From English Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Scaffolding refers to a building framework – a temporary structure erected around a building to provide support for the building, and for the workers. In education, it refers to any kind of supportive framework to explain and teach concepts to students. That is, rather than trying to force students to learn and dumping a lot of information into their brains, we break things up and provide structure to the information so they can learn better. The concept comes from a famous Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky.

Psychologically, different types of scaffolding work through one or more of the following mechanisms.

  1. Schema formation. Everything we know – all the information in our brains – is stored in an organized form known as schemas. Information is presented in a form that is not only simpler, but more similar to what the student already knows, and thus s/he can more easily connect new knowledge with existing (schematic) knowledge.
  2. Comprehensible input. Information and language input that is on a level that students can understand – understandable without being redundant, and able to convey new contents. This relates to Lev Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Students can better comprehend new concepts and incorporate them into their schemas if the material is broke up and/or simplified, and then presented at a level closer to their current level of understanding, i.e., their zone of current knowledge.
  3. Generation effect. Those who come to understand concepts or figure them out on their own (generating new schemas, understanding, or mental concepts) develop deeper, richer, and stronger mental representations than otherwise, and retain new concepts better. Students are mentally generating their understanding, rather than passively receiving information. This is why inductive learning methods can often be effective for individual or group learning tasks.
  4. Production (output). Having to talk and produce (e.g., producing utterances) draws attention to language forms or to concepts. Input and output can lead to conscious awareness (noticing) of language forms that a student was previously unaware of, and promotes better schema formation.
  5. Group effects. Working in groups can often lead students to generate better ideas, creativity and understanding, as group work can enhance the individual generation effect, and it can create episodic memories of the learning experience that reinforce their memories of what they have learned.
  6. Motivation. Students learn better when intrinsic motivation is cultivated. Intrinsic motivation correlates to better study habits and learning strategies. Intrinsic motivation consists of the following elements.
  • Autonomy. Students learn because they feel like they want to, not because they have to.
  • Sense of growth or accomplishment. Students learn because they feel better about themselves as a result of learning.
  • Connection. Students want to learn because the learning process or results lead to better friendships or a sense of connection with peers or teachers.

Below are some common scaffolding techniques to aid learning (some are adapted from Daniels, Cole & Wertsch, 2007)[1]. When you have difficulty explaining concepts or terms to your students, it may be because it is too much information packed together at once for the students. In that case, try the following for ideas on simplifying and unpacking your explanations[2].

1 Schemas

Schemas: There are different kinds of schemas, but basically, the information in our minds is organized into concepts, categories, functions, relations, and associations among different concepts and different bits of information. We can only learn new things if we can connect it with something we already know – with an existing schema. This is why rote memorization does not work well for learning – it involves dumping a lot of information into the brain, which the brain cannot organize and connect with existing concepts. The brain, over a relatively short time span, will perform cleaning operations and discard random information that it cannot organize into schemas and store in long-term memory; this is called cognitive pruning.

2 Language based scaffolding

The following are ways of simplifying your language and explanations for students – their linguistic input.

2.1 Prosodic chunking

Break expression up into distinct chunks or thought groups, with very clear or exaggerated intonation. However, excessive chunking into small units can distract from the overall message.

“I do solemnly swear | that I will faithfully execute | the Office of President of the United States, | and will to the best of my ability, | preserve,| protect | and defend | the Constitution of the United States" (change country name and titles as desired).

2.2 Repetition

Excessive repetition is not good (e.g., excessive drilling and repetition in English vocabulary and grammar, the way many Korean children have suffered through English). However, some repetition of important materials is helpful, even necessary.

  • Repeat and review important points before moving on.
  • Remind students of what they already, and/or what they have recently learned, especially when doing making conceptual connections.
  • Occasionally have students do choral repetition – repeating in unison after the teacher (if you want students to do a significant amount of repeating, this would be better for lower levels or for more basic items like vocabulary and pronunciation).

2.3 Reformulation

Repeating your explanations by paraphrasing or reformulating them is sometimes necessary, as well as explaining the same concept in two or three different ways.

