  • use the languages they know
  • share knowledge
  • report their findings

Also, take a look at the Developing collaboration part.


Header image based on "The ladder or life is full of splinters" by Mykl Roventine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).