English Learners

Effective Strategies: Scaffolding for ELL Students That Benefits the Whole Class

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During my first year as a third-grade teacher, I had a pivotal learning moment. One of my ELL students, who I perceived as just being quiet, actually needed more language support than I was providing. After this realization, I used targeted questioning and ongoing assessments to understand her linguistic needs and discovered the importance of implementing scaffolding strategies tailored for English language learners. This experience highlighted the transformative power of scaffolding. Plus, I not only saw my students’ remarkable growth but also saw the effect scaffolding strategies had on my entire class.

A note on language: Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label and come from a range of cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. We use the common phrases multilingual learner, English language learner, ELL students along with the acronym ELL, but we recognize that any label is imperfect.

Fostering Learner Autonomy: What Is Instructional Scaffolding?

Just as a physical scaffold is used to support the structure of a building, instructional scaffolds can be implemented to support the structure of instruction. Scaffolding instruction involves a gradual release of responsibility shifting from teacher to student based on student readiness, which aligns with psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s key concept—the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky found that learning occurs most effectively within the student’s Zone of Proximal Development, the range of tasks that a learner can successfully accomplish with well-timed instructional guidance and support.

As teachers, we also add additional supports throughout the lesson as we informally assess student understanding. We proactively anticipate student needs and misconceptions during lesson planning and plan for questions to help students advance their thinking during group work or independent practice. However, teachers often provide scaffolds on the fly as students’ needs arise. These are all legitimate ways of meeting students at their current level of understanding.

What Is the Difference Between Scaffolding and Differentiated Instruction?

Both differentiating and scaffolding instruction are techniques to address the diverse needs of learners. There is overlap when discussing scaffolded instruction versus differentiated instruction; however, there are distinct differences.

Differentiated instruction is a way of modifying the instruction so that each student can access the learning regardless of readiness. Additionally, differentiated instruction can provide enrichment opportunities for students who are ready for a challenge. Due to the diverse learning needs in a classroom, students might be learning in various ways that honor each of their needs.

There are some specific techniques recommended for differentiated instruction for ELL students, such as incorporating content that integrates their cultural background, adapting process by grouping students who share a common language, and altering product by providing opportunities for students to choose how they show what they have learned.

Scaffolding refers to how the content is delivered. When instruction is scaffolded, the teacher provides temporary support and presents concepts in smaller segments to facilitate student learning. However, as students build upon their learning and master new concepts, the teacher provides less support along the way.

One of the most common models of scaffolding instruction is the gradual release of responsibility model. In this model (shown above), commonly referred to as “I Do, We Do, You Do,” teachers begin a lesson with all the responsibility of solving the problems. Students are not yet proficient in the skill or content being taught, so the teacher demonstrates. The teacher then gradually releases responsibility over to students, first through guided practice or active engagement, and eventually to partner practice and, finally, independent practice. HMH Into Reading lesson plans follow the “I Do, We Do, You Do” structure to provide students with guided practice.

Where differentiating provides opportunities for students to access the learning based on their general profile and learning needs, scaffolding brings the learning to students’ level and gives them a boost to transition to the next level. The table below details other key differences between differentiation and scaffolding.



Adapt instruction to meet the diverse needs of all students

Provide targeted support to help students reach the next level

Modify content, process, product, and environment based on readiness

Gradually transfer responsibility and support from teacher to student

Tailoring instruction based on individual needs

Meet students at their current level of comprehension

Flexibly allows for personalized learning paths

Provide support based on student readiness and progress

Instructional pace can vary based on individual student progress

Instructional pace can be adjusted to match the needs and progress of students

May involve flexible grouping or individualized instruction

May involve collaborative work or small-group instruction

Provides options for enrichment or remediation

Offers support through guided practice, modeling, and feedback

Language Development and Other Benefits of Scaffolding for English Language Learners

Scaffolding supports English language learners in developing their language proficiency across language domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Through guided practice, modeling, and structured language activities, students gain the necessary skills to communicate their thoughts and ideas more fluently and accurately. This focused language support not only enhances their language development but also boosts their overall academic performance across content areas.

Using scaffolding strategies also fosters a positive learning environment that encourages English language learners to take risks, participate actively, and collaborate with their peers. Providing supportive structures and guidance empowers students to barrel through language barriers and engage meaningfully in classroom discussions and activities. This participation and collaboration not only contribute to language development but also cultivate important social and emotional skills.

