Scaffolding Instruction for English Learners (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two-part post for teachers on incorporating the instructional strategy of scaffolding into their classroom.

EL Illustration

Question: How can I select scaffolds by ELs’ English Language Proficiency Level?

Diane Staehr Fenner: Now that you’re more familiar with what scaffolds are, as well as the three different categories of scaffolds, the next step is to select and try out some scaffolds for ELs. It can feel a bit daunting to try out a scaffold or two if you haven’t done so before. So, I’ll give you some guidance to help out.

In order to select appropriate scaffolds, you’ll need to know your ELs’ backgrounds, as well as their academic strengths and needs. You’ll also need to have a sense of the linguistic demands of your instructional tasks to determine which scaffold(s) will best support your ELs in being able to successfully engage with and complete the academic task.

Selecting scaffolds can cause us to look at our instructional tasks in a new, exciting way. Instead of simplifying the tasks we give ELs, it is instead the nature of the scaffold that is critical for ELs’ success with a particular lesson.6 As you consider how to scaffold a specific activity, think about the three categories of scaffolds that you may wish to include; you don’t have to include all three of them. (See Part 1 Your ELs’ strengths and needs will vary depending on the academic task that they’re working on.

Also, please keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules for selecting appropriate scaffolds for ELs of varying proficiency levels. Some scaffolds might be developmentally appropriate for all students (e.g., graphic organizers or pair work) and may be used as supports for the whole class, including English proficient students. It is also important to note that an EL’s need for a particular scaffold will vary depending on his or her familiarity of the content and the complexity of the task.

The table below provides some general guidelines for you for selecting scaffolds for ELs at different English language proficiency (ELP) levels (beginning, intermediate, and advanced). This graphic is adapted from my scaffolding collaboration with Dr. Diane August. Even though this table provides a starting point, I always suggest using your professional judgement when selecting scaffolds.

Suggested Scaffolds at Each Proficiency Level

Q: How can I incorporate scaffolding for ELs into my lesson planning?

DSF: Once you have selected a scaffold or two to try out with your ELs, it’s time to think a bit more deeply about how you’ll incorporate those scaffolds into your instruction. Our “Scaffolded Lesson Planning Checklist” will provide you with some considerations in doing so. In scaffolding instruction, I recommend you constantly reflect on the efficacy of particular scaffolds you use and adjust your instruction appropriately.

Suggested Scaffolds at Each Proficiency Level

Q: How can I collaborate to scaffold ELs’ instruction and assessment?

DSF: One final consideration in successfully scaffolding instruction and assessment for ELs is to collaborate. As you begin scaffolding your instruction, think of other teachers who could support you in this endeavor. If you’re a grade level content teacher, you could turn to an ESOL teacher in your school for resources and advice on how to scaffold a particular lesson. If you’re an ESOL teacher, you could offer to work with content teachers to suggest scaffolds for particular lessons and assessments. You also may wish to offer to model the use of scaffolds in a particular lesson. Collaboration is key to successfully implementing scaffolding for ELs.

This is a starting point to help teachers incorporate scaffolds into their instruction for ELs, framed around one chapter in Unlocking English Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner and Dr. Sydney Snyder. The book offers a toolbox of strategies for teaching ELs and ensuring they can succeed in today’s more rigorous classrooms. For more in-depth training on scaffolding for ELs, please see SupportEd’s face to face and online professional development.


  1. Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. (2nd ed.) Portsmouth, NH:

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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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