2.4 Recasts

Correct incomplete or erroneous statements or answers with the correct form, rather than using overt forms of correction:

  • "Machine not working." – "Oh, the machine isn't working."

2.5 Language simplification

Use simpler or simplified language, especially when explaining things in English as a second language. Sometimes explain in their native language to explain what they cannot understand.

  • Sometimes explain in both Korean and English to help them with the English, e.g., explain first in English, and then again in Korean. Use Korean more at first, and more for students with greater difficulties, but over time try to get them used to more English. Don't use too much Korean, which can allow students to get by without trying to learn English.
  • Speak more slowly, especially at the beginning of the semester; use stronger prosodic chunking.
  • Provide Korean notes, explanations or definitions, e.g. in handouts or in a PowerPoint or Prezi; students can look at the Korean if they need to, so you don't have to verbally provide the Korean tips.

2.6 Enhanced or exaggerated input

Exaggerated or hyperbolic expression; exaggerating differences between two contrasting meanings, words, sounds, etc.

  • Make your explanations more memorable with cute, humorous exaggerations in the explanation itself or in your vocal delivery.
  • Use exaggeration to make English terms or explanations clearer. Speak hyper-correctly or with exaggerated pronunciation or intonation to help them understand.
  • For students having trouble distinguishing English sounds like /l/ and /r/, over-exaggerate their pronunciation to help them hear the difference.
  • For distinguishing English sounds from their Korean counterparts, demonstrate and exaggerate their differences (e.g., ‘cheese' vs. 치즈).
  • Use exaggerated volume and intonation, especially for word stress patterns. This can helpful for new vocabulary, and especially for multisyllabic words (e.g., ‘mUltisyllABic').

2.7 Linguistic comparison / contrast

Highlight how new terms, concepts or materials differ from others that they have learned. Show how something is different from what they would expect.

  • Highlight how a new language form differs from what they already know, e.g., how it differs from the equivalent form in their native language.

2.8 Focusing

Draw students' attention to the material and have them make guesses in order to make connections and learn (inductive learning).

  • In helping them learn a language, draw their attention to language forms (e.g., grammar structures, new vocabulary) and how the forms work in context, making students guess principles from materials.
  • Make them guess the meanings of new terms in their readings without looking them up in a dictionary.
  • Draw their attention to cues in the context to guess word meanings.
  • Use gestures, realia (real objects), or pictures to illustrate terms and concepts.

2.9 Writing and presentation scaffolds

  • Filling in blanked out passages for students to fill in; e.g., one with connectors blanked out, or with blanks between short, choppy sentences, to teach using connectors like thus, therefore, in contrast, hence...
  • Translating colloquial or Konglish to standard or formal English
  • Sequencing tasks: jumbled sentences or paragraphs, which students work on in groups to arrange into a full text; this can be useful for students to learn about coherence, word flow, or paragraph structure.
  • Writing / presenting about familiar topics before doing more academic topics
  • Writing informal diaries or journals
  • Provide an explicit framework or template for presentations or essays, e.g.:

What the discussion is about, and my opinion

The topic of this discussion is...

My opinion is that...

Arguments for

There are a number of reasons why I believe this

1. First,

2. Second,

3. In addition,

4. Finally,

Counterarguments (arguments against)

1. On the other hand, some people argue … However, …

2. In addition, … because …

3. They also claim that … but …


Thus, …

Discussion framework adapted from Gibbons (2002:71)[3]

2.10 Feedback

  • Unfocused feedback (e.g., for writing) – point out all types of errors in writing
  • Focused feedback – point out instances of one or a few important error types (such as those on recently discussed aspects of English), ignoring the others. This makes students focus more on a few things in detail in their revisions, and studies have shown that focused feedback leads to better revisions and learning in teaching writing.
  • Recasts (see above) – correcting by reformulating the learner's response correctly
  • Use detailed grading rubrics[4] to provide specific feedback
  • Give both positive feedback and feedback on weaknesses and errors
  • Give specific, meaningful, actionable feedback, i.e., practical comments that students can actually act on to improve themselves. E.g., "you're good at English" is vague and unhelpful, but "you did well in organizing your logical arguments" is specific. Likewise, "you need to improve your English" is vague and discouraging; better comments would be: "you need to improve your academic vocabulary by reading more materials in your field" or "you need to use more connectors between ideas in your essays" or "you need to review the material on cell membranes from your biology course last semester."

