Scaffolding - what and how

Scaffolding – what and how

I was thinking about this term and how we often use it when talking about teaching young children. But I am not sure that we all understand the term in the same way or how important the idea of supporting and nurturing learning is with all students whatever their age or level or even the subject we are teaching. So, I have decided to unpick the idea here.

The term was first used in the educational context by Jerome Bruner (1915-2016), an American psychologist who specialized in human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory in educational psychology. 

He identified six specific aspects of scaffolding are essential to support learning:

1. Learners need to be made interested in a task

The child is curious…wants to make sense of things… is open and receptive… experimental.. bold… not afraid of making mistakes… is patient…can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion, ignorance and suspense.. 

John Holt, 1968

Although we are all born with an abundance of curiosity and interest in the world around us, with the average 4 year old asking around 390 questions a day, it is a tragic fact that schools have the capacity for numbing that curiosity and dulling interest in learning.

How can we pique learners’ interest then? To start with we need to take into account the interests of our students and ensure we use age and level appropriate material for creating contexts for language that will draw them in. For example, illustrated story books for children, popular songs for teens and newspaper articles of interest to our adult classes. 

A strong start is crucial for any lesson. With very young learners playing ‘what’s in the box?’ can really excite and engage them. You have a brightly decorated large box to use and every lesson you put a toy, object or picture inside that relates to the topic of the day e.g. a banana if the topic is food or a toy elephant if you will be listening to the song “Nellie the elephant’. Once the children are settled at the start of the lesson, you bring out the box and together chant ‘what’s in the box?’ and the children can take turns guessing what is inside. By the time you open the box, curiosity will definitely be aroused.

A cheeky way I have of starting lessons with teens and adults is by telling them to close their books, as I have something to share with them and I recount an (hopefully amusing or strange) anecdote that either is or seems real and answer their questions about what happened to me and lo and behold that leads into the topic of the lesson…

Tasks that intrigue and challenge students are the best. For example, I bring in a box of what seems like rubbish – old boxes, plastic bottles, newspapers, string etc. and ask students to work in groups to create a model of an innovative form of transport. 

We, teachers, have to put our thinking hats on to create tasks that generate the initial interest and hold students’ attention.

2. The task may need to be simplified / broken down into manageable chunks

This is key – a step by step approach is crucial to ensure students can do a task successfully. For example, imagine you want your students (of any age) to act out a restaurant role play using food vocabulary and the functional language associated with ordering food and talking about likes and dislikes. Consider each element students need to achieve that – reviewing food vocabulary, names of dishes, reading a menu, introducing and/or practising ‘I’d like’ versus ‘I like’ etc., choosing which language to include, focus on pronunciation and polite intonation as well as the rising intonation in questions. So, when planning the lesson, work backwards and create a checklist of what students need and ensure that these threads are all there so that students can enjoy the satisfaction at the end of the lesson of a task well done.

3. They made need to be shown how to do things

Before students start doing an exercise in pairs or groups, I always do one or two of the questions together as a class. I do these slowly and point out what mechanics / skills are involved, so that everyone is clear what they need to do. I will also monitor them closely as they start work independently and go over the process with students who need a bit more help.

4. Their frustration needs to be managed

This is an interesting one. It is too easy to blame students when they stall or give up on a task, but we should consider our role here. 

We can pre-empt frustration by meticulously going through the first three stages but even then, things can go awry. I always monitor what students are doing, encouraging and stepping in to help if necessary. It’s not just young children who get frustrated if the picture they are colouring gets squashed up, adult students can get stalled or confused and want to give up on tasks, too. 

Consider, also how you group students when they are engaged in a task. It may be a good idea to think about their personalities, group dynamics and language levels in different skills to make sure they have the right balance to cheer and inspire each other.

And pay attention to how students are managing doing a task. Awareness of mood and frustration levels is key for teachers.

5. They need to see model of what they need to achieve 

Consider the value of using models as well as giving instructions. In the example above of the restaurant role play in Step 2, can you find a video, a listening or a text which can act as a template for students own role play?

