S is for Scaffolding

4 04 2010

In An A-Z I include an entry for scaffolding, but don’t mention the fact that it has become such a buzz term that it’s starting to lose all significance. Teachers and trainers regularly talk about their role in ‘scaffolding’ learning, but if you unpick their examples, it’s difficult to distinguish these from simple question-and-answer sequences that have always characterised effective teaching. Here, for example, is an extract that Rod Ellis uses to exemplify scaffolding:

1 Teacher         I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what’s wrong with the picture.

2 Learner            A /paik/ (= bike)

3 Teacher            A cycle, yes. But what’s wrong?

4 Learner            /ret/ (= red)

5 Teacher            It’s red yes. What’s wrong with it?

6 Learner            Black

7 Teacher            Black. Good. Black what?

8 Learner            Black /taes/ (= tyres)

 (Ellis, 2003, p. 181)


Ellis explains that “the teacher is able to draw on his experience of communicating with low-level proficiency learners to adjust the demands of the task and to scaffold the interaction so that a successful outcome is reached” (p. 182).  But I’m not convinced. It seems that – far from being an instance of co-constructed learning – the teacher and the learner are talking at cross-purposes, and that all this is mapped on to the traditional IRF (initiate—respond–follow-up) model of classroom discourse. This does not seem to embody Bruner’s (1978) definition of scaffolding as “the steps taken to reduce the degree of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (quoted in Gibbons, 2002).

What, then, are these ‘steps’? Looking at the literature on scaffolding, a number of key features have been identified. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in one of the first attempts to define the term, itemise six:

1 recruiting interest in the task

2 simplifying the task

3 maintaining pursuit of the goal

4 marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution

5 controlling frustration during problem solving

6 demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.

 (quoted in Ellis op. cit)


What they seem to leave out – and what is so attractive (to me) about the metaphor of scaffolding – is the relinquishing of the teacher’s role as the learner appropriates the targeted skill – what Applebee (1986) calls ‘transfer of control’: “As students internalize new procedures and routines, they should take a greater responsibility for controlling the progress of the task such that the amount of interaction may actually increase as the student becomes more competent” (quoted in Foley 1994). Also missing is what van Lier (1996) calls the “principle of continuity”, i.e. that “there are repeated occurrences, often over a protracted period of time, of a complex of actions, characterized by a mixture of ritual repetition and variations” (p. 195). That is to say, scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat. Finally, any definition of scaffolding needs to highlight the fact that this kind of interaction is a site for learning opportunities, and is not simply a way of modelling, supporting, or practising interaction.

Does this tighter definition of scaffolding improve matters? Or is it now so tight that it deprives teachers of a useful metaphor for a whole range of classroom interactions?


Ellis, R. 2003. Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, OUP.

Foley, J. 1994. ‘Key concepts: Scaffolding’. ELT Journal 48/1.

Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning. Heinemann (USA)

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum. Longman,



20 responses

4 04 2010
Teresa Bestwick

Scaffolding to me was always providing students with a structure to practise a specific grammar point, and implied repetition of inauthentic phrases. I like the fact that you include classroom routines in the idea of scaffolding and believe that certainly for younger students, routines are an integral part of the learning environment.

4 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Jason Renshaw points out that he has blogged on this topic very recently. Check out his video blog:

4 04 2010


I’d say that you make a very important point.

I think the cause of why there really isn’t “scaffolding” in ELT is because a “language” is not “content knowledge”. It can’t be stacked or even folded, bent or I’ll suggest, “stored” away like an index card. Language ISN”T information or knowledge but what knowledge is made of. Until we understand that, we won’t begin to even understand why scaffolding isn’t possible.

So many teachers really don’t fully understand the distinction between a “subject” – math/science/history/economics…. and a language which is a totally different alien. I get raving mad when I hear about “hierarchies” in language and some words being more important than others and “this” before “that” etc…. Just people parading their own prejudices and inclinations as truth…. That’s my take on it too. I may be totally wrong but that’s what I believe. (but I do believe Bruner was as genuinely a genius as they come. Like Newton, he saw the obvious and that’s very difficult).


5 04 2010

Fantastic definition, particularly the bit about relinquishing control. It is this part which is actually the most satisfying both for me as a teacher and for the student who has, as it were, taken off the stabilisers and knows it.

5 04 2010

The stabilisers come off…but then have to go on again…and come off again etc. They’ve got it for a while, but two months later, they’re wobbly again. It’s a slow old process at times.

How can you reduce the number of times you have to reach for the spanner?
Revision, revision, revision, perhaps.

For me, the absence of programmed revision activities is the Achilles’ heel of almost all coursebooks.

5 04 2010
Jason Renshaw

I found Glennie’s recent comment about revision in coursebooks an interesting one.

In my coursebook series, there is a full two page review unit following every two (2 X 4pg) “main” units. So a 12 unit coursebook has 6 review units. On top of that, for certain skill strands, I did my best to make each review unit cumulative – reviewing not only the most recent two units but aslo recycling important skills from either the first half or second half of the course, or even all the previous units in the entire coursebook (certainly got tricky/crowded when doing reviews 5 and 6, which required a review of units 1-10 and 1-12 respectively!).

