How to Scaffold Grade-Level Instruction for ELLs

How to scaffold grade level content for English Language Learners (ELLs).

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Scaffolding for Learning Grade-Level Content

So you have English learners who need to access grade-level content?

As you may already know, scaffolds are incredibly helpful. Let’s take a look at:

  1. The definition of a scaffold
  2. The different kinds of scaffolds
  3. How to use scaffolds
  4. Download some free graphic organizers below.

The Definition of a Scaffold

English Learner in Classroom Frustrated Because He Can't Understand

A scaffold, as the metaphor suggests, helps lift a student up to a level they might otherwise be unable to reach.

For our purposes…

…we’ll be focusing on English language learners. For a student with an English proficiency level below that of a native speaker, a scaffold is basically anything that helps that student better understand and interact with grade-level content.


Different Kinds of Scaffolds

Scaffolds for English Learners to Help Them Access Grade-Level Content

There are many different kinds of scaffolds. Here is a list of some of the most common types:

  • Pictures – Any images or videos illustrating vocabulary, concepts or events make for wonderful scaffolds
  • Graphs – Graphs can also help students visualize information they may not be able to understand from simply listening or reading.
  • Sentence Starters – Sentence starters, or sentence frames, help students express ideas using academic vocabulary and sentence structures beyond their current English proficiency level.
  • Group Work – Group work is an engaging way to let students process material, check understanding, fill in gaps, translate, illustrate, or write about the concepts they are learning.
  • Praise & Encouragement – You might argue that this is not really a scaffold so much as it is a basic teaching fundamental, but it helps to be reminded that students thrive when they are praised and encouraged for the productive struggle they make towards goals each class. Since our English learners come from a different culture and language, it helps to find particularly meaningful and powerful ways to praise and encourage them so that the message is sent loud and clear.
  • Tech – Technology can be an incredibly helpful tool for scaffolding learning for students if it isn’t overused. Tools like Seesaw, Flipgrid, and Buncee let students record themselves with audio or video. You can find great videos on almost any topic on Youtube. Quizlet and Kahoot let you create engaging quizzes. Rewordify lets you change texts into simpler language by simply cutting and pasting. TalkingPoints can translate messages between you and students’ parents. Just remember that students still need you more than a screen.
  • Humor – I love using humor and would do so regardless of whether I were teaching English learners, but laughter helps significantly with memory, and it is just good for the soul. With beginning English learners, that humor needs to be pretty silly and basic for them to understand. For higher level English learners, the desire to understand the humor in something makes for wonderful discussions.


How to Use Scaffolds

Grade Level Standards for English Learners

Scaffolds are wonderful, but they shouldn’t be permanent. Students who receive too much support may end up coming to rely too much on the scaffolding and not enough on their own ability to think critically.

Tonya Ward Singer in her book EL Excellence Every Day talks about how we should observe students attempting a task without any scaffolding in order to make an informal assessment of where students are struggling.

Afterward, we can decide how much, or how little, scaffolding to provide them. 

With that…

If we are trying to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text, for instance, you could ask your students to attempt the goal without any scaffolds at all.

After observing your students, you could decide to hand out partially filled graphic organizers to students who are completely stuck, blank graphic organizers to students who simply need help organizing information and word banks to students who only need help with the vocabulary words needed.

Another way to decide what scaffolds to provide is to reference assessment results.

If you have WIDA Access test results, you may already have a good idea of what proficiency level your English learners are at. You can make decisions about, not only what scaffolds to provide, but what you should be able to expect from students at different English proficiency levels.

Resources for Scaffolding

Click below to download a set of free graphic organizers you can use with your English learners.

The Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum

If you need more, the ESL Curriculum Membership provides teachers with tons of scaffolding resources: 

  • vocabulary visuals
  • leveled texts
  • multiple-choice graphic organizers
  • PWIM writing sheets
  • tiered sentence starters
  • group activity ideas
  • student tracking pages 
  • and more

…all to help you scaffold instruction and make sure students are on track to English fluency.

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