You may want high level students to write a persuasive essay and give a presentation based on it, can you give some examples e.g. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

6. And they need to be engaged and find solutions themselves!

It is a fine line between supplying scaffolding for tasks and becoming too teacher centred.

Carl Jung’s model of a teacher / parent, suggest a four-step approach and this chimes well with the concept of scaffolding:

Think – give information
Direct – give direction
Feel – care about well-being and success
Do – give confidence to carry out work

The final step is key. Students need us to give the right amount of support and encouragement, so that they can be successful and know that they have found the right answer / done a great job themselves.


Life Competencies in the English Language Classroom

Is this just another bandwagon?


We have been developing life skills in language classes for years. It’s not something new and certainly it’s worth thinking about and integrating more methodically into our teaching and helping our students understand and consciously develop. 


Employers have been telling us for years that candidates for jobs with great exam results but limited ‘soft’ skills are not prepared for the world of work as it is today. They need staff with a set of problem-solving skills, communication skills and the ability to work well in teams. I am aware of many schools in the UK which now focus on such skills, particularly in disadvantaged areas, as honing these skills gives students a leg-up into top Universities and good jobs. 

There are many descriptions of life skills / competencies. Cambridge University Press has compressed them into six main areas – Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Learning to Learn and Social Responsibilities. 

Cambridge Life Competencies Booklets available to download – Cambridge.org/clcf - to find out more information from Cambridge University Press on how these are categorised and excellent classroom ideas.

Creative Thinking

Albert Einstein said ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun’. Allowing students to be more creative in lessons certainly can be motivating and enjoyable. For too long education has been obsessed with ‘the right answer’, rather than celebrating multiple possible answers.

For example, rather than asking a YL class what food goes on a pizza, expecting to hear the usual ‘cheese and tomato’ answer, I ask students “What’s your favourite pizza?’ and enjoy the variety of answers. Once children realise that I praise and celebrate all contributions, they start getting creative. I have had ‘spider and fly’ pizza and alien pizzas with pencils, rulers and paper as key ingredients. ‘Ha ha, that’s silly’ you may say. Not silly at all, the freedom to be creative allows students to use more of the language they know. Think about what is off-beat and weird allows them to play with language and use more of it. 

Consider exams, in particular the speaking and writing papers. The more creative the answers, the better the likely results. I always encourage students to say something interesting, which doesn’t have to be true. It is hard for many students, who have been conditioned to give a ‘correct’ answer. For example, if the examiner asks, ‘what job would you like to have in the future?’, why not say astronaut or lion-tamer and play with these ideas?

Critical Thinking

Despite educators waving around Bloom’s Taxonomy of thinking skills (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, + creativity) for many years, so much learning is still stuck at the first 2 levels of knowledge and comprehension e.g. learning grammar rules and then displaying that knowledge through doing countless exercises.

If we consider something as basic as doing a reading comprehension, we can see that multiple thinking skills are required to do it well. Students need to:

Activate schemata – students make connections with what they already know about the topic in terms of facts, ideas as well as vocabulary and grammar.

Identify purpose of a text, understand which are the main ideas

Evaluate and compare different ideas

Make predictions and check these while reading 

Guess meaning of new words

Check comprehension etc.

We have been helping them develop these skills forever, but it would be better if we could isolate them for students and allow them to understand how these work in not just their English language learning but across disciplines. 


There’s a lot more to communication that just asking and answering questions. We are much more focused on oracy today, which includes five aspects of communication.

Physical – body language, facial expressions, pace, voice projection

Linguistic – register, choice of words, rhetorical devices, humour

Cognitive – content, structure, reasoning, clarifying

Social – turn-taking, listening & responding

Emotional – confidence, liveliness, audience awareness

So, it’s a good idea to include activities like drama, role plays, debates and presentations in our lessons, to allow students to practise them all.