3 Conceptual or content-based scaffolding

3.1 Making conceptual connections

Relating new knowledge to their previous or current knowledge. Relate what you're teaching to what students already know – make connections clear and explicit.

  • Remind them of what they have learned in a previous lesson or class session, and show how it connects with the new material.
  • Remind them of what they learned in a previous course (even courses in a different field, or what they learned back in high school) and connect that basic knowledge to the new material.
  • Show them how the current material relates to what they will learn in the near future.
  • Relate trends or developments in one field with parallel developments in a more familiar field.
  • Relate things to a specific context to help them remember the material better.
  • E.g., explain the principles behind electron shell configurations in simple terms, based on physics principles that they already know, such as planetary orbits.

3.2 Real-life, realistic, concrete examples

Provide clear, practical examples to illustrate new concepts. In fact, it can help to provide different kinds of examples. Often when teachers explain an abstract concept, they present an abstract concept, and then follow it with an example later. This can be confusing for students. Let's say a professor explains concept X with a theoretical or abstract explanation, and then she presents an example afterward. As they sit in class, they have to hold both the theoretical explanation and the current example in working memory, and go back and forth, which means they are mentally multi-tasking; this is of course inefficient and difficult. It is better to either begin with a real example then go to the conceptual explanation; or to work through it while explaining the concept, or go through the example as you explain the concept. Starting with the real example is the more inductive way, or combining the conceptual explanation and the real example together is still fairly inductive.

Teachers can also show how the concept or material relates to their daily lives, e.g., practical, concrete illustrations or applications.

  • Explain game theory in economics by showing how it can explain the students' own buying decisions.
  • For poems and works of fiction, draw parallels with modern-day and real-life examples, or contemporary culture (popular films or songs) of the types of plots, characters, or concepts involved. For poetic forms and meters, for example, show examples from or comparisons with current pop songs, or with Dr. Seuss rhymes.
  • Illustrate averages and standard deviations by measuring and averaging students' heights.
  • Explain graphene and carbon nanotubes by relating them to pencil graphite[5].
  • Teach Newtonian mechanics with examples from ball movement in baseball or football.
  • Illustrate a vector dynamics principle in physics with different kinds of examples from different areas, such as baseball, a car collision, and an asteroid collision.

When possible, use real-life or realistic examples, such as those drawn from the real world, you profession, or your own experience. Teachers sometimes present abstract concepts or theories without a practical example. This makes it difficult for students to understand the ideas, or to follow the lecture. Students need to be able to make connections between new information and what they already know; otherwise, the brain will discard the information without any meaningful learning. For concepts, then, students need real examples, or at least examples that are realistic or life-like. This is necessary for comprehension, for being able to explanations, and for remembering concepts. This not only aids in forming mental connections to understand ideas better, but it also aids in forming memories, including the memory of when they came to understand something.

A good, albeit fictional, example is seen in the 1990s film, The Mirror Has Two Faces. In this movie, a man who is a boring science professor starts dating a fellow professor from a humanities department – a nerdy but interesting woman who introduces him to baseball. Then we see him later in class, explaining Newtonian physics in his usual, very boring, traditional way – using boring textbook examples, a pure teacher-centered lecture, and writing on the chalkboard with no audience interaction. Then he gets the idea of using a baseball example, of the pitcher from the city's team hitting baseballs, to explain trajectory motion. We see the students' faces suddenly lighting up (and waking up) and starting to understand, and the overall quality of his course improves greatly as he begins teaching from interesting real-world examples that students can relate to.

3.3 Simplification and chunking

Simplify concepts when possible, so they are more easily "digestible”; some complexities can be skipped, or dealt with later. Break more complex concepts into simpler pieces, and present each piece one by one, starting from the most basic; don't try to teach everything at once. Present the most basic part, do practice activities to reinforce it; after students master the basics, then go on to other more complex aspects.

