Scaffolding Strategies that Support Academic Language Proficiency

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll explore scaffolding strategies to improve academic language proficiency for ELLs. We'll go over how to use their primary language in the classroom and contextualize language, as well as how to assess and reteach if needed.

What is Scaffolding?

Picture starting back at the gym after a long break. Would you be able to jump into a regular workout for someone in your age bracket? The answer is probably not. You might even need some help putting together a workout routine and could probably benefit from some coaching with a trainer.

Just like a workout routine, developing new academic language can be a challenge, particularly for our English language learners (ELLs). Although students may be in 9th grade, they won't be ready for a full 9th-grade curriculum in English. ELL students require scaffolding, or structured support to help them access grade level curriculum. Scaffolding can help students bridge gaps due to language development and still engage with the curriculum that native English speakers are learning. Today, we're going to learn some ways to implement scaffolding and assess your students for understanding.

Using Primary Language in the Classroom

Although many schools have strict policies against teaching in your students' primary language (L1), using L1 in some contexts can be helpful and increase English language proficiency.

Proponents of English only classrooms claim that simply maximizing exposure to English will increase language acquisition. However, there is little evidence to support this claim and in some cases using the L1 can increase instruction time compared to using English only.

1. Giving Directions

For example, giving directions for an activity or lab in English can cause confusion for ELL students. More time will be spent clarifying directions, rather than engaging in the activity itself. Native English speakers would be able to start the activity right away, essentially giving them more instructional time.

2. Class Expectations

L1 should be used when it's important that students understand the message given in order to become more successful in the classroom. Another example of this is discipline. When explaining school rules or expectations to students, it can be useful to use their L1 to make sure they understand exactly what they need to do. Communicating this in English can result in unintended misunderstandings, especially for lower level ELL students.

3. Grammar Rules

Another example is explaining grammar, which has been shown to be more successful when communicated in L1. Students need to understand why English is written the way it is, and to try to explain the grammar rules in English can create further confusion. Giving students grammar rules in their native language will actually help them become stronger English language communicators.

Contextualizing Language

Language is not learned in isolation. In order for students to understand language, they must process it and relate it to their lives. Consider teaching lessons in a real-world context. For example, Ms. Havril is teaching ecology in her biology class. Instead of giving students a vocabulary list, she can present the information in the context of current events that students are likely to know and relate to, such as climate change.

If her ELL students come from similar areas of the world, she can use ecological problems occurring in their home countries to increase connection with the material. For example, deforestation is a major problem in Southeast Asia, particularly from the palm oil industry. Teaching food web relationships in the context of these tropical rainforests increases engagement and familiarity with the material.

Formative Assessment

As you are using these forms of scaffolding, it's important to check for understanding and assess your own teaching strategies. One method is called formative assessment. Formative assessments are informal checks for understanding, unlike formal end of unit assessments like an exam. Formative assessment most likely already goes on in your classroom. Checking independent student work, having conversations with students, and exit tickets are all types of formative assessments.

The results from formative assessment can be tracked to monitor students' progress over time. Although formative assessments do inform you as to whether to move onto a new topic as a whole class, they also inform you as to which students need extra support. If particular students are falling behind on a standard, consider giving them extra attention, using strategic grouping, preferential seating, or individual work with a tutor or paraprofessional.

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