While I think this represents publishers’ efforts to try and effectively address this “need more review” issue, I’m not sure review itself reduces the need for “scaffolding” (the way many teacher interpret and insist on using it) – and could even be interpreted in some cases as additional scaffolding!

Anyway, interesting notion – thanks for getting me thinking!

~ Jason

5 04 2010

Hi Jason

From your description of your book you are definitely to be congratulated for the care you have taken.

I’d only just written my first comment when I suddenly came to the same tentative conclusion as you: depending on your definition of the term, revision could indeed be seen as additional ‘scaffolding’!

But – and here I have in mind a more limited definition of the term ‘scaffolding’, i.e. intervention by the teacher to enable the student to satisfactorily carry out a task – a series of timely review activities, as part of a process of making a language item increasingly familiar, should mean that the amount of scaffolding required by the student to be able to use the target language effectively will be reduced as that familiarity increases.

I don’t think I am saying anything very original there. My problem has always been having the time to find stimulating review activities and having the time to do those that I have found given that dreadful pressure to ‘get on to the next unit’.

6 04 2010
Nick Jaworski

I’ve always seen scaffolding as the guidance or structure of an activity to aid students when they can’t do it on their own. I’ve always found it quite important as activities that aren’t scaffolded well often leave students floundering.

3 quick examples of scaffolding IMO.

Elementary: Constructing a sample dialogue with the class that they can use as a model to then write their own and eventually perform a similar dialogue in class without notes or scripting.

Pre-Int – Providing a series of pictures or a list of key words on the board to facilitate the retelling of a story.

Int – When nobody is sure where to go next, providing a list of possible directions that the students then chose from and expand on.

I think the best way to scaffold is to assess your students, give them something a bit challenging, and then work backwards as much as you need to to eventually provide enough support that they can accomplish the task or participate in the class successfully.

As Scott rightfully points out, these scaffolds are gradually dismantled as the lesson or class progresses and the learners learn to take command of the scaffolding on their own or the processes simply become habit.

I think Scott is right on the repetition as well. My elementary students may start out writing dialogues, but after time in the class, they leave that behind and can do role-plays based simply on role-cards and then even just improv.

6 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nick – it’s great to have some plausible examples (and at different levels) of what might be involved in providing the requisite (temporary) support for classroom tasks. The modelled dialogue is a classic example, and anyone who has had to cope in a second language environment will know how useful a stored dialogue ‘template’, along with some all-purpose expressions, can be – when shopping or in a restaurant, for instance.

6 04 2010
Mohammed Rhalmi

I like the way you presented the concept of scaffolding, especially the idea of teachers relinquishing control once learners feel secure enough and including van Lier’ s “principle of continuity” as part of the definition. The definition has not become tighter but less ambiguous.

6 04 2010
Nick Bilbrough

I tend to equate scaffolding with interaction patterns where there is a difference in level between speakers, and because of this difference, the lower level speaker is challenged to use language in a way that he could not do alone.

As a language learner I can feel that these are really rich learning opportunities and they’re made more effective by the fact that they often include reformulations and recasts of language that I’ve initiated myself.

Here’s an example from when I was in Chile. I needed to borrow something from a friend to measure (not mediate!!) my new flat with but I had no idea what it was called in Spanish.

Me: ¿y tienen algo para mediar el departamento?
(have you got anything to mediate the flat with?)
Jacqui: si, yo te lo paso.
(yeah, I’ll get you one)
Me: ¿pero como se llama?
(but what’s it called?)
Jacqui: una huincha.
(a tape measure)
Me: ¿una huincha?
(a tape measure?)
Jacqui: sí

It’s interesting that the focus is principally on meaning but when it shifts to a focus on form it’s me who initiates this -not ‘the teacher’.

The question is how can we maximise the potential for this to happen in a class of 30 teenagers?

One way that I’ve had moderate success with is to get people telling you about something they know about – it could be a band, a football team or something (On a recent stint in a classroom in Angola it was about the country itself), you reformulating where appropriate what they say, and then trying to get the learners to remember these reformulations, by turning it into a piece of writing for example.

Of course it is more teacher controlled than my example but it does allow for a kind of scaffolding of their (self-initiated) talk.


7 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Nick writes: One way that I’ve had moderate success with is to get people telling you about something they know about – it could be a band, a football team or something … you reformulating where appropriate what they say, and then trying to get the learners to remember these reformulations, by turning it into a piece of writing for example.

This is such a good idea from all sorts of persepctives, not least becasue it gives the learners a chance to “teach the teacher” as well as devolving topic and discourse mangagement away from the teacher and onto the learners. (Research suggests that the topics that the learners initiate are more memorable than the teacher and/or coursebook generated ones).

Now, how would you build in “the principle of continuity” here? You could, of course, have them repeat the exercise on subsequent occasions (but that might seem a bit pointless, unless the task was performed in another register, e.g. as a more formal presentation), or with different partners, or perhaps, continue the topic on subsequent occasions from where it was left off, along the lines of “Tell me a bit more about this band of yours…” The point is that repeated ‘performances’, with less and less teacher and/or peer support, seems to be at the heart of what scaffolding is all about.
Any other ideas?

