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.