10 Scaffolds to Support EL Learning, Part 1

A scaffold is a temporary framework that is put in place to give  English Learners (ELs) a supportive learning environment and help them take ownership of their own learning. When a student is able to work independently, the scaffold should be discontinued. My goal with this two-part blog  is to talk about 10 scaffolds that support the reading, writing, or oral comprehension of elementary level ELs. Part 1 will focus on providing comprehensible input and linking background knowledge to learning.

Language is not “soaked up.” ELs must be able to understand the message that is being conveyed by the teacher. Comprehensible input  is a hypothesis first proposed by Stephen Krashen, who argued that ELs acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level.

Many ELs who are new to the United States spend most of their day in a mainstream classroom. It is critical for them to obtain comprehensible input from their teachers. It is my opinion that if a teacher lectures in the front of a classroom, ELs will not be receiving this input. They will not have equal access to the education that their peers receive. Scaffolding strategies should especially be used to provide comprehensible input to beginning ELs. Following are the first five scaffolds I’ll discuss.

1. Use Visuals, Realia, and Multimedia

  • Visuals include drawings, photos, pictures, posters, infographics, charts, graphs, and checklists. These are crucial scaffolds when teaching ELs to help them understand the lesson. Using visuals allows ELs to more easily link words that are heard to their meanings.
  • Include realia—real-life, tangible objects—in lessons. For example, if you present a lesson about hermit crabs to K–1 ELs, you can’t be sure they will know what hermit crabs are. Bringing in an actual hermit crab to pass around will engage ELs in the lesson. If you don’t have realia available for a lesson, use visuals or images! You can find the exact right visual on the internet to support your lesson.
  • Multimedia includes picture books that students can listen to or watch and videos, cartoons, and movies (e.g., from YouTube). These can help ELs clarify the meaning of different vocabulary words. It also helps students learn how to pronounce words and use them in real classroom communication, thus increasing ELs’ participation in class.

2. Connect New Information to Prior Experiences and Learning

Constructivism is a learning theory that states new concepts should be linked to what students already know. This theory is especially important for ELs. Consider what schema ELs bring to the classroom and link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.

When planning for the “hook” or introduction to a lesson, consider what prior knowledge students might have that they can connect to. For example, in a lesson about natural disasters, you might show ELs a picture or YouTube video and ask them questions about it. In early grades, you might show the cover of a picture book and ask, ”What do you think this book is about?” Students can then show what they already know and learn new vocabulary when classmates share something they don’t know.

3. Use Miming, Gestures, and Modeling

A big part of teaching ELs is acting. If you were to observe most ESL educators teaching a lesson, you would probably see them using a lot of miming and gestures to support student learning. If all you do is lecture beginning ELs, most of what you say will probably not be understood. Miming and gestures help bring your lesson to life and make it comprehensible to ELs.

Providing a think-aloud when you are reading a text or solving a word problem in math helps ELs to construct meaning of the text.  You would be modeling this to students so they will be able to use this scaffolding strategy. Think-alouds should be expressed using first-person statements, such as “I wonder…” and “It seems to me that…”

4. Preteach Academic Vocabulary and Key Concepts

It is not productive to give ELs of any age a list of vocabulary words from a unit and have them look up the words in a dictionary. ELs will not know which definition applies to the context of the word, and they won’t understand the definition. Instead, preview and preteach new vocabulary words; these are scaffolds essential to helping ELs understand academic content. Students require direct instruction of new vocabulary. You should also provide multiple exposures to new terms, words, and phrases and give opportunities for practice in pronouncing new words. Word walls should be used at all grade levels.

5. Support English Learner Writing by Using Sentence Frames

Sentence frames allow ELs to use key content area vocabulary when writing. Sentence frames provide structure for students when they are writing. The blanks can be located in the beginning, middle, or end of sentences. When you are teaching a content lesson, you should repeat the vocabulary words that you use in sentence frames often. This gives your ELs a connection to prior learning.

Here is an excellent lesson from Colorín Colorado on YouTube that demonstrates the use of sentence frames to spark EL writing. Sentence frames can also be used to support student conversations. We’ll talk more about that in Part 2 of this blog.


Next month, I will discuss the following scaffolds: graphic organizers, use of first language, using sentence frames for academic conversations, small group or partner work, and schema building. If you have a favorite scaffold that I haven’t talked about, please comment in the box below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to
10 Scaffolds to Support EL Learning, Part 1

  1. Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

    It’s a term that has long been used in educational circles in the U.S. that describe how we “support” ELLs during content area instruction. I’m not saying your definition is incorrect only that there are many definitions for words.

  2. Stephanie Nicholson says:

    Interested to see you use ‘that’ instead of ‘which’.
    Surely scaffolding should be dismantled. – in UK English a scaffold is something upon which a person was hanged; scaffolding is what you build around buildings.