Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development
Essential concepts to help your students have a lightbulb moment.
‘Scaffolding’ is help that we give learners by breaking down the task into manageable chunks.
The term is a metaphor for support — just as scaffolding is put around a building being constructed, we provide support to learners while they work on learning.
By providing support and gradually handing over more of the task to the learner, they will move from dependency to independence.
“What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.”
- Lev Vygotsky, psychologist
The idea of scaffolding came from the work of Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist in the early 20th century. He proposed a concept, illustrated in the diagram above, called the zone of proximal development.
Despite the complicated name, it explains a simple concept — that with help, students learn better with guidance and can learn more than if they were left to study by themselves.
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Does Scaffolding Help Learners?
Yes, but studies show that teachers need an accurate idea of the current students’ level. If you’re interested, example studies here, here and here show improvement in language learners’ ability when an instruction has been scaffolded.
How is Scaffolding Different from Differentiation?
Both goals are to better help learners move towards learning by providing more customised support, so it’s easy to see why these concepts can get confused.
Scaffolding involves breaking up a task, skill or language point into parts and then supporting learners to master each piece and the whole.
Differentiation techniques are wider-ranging, and could involve customising by time, task, topic or role — e.g. learners could be doing similar but different tasks or using different materials.
Scaffolding is also viewed as a way to keep high standards for all learners, rather than dumbing down the class for weaker learners, an accusation that’s been levelled at differentiation (when it’s poorly done).
Examples of Scaffolding
A lot of activities that most of us do in a ‘controlled practice’ stage of the lesson would probably count as scaffolding. Controlled practice stages typically ask learners to practice a limited set of the target language or to practice with the support of reference material. Then as we move to a freer practice in the latter half of the lesson, the controls on which language to use are dropped, or learners are asked not to refer to support material.
Some examples of TEFL scaffolding are:
Giving language prompts or substitution drilling.
Letting students use dictionaries or mobile phones to check language.
Allowing students to check answers with a partner.
Activating students’ prior knowledge and language related to the target topic.
Allowing students a chance to plan an activity together.
Giving specific models of language to use or work towards.
Pre-learning or the ‘flipped classroom’ approach for new lexis or grammar.
Does Scaffolding Have any Disadvantages?
Only if it’s misused. One way this can happen is if the lesson and tasks are ‘over supported’, i.e. if too much help is given. If that happens, you’ll most likely see learners get bored and start to rely on the support rather than think for themselves.
How do you know if it’s too much? If your learners can’t answer a question without referring to support material at the end of the class, it’s too much.
Top Tips for Scaffolding
Know your students’ level.
Monitor closely (you can keep an eye on the level of challenge).
Don’t offer too much help.
See you again in two weeks.
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