For example, if teaching English definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the, and the zero-article), it would be better to break article usage into different categories, and present and work on these one at a time before moving on to the next category:

  • object nouns (“count nouns”) for physical or tangible objects; e.g., a/the + pencil, tiger, computer
  • plural object nouns used generically; e.g., pencils, tigers, computers
  • mass nouns (substances); e.g., water, milk, plastic, wood, coffee
  • specific types, examples, or instances masses or substances: the water of Mars, the milk, a (type of) plastic, (give me) a coffee
  • activities; e.g., bungee jumping
  • specific events; e.g., That was a great bungee jump
  • abstract nouns; e.g., love, hope, support, feminism
  • abstract nouns: specific examples, types, or instances of a noun, often with a post-modifying preposition phrase or other post-modifier; e.g., the love of money; I need the support of all my employees; the feminism of the 19th century abolitionists

3.4 Sequencing

Sequence classroom exercises and activities from simpler to more complex. After explaining basic concepts and/or doing simpler practice exercises, move on to more complex activities, such as group or interactive activities, e.g, problem-solving activities.

3.5 Focusing

Focus students' attention to the material and have them make guesses in order to make connections and learn (inductive learning).

  • Make them guess how one might apply new concepts or theoretical principles to real-world problems.

3.6 Similarity

Show how new terms or concepts are similar to others that they are familiar with – essentially like making conceptual connections above.

  • Show how a new language form (grammar structure, pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.) in English or another foreign language is similar to something they already know in their native language.
  • Explain how a new term in statistics is comparable to another concept that they have learned before, e.g., how logistic regression is similar to general regression.

3.7 Analogies

This is essentially making a connection between new material and something familiar, albeit from a different field.

  • Explain electron shells by relating them to planetary orbits, or satellites around a planet, or seating in rows on a bus.
  • You could introduce Shakespeare's Hamlet and its relevance like so:“Imagine that your father is the CEO of a major company, who suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances. Immediately one of the board members assumes control of the company and marries your mother. How would you feel?”[6]
  • Also, you can show a modern adaptation of Hamlet (such as the one with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart) and other plays.

3.8 Comparison and contrast

Highlight how new terms, concepts or materials differ from others that they have learned. Show how something is different from what they would expect.

  • Highlight how a new language form differs from what they already know, e.g., how it differs from the equivalent form in their native language.
  • In statistics, after explaining how logistic regression is similar to general regression, show how it is also different – how the ‘logistic' comes into play.
  • We might expect a light object and a heavy object, when dropped, to land differently, but they don't in a vacuum. Show this with a good science video.
  • Some students forget why we have four seasons on Earth, thinking that it has to do with the Earth's distance from the sun. Show them why this is wrong with a simple model of the Earth and sun, comparing the real model with their incorrect model.
  • Contrast their notion of ‘theory' with what ‘theory' means in science, and how this differs from the general use of the term. Contrast the scientific terms ‘law' and ‘theory.'
  • In statistics, show how some concepts are counter-intuitive and different from our normal daily thinking processes; e.g., random sampling follows rigid criteria that we don't rely on in our daily decision making processes, as we make snap decisions with often incomplete data.

3.9 Rehearsal

Students can reinforce their learning with overt rehearsal and mental rehearsal of procedures, skills and strategies. This can engage students' episodic memories.

  • Use practice activities appropriate to the students' level. Some traditional exercises can be useful, leading up to group problem-solving activities.
  • Also use mental rehearsal, having students mentally walk through the steps in solving a problem.
  • In language learning, use some practice activities before moving on to interactive practice activities in groups. After explaining the language forms, use practice exercises, based on a meaningful context and practice materials (that are not too artificial), to help students rehearse the material, form memories and mental connections. Have students produce the target forms and actual language aloud, using their output to reinforce learning.
  • Have students articulate how they would go about solving a problem – solving a math problem, solving a physics problem, diagnosing a patient with certain symptoms. Have them mentally rehearse the procedures on their own, and also have them explain the procedures aloud.