For example, there is always a unit on houses/furniture in our course books. I ask my students (any age/level) to work in pairs. One is an estate agent, the other a famous person  (they choose). The estate agent must show their client around a property, highlighting all its special features to try to sell it to the celebrity. They get up off their seats and start the tour. This is not just a fantastic way to review and consolidate the language in the unit, they use the language meaningfully and can practise all five aspects of oracy.  

See voice21.org for more on the oracy framework


This a key life skill that was traditionally frowned upon in education. Working together was seen as ‘cheating’, rather than a great opportunity for students to support each other, verbalise their thinking processes and have opportunities to use English. (See Vygotsky on the Zone of Proximal development and the importance of other people in one’s learning).

But it’s not just a matter of telling students to work in pairs or groups, we need to help them develop the various skills that are included under the umbrella term: collaboration.  Have you tried doing projects work with your students? Are there upsets, disagreements and confusion about who does what?

What students need a focus on the following sub-skills

Take responsibility for role in task

Listen and respond constructively

Share tasks fairly in group

Appreciate others’ contributions

Work towards a resolution together

These need to be introduced, discussed and agreed on. 

Learning to Learn

We have so much to learn from neuroscience to best understand the workings of the learning brain and I recommend checking out Stanislas Dehaene on YouTube. He says:

‘We learn intuitively, without paying attention to how we learn. No one has ever explained to us the rules by which our brain memorises and understands… It is truly a pity, because the scientific knowledge is extensive.

Stanislas Dehaene, How we Learn, Penguin, 2020 

We cannot just assume that students will automatically develop effective learning to learn strategies. We have to present them, allow students to try them out, relect on them and discuss them with us. 

For example, we need to raise awareness of and develop practices of

Metacognition – so learners can become aware of how they learn and develop the learning strategies that suit them best e.g. self-reflection through asking questions such as: what did I learn / how did I learn that? 

Using autonomous support tools e.g. online dictionaries, online platforms, apps etc. 

Record keeping / note taking / visual organisers 

Social Responsibility

Now, this one may surprise you, but it does link with collaboration and developing a sense of identity as an individual and a citizen of the planet, as well as already having direct links with what we do every day in our classrooms. It covers:

Taking responsibility for own learning

Role in group / class


Exploring our own culture as well as others

Global issues – becoming a global citizen (e.g. a focus on the environment)

All of these are important, but like the other life competencies we need to scaffold its development through

Awareness raising & understanding

Making links between the life competencies, the English language classroom and life in general 



Setting personal goals

An example task

Imagine (it won’t be hard) you are doing a unit in your course book on food.

Ask students to work in pairs and choose a country or city they would like to visit

Research about food in that place

Decide what food they would like to try

Either: Design a poster to persuade their classmates to visit this place and try this food

Or create a short TV commercial marketing a culinary trip to this place

 Can you see which life skills will be practiced here?

All of them!

And what language skills? What vocabulary?

Are there tasks like this in your course books? Do you support your learners to do them successfully?

As I have said, developing life skills is not something revolutionary or new, but we have, as teachers, to unpick all the skills that are involved in these competencies and support our students to develop them.


Sowing the seeds of literacies - old and new


These are the main points from a webinar I delivered for mostly Turkish teachers

 on Saturday 29 May 2021


What is literacy?

What we read / write

Where we read / write it (from books to digital tools)

Engagement with the written word

Learning through literacy – it’s the key to knowledge


We do live in a digital world but

Children do not have equal access to digital technologies due to

·        school focus and resources

·        family circumstances

·        cultural influences (e.g. a focus on traditional education)


Learning to read and write is

·        a fundamental right

·        a gateway to gaining knowledge

·        has never been more important


While many people believe that children’s literacy is declining in the digital age, Professor David Crystal has done research into children’s use of mobile devices

Children using mobile devices have better literacy scores and spelling and are able to process information more quickly.


