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Scaffolding: how it applies in the classroom and its forms. Part I

‘Scaffolding’ is one of those terms that everyone has suddenly started using in ELT contexts, leaving some of us a little bewildered. Confusion may turn into alarm when you find out that the base form ‘scaffold’ refers to a platform on which people were executed. So, if someone is ‘on the scaffold’ he or she is about to be executed. Things get even more sinister when the dictionary tells us that ‘scaffold’ is related to ‘catafalque’: a structure erected in a church for displaying a corpse in a coffin!

A bit of etymology

Don’t worry! Scaffolding in the classroom has nothing to do with the gallows or dead bodies. Indeed, ‘scaffolding’ in everyday English refers to the temporary structures made of wood and metal (or of bamboo in the Far East) that allow builders to work on a building in construction or under repair. So, someone might say,

I wanted to see Big Ben when I was in London but unfortunately it was covered in scaffolding

It is this idea of a temporary structure that links ‘scaffolding’ to ‘catafalque’ and to a series of European words such as catafalque in French, catafalco in Italian and cadahalso in Spanish. In fact, the Portuguese term cadafalso means both ‘gallows’ and ‘scaffolding’. Similarly, cadahalso in Spanish became cadalso: a gallows.

Scaffolding in the classroom

Getting back to the classroom, the figurative use of ‘scaffolding’ in education is related to the idea of a temporary structure. Scaffolding refers to the steps a teacher takes to help learners so that they can understand new concepts and develop new skills. It should be a temporary form of help and once they have achieved understanding and confidence, the teacher should eliminate the scaffolding so that the students have to apply the new learning in different contexts without support. Scaffolding can be provided for all curricular subjects and for developing listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills. The amount of scaffolding will depend on each student’s needs and the difficulty of the concepts being learned.

Forms of Scaffolding

Scaffolding comes in many different forms and the teacher needs to think about what type of scaffolding is most suitable in each case. Of course, the teacher may decide to use simultaneously more than one type of scaffolding. Examples include:

activating schemata - this is just a formal way of referring to activities that get learners to think about what they already know about a specific topic. Typically, a teacher will start a discussion based on a title in which students predict what the lesson is going to be about. This brainstorming should generate a shared base of knowledge on which the new learning can be built.

create interest - similarly, if the teacher can relate the topic to learners’ personal experiences, this is likely to motivate them to pay attention and therefore absorb new learning better. Knowing that information is relevant to you is a major stimulus to concentration.

demonstrations and examples - after any abstract explanation, seeing a new skill applied greatly improves the probability of successful outcomes.

realia - showing learners objects that they have never seen before can be a fantastic way to focus attention. Some learners learn best through handling relevant objects. 

practice - with support before, during and after the task is performed. Learning by doing – with the teacher there to help out where necessary. Further practice can be undertaken as pair-work or in small groups, this builds confidence before the more stressful context of a plenary. Remember we all need time to internalise new ideas.

multiple approaches - we each have different forms of intelligence and so a good teacher will find a variety of ways of explaining new learning through images, gestures and acting, metaphors and mnemonics. These days there is usually a ‘how to’ video available on the internet to help consolidate almost any learning.

thinking time - students should be allowed to think about questions and teachers should resist the temptation of letting the first learner with her hand up answer immediately. 

These are just some of the scaffolding techniques that can be applied in the classroom. Make sure you don’t miss our next article about how scaffolding can reduce cognitive overload and provide linguistic support by signing up to our newsletter at

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