3.10 Story telling

Use stories and narratives to engage students' episodic memories.

  • Frame concepts in the form of a story. For example, game theory can be explained using a hypothetical or real story of individuals engaging in transactions and economic decision making.
  • Tell the story behind a scientist, his/her life, a famous discovery, or the historical background behind an important concept.

3.11 Worked examples

A well known effect in education is how worked examples help students grasp concepts readily and efficiently. This involves working through a problem (e.g., on the whiteboard) or providing an example of a problem with the steps in the solution worked out (e.g., in a handout). Studies show that students who are shown worked examples are able to perform better than students who simply solve problems on their own. This effect, of course, may depend on the type of task and how ready students are for a concept, as there are also benefits for having students work out ideas inductively.

3.12 Multiple explanations

Finally, multiple explanations of the same concept can be helpful, especially for more difficult or abstract concepts. For example, two different inductive or concrete explanations, or any combination of the above methods, can help students understand better. Of course, this takes more class time, but you can cut out less important material to focus on the ideas, and make sure students learn the details later from their readings or homework. Quizzes, homework, and formative assessment methods (see below) can be used to make them study more and learn supporting details on their own, once they have grasped the ideas from your lectures.

3.13 Further examples

  • Biology. As an analogy for cell membrane permeability, think of a zoo exhibit where different kinds of animals are together in a shared cage, but also separate homes for different species. The house entrances need to be configured to allow one species in, and keep out other species (e.g., one house that allows the chimpanzees in, but is designed to block access to other species in the exhibit).
  • Chemistry. For electron shells, think of Russian matrushka dolls, onions, or other objects with multiple layers and sublayers.
  • Geometry. For π and 2π, use illustrations with an apple pie.
  • Literature. A number of plays or stories could be introduced with a modern-day analogy, asking students how they would think or feel being part of such a scenario. Or one can simply ask students to imagine (and briefly write, or discuss in pairs) how they would personally feel in such a situation.
  • Poetry. For teaching poetic meter, instead of starting with classical poems, start with familiar nursery rhymes, advertisement jingles, or pop songs.
  • Physics. A long-standing analogy for quanta is thinking of light and other entities as simultaneously particles and waves, or as "clouds" around a nucleus.
  • Physics. For pendulum motion, a famous physics professor at MIT named Walter Lewin makes himself into a human pendulum attached to the ceiling. Various videos of his can be found on Youtube, which illustrate the creative use of demonstration activities in teaching.
  • Physics. For other examples of Newtonian mechanics, sports examples are often useful and interesting for students.
  • Psychology and neuroscience. Often computer models are useful in explaining brain functions and cognition. One should go beyond simplistic models by pointing out how neural networks are different from traditional computers, and use more sophisticated network analogies and other illustrations, e.g., for the concept of parallel processing.

[[Image:]] Pie charts can be useful for teaching and making concepts more concrete, and can make complex data or ideas more palatable.

4 Social scaffolding and inductive learning

Have students work in groups, and appoint stronger bilingual students as group leaders, who can explain things and help the weaker students – making sure that you explain their responsibilities as helpers to those with ESL limitations. The better group leaders may be those who are empathetic, outgoing, confident, or able to explain things. Assuming the group social dynamic works right, this can be more motivating for the weaker students, and takes some burden off the teacher for helping ESL students. The group leaders and tutors also learn through the process of "teaching" their peers.

Group activities can be used for inductive learning activities. Consider what your students can handle, and how you can help them. Think of a learning task that you would do inductively. What kind of task would you give them, with what objective or desired outcome (what should they be able to do)? What kind of information, and how much would you give them? How could you guide them through the discovery process?

Group activities require clear objectives, and also clear directions, explanations, or demonstrations of the task. Finally, consider whether you want to use homogenous groups (students of similar abilities together) or heterogeneous groups (mixed ability groups). What are the advantages and disadvantages of these arrangements?

  • homogenous groups
  • heterogeneous groups

The following provides some ideas for types of group activities and group configurations.