During Covid

Schools shut and we moved to online teaching

Learning remotely meant using platforms like zoom / videos / links / handouts

So, learners have to be more independent and resilient

And teachers, too


Pros of remote learning for teachers

Explored different resources

Became aware of support e.g. Cambridge websites

Discovered learning could be more flexible



We all missed the real classroom –

people, interaction, humour, variety, spontaneity, encouragement, touch

The fact that learning is often a group experience


We need to learn together:

Leo Vygotsky

Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition = community plays a central role in the process of making meaning.


And we shouldn’t abandon the tried and tested older tools for learning.

Evolution is not simply change, it is development – an accumulation of knowledge


The brain has evolved over thousands of years. It has evolved to be able to take action and navigate appropriate behaviour. In order for the brain to develop in the best possible way, we need to use it for what it’s best at. We need to live an authentic life. We have to use all our senses, be outside, experience all kinds of weather and meet other people. If we don’t challenge our brain, it can’t reach its full potential. And that can impact school performance.

Eva Ose Askvik, F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel and Audrey L. H. van der Meer,  July 2020, Norwegian University of Science & Technology


We need hands on learning because


      need different stimulation / multi-sensory

      learn in different ways

      need the capacity to learn autonomously

      need to be digitally and otherwise competent

      need to learn other skills in class



Motor skills

The use of pen and paper gives our brain more hooks to hang memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write .. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better.

Audrey Van der Meer, Norwegian University of Science & Technology


There are lots of great Pre-literacy tasks, which develop multiple skills:

Ball-throwing & catching

Cutting out





Sticking stickers

Arts and crafts

Movement games

Using plasticene, spaghetti, pipe cleaners etc to shape letters and words

= they develop motor skills, coordination, focus and aid memory


Learning tasks need to be kinaesthetic and haptic.

Through these kinds of activities they learn to:

Recognise shapes of letters

Link letters to sounds


Recognise words

Link what they see to what they have heard

Are also collaborative and communicative – these are key life skills, children need to develop.


Reading real books is

·        Tangible, tactile and immersive

·        Better for eyesight and sleep

·        Easy to look back

·        Permanent

·        Focus attention

·        Reading is a personal, reflective, imaginative experience


There is an important role for Digital learning as it’s a key skill for our children now and in their future:


‘the importance of developing autonomy / initiative to use technology independently outside the classroom

Elliot et al, 2000


BUT we also need to focus on

·        Online safety

·        Etiquette

·        Addiction

·        Training teachers



·        Is stimulating

·        Offers great language learning opportunities

·        Exposes learner to the world

·        Develops skills for the future

·        Useful beyond the classroom e.g. homework

·        Can still be collaborative & communicative

·        Can be differentiated especially for homework


We want our leaners to be

Keen to learn


Able to work independently

and make choices





Check out these websites / blogs mentioned in my presentation:

My blog: www.olhamadylusblog.com


www.opdome.com – a nice online dictionary (one of many)


www.noredink.com -  a writing resource for older children


www.learnenglishkids.britishcouncil.org – for lots of stories, songs, material


as well as Home | World of Better Learning | Cambridge University Presswww.cambridge.org/elt/blog - for lots of support for teachers


I didn’t get round to answering all the questions after my presentation, so I am adding them here:


Sajjad Hussain       12:15 PM

which method of teaching directly deals with online education

 I suggest you have a look at the material that was put together to support teachers on the link below.. Don’t worry if you don’t use any of the CUP books, the advice can help with whatever material you use and any age group you teach.

 Covid Support | Cambridge University Press


 Erdoğan Dalmış       01:13 PM

As we know that the average of literacy is increasing, why do people try to be brutal to each error? I mean sneaky people are supposed to be good but they are not. Why?

 I think traditionally errors were regarded as BAD things and not as signs of development. If our students don’t make errors, they should be teachers!!


Muhannad AlAli       01:53 PM

Do you think digital literacy will dominate the future of teaching?

 Rewatch my webinar! I was very much suggesting that we can’t let go of traditional face-to-face learning practice that WORKS. If we only teach online, students will miss out on so much stimulation, community learning and collaboration and FUN. There will be more learning online, but I hope (and pray) that it won’t be dominant.