Some examples of scaffolding in language learning include:

  • Providing sentence frames or sentence starters to assist students in formulating their thoughts and responses
  • Breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps to support comprehension and completion of assignments
  • Using visuals, graphic organizers, and other visual aids to aid in understanding and recall of language concepts
  • Incorporating peer collaboration and cooperative learning opportunities to practice their language skills in authentic contexts
  • Offering additional support through one-on-one or small-group instruction to address individual needs and provide focused language guidance

Effective Techniques: Scaffolding Strategies for ELL Students

Employing effective scaffolding strategies in the classroom is crucial for ELL students’ academic progress and language development. These specific scaffolding techniques provide the necessary support to bridge the gap between their current language proficiency and the academic content they are expected to engage with. Here are some ELL scaffolding strategies to consider implementing in your classroom:

Strategy 1: Pre-teach Vocabulary

Pre-teaching vocabulary is particularly beneficial for ELLs to build a strong foundation of vocabulary, enabling them to engage with academic content with more confidence. To introduce new words, utilize concrete objects, drawings, and gestures before the lesson. This approach helps students establish a foundation of understanding, making it easier for them to grasp new concepts.

Strategy 2: Activate Prior Knowledge

Activate students’ prior knowledge by connecting new learning to previous knowledge through bridging activities. A graphic organizer like a KWL chart, which helps students synthesize what they know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they have learned (L) about a topic, can effectively prime students for new information and enhance their engagement and comprehension. Research-based practices such as previewing the text, anticipation guides, and quickwrites can also be used in activating prior knowledge. Download a free printable KWL chart PDF.

Strategy 3: Modeling

Modeling academic language and syntax can greatly support ELL students. Provide sentence frames or structures that students can use when expressing themselves in a non-native language. By doing so, you reduce the cognitive load associated with language production and help students develop their language skills more effectively.

Strategy 4: Build Schemas

A schema is an underlying blueprint or structure you can introduce to students. Building schemas involves connecting new information to students’ existing knowledge and experiences. By making these connections explicit, you help ELL students make sense of new concepts and facilitate their overall understanding.

Strategy 5: Use Visual Aids

Visual aids, such as pictures, charts, graphic organizers, and videos, can significantly enhance comprehension for ELL students. These visual representations provide additional context and support students in connecting visual cues with language, making the content more accessible and engaging.

Strategy 6: Chunk the Learning

Breaking down the learning into smaller, manageable chunks can alleviate the cognitive load for ELL students. Present information in bite-sized portions, providing clear and concise explanations. This approach allows students to process and digest the content more effectively.

Strategy 7: Collaborative Work

Promoting collaborative work among students is crucial in any classroom, but it holds particular importance for ELL students. Encourage students to work together, and if possible, strategically group English language learners with others who share the same primary language. This arrangement can provide a more comfortable environment for expressing thoughts and ideas in any language.

Quick collaborative grouping strategies like Think-Pair-Share and Turn and Talk offer students valuable thinking time and opportunities to rehearse their answers. These strategies are especially beneficial for ELL students who may require more time to frame their thoughts.

Other collaborative strategies, such as Jigsaw and Literature Circles, enable students to practice key vocabulary and thoroughly explore topics in a low-stakes setting, fostering meaningful interactions and language development.

Strategy 8: Ask Strategic Questions

Anticipate potential misconceptions that may arise and prepare strategic questions to address them. Some misconceptions may be rooted in the complexities of the English language itself, such as homonyms. By asking targeted questions, you can ensure comprehension and help students navigate potential language-related roadblocks.

Summary: Scaffolding for ELLs Benefits All Students

Implementing effective scaffolding strategies in the classroom enhances the learning experience for all students while promoting collaboration and active participation among peers. These strategies empower ELL students to overcome language barriers and engage more effectively with the content.

By pre-teaching vocabulary, activating prior knowledge, modeling academic language, and incorporating visual aids, educators equip English language learners with the tools to understand new concepts and express themselves confidently in another language. This scaffolding approach creates an inclusive classroom environment that values diversity and promotes empathy.

Collaborative work and interactive activities provide opportunities for English language learners to actively participate and collaborate with their peers, improving communication skills and gaining confidence in expressing their thoughts and ideas. By implementing scaffolding strategies tailored to students’ needs, educators foster an environment where collaboration and active participation are valued, benefiting both ELL students and their peers. This inclusive approach creates a positive and enriching learning experience that celebrates diversity and embraces the transformative power of education.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Address the range of English learners needs with our English language development programs.

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