4.1 Pair and group activities

Different types of pair / group activities can be used. You can vary the complexity, and for those not used to group activities, you can start with simple pair activities, and then build up to more complex group activities. Some of the activities below can be done in these pair and group configurations.

  • Think-pair-share (or "buzz groups”). The teacher gives students 1-2 minutes to discuss a question or problem in pairs. Then the class comes back together, and the teacher calls on some pairs to share.
  • Pair work. Students work in pairs to discuss a question or to do a task like those below.
  • Triads. Small groups of three.
  • Small groups (3-5) for discussing questions or doing tasks.
  • Larger groups. For more complex tasks, projects, and activities. Students divide up the labor, collect information separately, and then come together to put their ideas and information together.
  • Jigsaw. Complex large group tasks with cross-talk between groups. Let's say we have large groups A, B, and C. Within each group, members #1 and #2 work on a particular aspect, and the #1s from A, B, and C also share their ideas and information, as do the #2s, the #3s, and so on. Then they rejoin their original groups (A, B, & C) for collaboration.

4.2 Role play

Students role play a story, a situation, or a historical event. For example, in language learning, students can role play any kind of situation where they might use the language in a real-world context (e.g., asking for directions, job interviews, apartment hunting, transactions, customer-clerk interactions). Students can role play a moral dilemma (e.g., what to do when you discover your boss or company is doing something illegal or unethical; what to do when you find your friend is doing something wrong).

4.3 Dictogloss

Instead of dictation exercises (which are boring, and probably only useful if used occasionally for teaching vocabulary or pronunciation), use dictogloss (a.k.a., dictocomp). You read a passage aloud (say, once carefully, and once at normal speed – a text or story) and have students take notes. Students then work in groups to "reconstruct" the passage from their notes, or rather, to create a summary or paraphrase. You can have the groups compete to see who does the best paraphrase.

4.4 Discovery based learning

Given some information, students can figure out how something works, such as a device, a machine, a mathematical procedure, an assembly line process, or an ecosystem. This is essentially inductive learning on a problem or concept. Even if students do not arrive at a "correct" explanation, the process of working through it and developing hypotheses prepares them mentally for the teacher then guiding them to a correct and deeper understanding of the explanation.

4.5 Task based learning

Students are given a task to accomplish, such as role playing a clerk-customer interaction, a business transaction, asking directions from a stranger, or any other kind of activity (usually open-ended).

4.6 Problem based / Challenge based learning

Students are given a life-like scenario with a relatively complex problem to discuss and solve in groups, e.g., how to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, how to diagnose a patient with a certain set of symptoms, how to build a pyramid, or how to keep coyotes out of your chicken coop.

4.7 Invention activities

Give students a problem solving task where they have to design an invention or solution to a problem. These can be complex, even analogical tasks; for example, some biology professors at the University of British Columbia developed a zoo exhibit activity, which serves as a clever analogy for cell membrane permeability.[7]

4.8 Think-aloud

Have one or students work through a problem, and have them verbalize their thinking processes and how they are trying to solve the problem. This can be done in pairs, or between you and the student. Note that it is actually difficult, and there are limitations to how well people can introspect about their thinking processes, so don't expect too much; this is just a self-awareness building exercise.

4.9 Retrospective miscue analysis

Let's say that a student or a group of students make an error (be it an inductive activity, a quiz question, or any other task). Without necessarily pointing out the error, have the student retrace his/her steps and think-aloud and report how s/he went about solving it, and how s/he made the error.

5 See also


  1. Daniels, H., & Wertsch, J. V. (2007). The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky. Cambridge University Press.
  2. For some of these, you can find helpful Youtube videos that provide clear explanations of concepts in various fields.
  3. Gibbons, P. (2002). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  4. See the Canadian Language Benchmarks at for detailed benchmarks that for language pedagogy can be used for rubrics, and for diagnostic and assessment criteria. See for classroom teaching rubrics.
  5. See the Youtube video entitled "How to make graphene" (search for the Veritasium channel).
  6. This well known example is from this book: Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.
  7. See a handout at