Mark Demirtan       01:54 PM

what do you mean by "you want your students to be resilient

 Resilience is the ability to deal with difficult situations. The world is getting more and more complicated, confusing and challenging and we all need to have the skills and mental strength to deal with what it throws at us.


ozan tekin       01:54 PM

What do you think about interactive literacy teaching among students?

 The more interaction, the better. 😊


Theresa Sarigüllü       01:55 PM

Thank you for the wonderful seminar, what can we do for ss the are determined to learn but don’t have enough tech?

 We need to work together to find solutions. The school could buy laptops for students to share or to be used at school, students could team up with classmates who do have the tech. Most importantly teachers must be aware of this problem and not assume that all their students have the tech and find ways of reaching and supporting all students.


Hüseyin Subaşı       01:55 PM

What kind of activities do you suggest to abolish the silence between the students during the class as a teacher?

 Start the habit of speaking English together from lesson one, plan lots of speaking activities and make sure you as the teacher model speaks English all the time in class. They will understand. Even when I teach 4 year olds I only use English. Plus don’t over-correct them. Build up their confidence.


May May Win       01:56 PM

How should we correct the language (grammar) in kids’ writing?  Thanks

Don’t correct it all for a start! Make notes of grammar mistakes common to many students and plan activities to go over that grammar and help them all progress.

If students are making a lot of mistakes when they write, it means they weren’t well-prepared for the task. Make sure you build up the skills and language they need before setting a writing task for them. Also let them write in pairs or small groups, so they can support each other – remember Vygotsky!


Beatrix Ivannovita       01:56 PM

Very young learners are easily distracted. Would you share some tips to get them actively engaged?

 Don’t forget they are young children and it’s normal to be distracted for a start! But plan your lessons so there is a good variety of short activities, challenge them in different ways e.g. have a song, a movement game, some writing, making something etc in a lesson. Look up Multiple Intelligence Theory online – this will help in your lesson planning.


Rafi Ergün       01:57 PM

You haven't mentioned oracy skills in this seminar, do you ignore it?

 The webinar was about other skills! I think developing Oracy is crucial. Focussing on oracy means language learning is purposeful, communicative and authentic. Check out this great website -  oracycambridge.org


 Anonymous Attendee       01:58 PM

What is the difference between collaboration and co-operation?

 Good question! They are very similar, but co-operation can be achieved working independently e.g. students can create a magazine by each writing a small part of it. That’s cooperative but they aren’t actually doing the writing together – that would be collaboration.


ozan tekin       01:58 PM

Do you think that individuals are responsible for their own learning in the face of a lack of techs? What about equity and equality?

 No. We need teachers to plan, support, encourage, help, diagnose, encourage etc etc. And students who need more help, should absolutely get it. Yes, we are trying to help students be more independent but not by leaving them to learn all alone!


Anonymous Attendee       01:58 PM

In your own opinion , what do you think is the best way for students to improve on English speaking?

 Practise, practise, practise. And have lots of good models – listen to as much as possible in English including songs, films, each other and their teacher.


Merve GÜRSAÇLI       02:00 PM

what is your opinion about Bilingualism? Do you have any  advice to read about  it?

 I think there are different definitions of the word. The one I have always understood was when children grow up with 2 languages. I am bi-lingual I was born in England to Ukrainian parents, so learnt both languages from birth.

 In education there is a trend to call schools bi-lingual, where many lessons are taught in English. This is also called immersive learning. It’s a good way for students to develop their English in many contexts with a lot of exposure to the language and reasons to use it.

 I would just google what aspects of it you are interested in.


Ebru Topal       02:01 PM

You know during the online teaching road, parents were with us but we as teachers and schools mostly are keen to show how much they we could cover in the process so we are doing online portfolio, any ideas?

 Check out this website for learners:


and this one for teachers:

Tips for Teachers: Creating a Teaching Portfolio Online - Blog