Scaffolding Instruction for English Learners (Part 1)

This is the first part of a two-part post on incorporating the instructional strategy of scaffolding into their classroom. Check back next week for Part 2.

With English Learners (ELs) numbering more than 4.8 million and comprising 10 percent of the general school-aged population, all teachers should consider themselves teachers of ELs. To that end, all teachers must have strategies and tools to support ELs in accessing challenging content while helping them acquire academic language. With the right tools, teachers can easily incorporate the instructional strategy of scaffolding into their teaching.

How can teachers acquire these tools? For this, turns to the EL expertise of Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, the president of SupportEd. Started in 2011, Support-Ed provides EL professional development, curriculum and assessment expertise, and programmatic assistance to school districts across the country.

Question: What are scaffolds?

Diane Staehr Fenner: According to Pauline Gibbons (2015), a scaffold is a temporary support a teacher provides to a student that enables the student to perform a task he or she would not be able to perform alone. This support comes in such forms as classroom materials and/or resources provided to the student, the instructional practices the teacher uses, or even how students are grouped during instruction.1 Scaffolds will vary and change over time as ELs’ knowledge of content and academic language increases.2 In fact, our goal when scaffolding for ELs is ultimately for them to be able to perform the task independently and without use of scaffolds.

Scaffolding for ELs should not be limited to scaffolding instruction only, but should also include supporting assessments as a way of making them more valid for ELs. Imagine not only being instructed in a language you don’t understand, but also taking content assessments in that same unfamiliar language.

While some may feel that scaffolded assessments give ELs an unfair advantage over proficient students, that is simply not the case. When you remove or diminish the language barriers that might be obstacles for ELs, you increase the validity of that assessment and can more accurately identify content knowledge and skills. An assessment does not need to look the same for all students, as students can demonstrate what they know in a variety of ways.3

In scaffolding an assessment, for example, ELs at beginning levels of English proficiency may demonstrate their understanding of content through non-verbal assessments such as picture sorts, where ELs at higher levels of proficiency may benefit from using sentence stems or frames to complete an assessment.4 As with scaffolding instruction, as students gain English proficiency, teachers can gradually release scaffolded support on classroom-based assessments.5

Q: What are different types of scaffolds for ELs?

DSF: Scaffolds can be grouped into three categories:

  • Materials and resources
  • Instruction
  • Student grouping

Our “Categories of Scaffolds and Examples” table shares examples of each category of scaffold, though this list is not exhaustive. In my collaboration with teachers of ELs, I find that many only think scaffolds fit into the “materials and resources” category. Often, they’re surprised at the types of scaffolds that we consider to be within the “instruction” and “student grouping” categories. Sometimes, they’ve been scaffolding for ELs all along but just didn’t realize it!

Categories of Scaffolds and Examples


  1. Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. (2nd ed.) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  2. Daniel, S., Martin-Beltrán, M., Peercy, M., Silverman, R. (2015). “Beyond “yes or no?” Shifting from over-scaffolding to contingent scaffolding in literacy education with emergent bilingual students.” TESOL Journal, 7(2), 393–420.
  3. Gottlieb, M. (2016). Assessing English Language Learners: Bridges to Educational Equity: Connecting Academic Language Proficiency to Student Achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  4. August, D., Staehr Fenner, D., & Snyder, S. (2014). “Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A resource guide for ELA.”
  5. Gottlieb, M. Katz, A., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2009). Paper to Practice: Implementing TESOL’s PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

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By Diane Staehr Fenner, the Co-Author of Unlocking English Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible as well as the President of Washington-D.C. based SupportEd.

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