6 04 2010
María Sara Rodríguez

I have found this exchange of ideas about scaffolding very interesting. To be honest, I have been experimenting with e.g. Learner Autonomy, etc since the 80´s and when I think back ( of course the word scaffolding was not a buzz word then) what I used to do was. For example:
Step 1 Give students an overall task.
Step 2 Agree with them on what we wanted to achieve
Step 3 Get them to decide how they wanted to work i.e. in pairs, groups, individually.
Step 4 As them to re-group and compare their solutions
to the task
Step 5 Produce a final outcome in the form of e.g. a report, a poster, etc

But as Scott says above the content was the most important component ( even if the content implied e.g. organising different uses of the Present Coninuous. They were not thinking of the ing but how to organise the information)

And they came up with fascinating charts that many coursebooks would like to include.

7 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Maria Sara (and hi! Maria Sara!), and you’re right to point out that effective teachers have always been assisting their learners in the performance of tasks, both in the design of task sequences, and in the monitoring that goes on during task performance. We just didn’t call it scaffolding then!

6 05 2010

I just wanted to comment on your extract from Rod Ellis’ book. I am in one of his Master’s classes at the moment and we recently discussed this exact extract. The way he explained it was that the teacher and student started out at cross-purposes, but the teacher abandoned his original plan and oriented to the learner’s idea of what the task was when it became obvious that the learner couldn’t manage the original task. He also said that in all the data from that study, it was the first time the learner had ever produced a two-word utterance – but he couldn’t do it by himself, he needed to work together with the teacher (being prompted by the teacher) to be able to produce it – thus it was scaffolded by the teacher. Anyway, just a bit of extra context.

7 05 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nita – that is very helpful. I guess – in a very loose sense – the teacher’s interventions did provide a supportive interactive environment for the learner to take a risk, but that’s all. There is no real evidence that the learner has ‘appropriated’ any of the teacher’s own language ‘material’ – but perhaps that’s not what the term ‘scaffolding’ assumes. Nevertheless, that does rather reduce scaffolding to the level of simply ‘asking questions’, which is indeed how the term is now used by many teachers: “I scaffolded their talk” meaning “I asked them questions”. If the term is to be worth its salt, surely it stands for a bit more than this?

18 10 2010

Thanks for the interesting comments about scaffolding. I am an MEd student in South Africa and I am trying to find a good framework to analyse my data. I have a collection of logs/protocols of online mathematics tutoring interactions which happen via a mobile phone application and take place as synchronous/real-time conversations. I would like to explore the scaffolding taking place to assist learners who access the tutoring service with specific maths homework problems. I have not found anything which relates to this that I could use in my analysis of the data.
Interesting features of these interactions are:
1)they are online (so it differs from classroom discourse and there is no face-to face interaction).
2)The learners are anonymous and take control of the learning by asking the questions. They usually have a specific problem that they struggle with.
3) Learners are at ease with the technology and have a specific language (text speak) which is abbreviated, yet the tutors have the content knowledge. They both have to create meaning/ common understandings using the limited symbols of mobile application (i.e no mathematical representations are available).
4) Tutors are volunteer university students so the interactions are random and vary in length, level and type of response required. The tutors are not suppose to give answers but facilitate understanding or (as I hope to be able to investigate), scaffold” the interaction so that it s broken into manageable tasks which the learner can do.

Unfortunately all the studies I have read focus on ongoing classroom interactions or intelligent tutoring systems. I cannot find a study which has human tutors in online synchronous environment. Please advise me if you know of one or what framework could be used to analyse such interactions from a scaffolding/socio-cultural approach. Thanks

18 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Bonnie, thanks for the comment and the description of your research, which sounds fascinating, not least because the interactions you describe are significantly different from most online instruction.

I did a quick check in Lamy and Hampel (2007) Online Communication in Language Learning and Teaching (Palgrave Macmillan) and came up with this paper (available online):


which – although not exactly about the kind of context you descirbe, does take a sociocultural approach, and has a model for scaffolded instruction which comprises three elements:

1) S – a teacher verbal strategy

2) C – contribution of the computer

3) A – what the strategy accomplishes

I’m sure this doesn’t exactly fit your study, but it might throw up some other references. Anyone else out there know of similar studies?

5 03 2011
andrea maistrello

I’m writing my Masters SLA assignment on scaffolding and was starting to doubt myself until I came across your blog. I’m finding it difficult to distinguish between, as you say, scaffolding and effective and supportive teaching. Trying to describe practical examples to illustrate how to scaffold A’Level Business Studies L2 learners has me mired in every task oriented exercise known man. Anyway, just wanted to ask you for the date of this blog entry as I’d like to quote you in my introduction. thanks, Andrea.

5 03 2011
andrea maistrello

Sorry, don’t worry – just seen the lovely graphic up the side – which contains the date. OPPS!

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