07 Dec

You can view the Powerpoint slideshow used at the presentation to the final conference at UTS in August 2003. You may also read a 2005 article on the project by Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons: Putting Scaffolding to Work.

The term “scaffolding” is a metaphor taken from the building industry. There it is a temporary structure that is taken away when the building can stand alone. Good teachers often do it “automatically”. On the other hand, some “scaffolding” (if done in a mechanical fashion) may be unnecessary, even counter-productive.

Starting in 2001 and continuing in 2002 with 7E and 7F, a research project on scaffolding was conducted at Sydney Boys High School (and other secondary and primary schools), a collaboration between the Department of Education and Training (Multicultural Branch) and the University of Technology Sydney. Research team leader was Dr Jennifer Hammond of UTS.

7F 2002 was the original target class. The researchers looked at English, Geography and ESL. In 2002 the classes were in English and French.

In 2003 the data was studied and conclusions drawn, culminating in a presentation at UTS in August 2003.

Among the findings of interest were:

— The metaphor of “scaffolding” is misleading in being too rigid. Pauline Gibbons (UTS) suggests we might rather think of the bamboo scaffolding seen in South-East Asia, which can bend with the wind.

— There are at least two levels of scaffolding. First DESIGNED-IN — strategies built into the unit and lesson planning which take into account where students currently are and seek to enable them to move in the direction required. Second CONTINGENT — the teacher responds to the flow of the lesson and offers scaffolding as need arises.

— The object of successful scaffolding is to make itself unnecessary. Learning takes place best in an environment of high challenge with high support, but as tasks are mastered the teacher hands over to the student and the scaffolding is removed. For more, see a seminal article by Luciano Mariani.

— The common distinction between teacher-centred and learner-centred is unhelpful; what in fact happens is a constant interplay between the two. Classes where students are seen as worthy conversational partners do tend to be marked by successful scaffolding, however, as in such classes teachers are more attuned to the degree to which students are taking on new knowledge.

It is within the students, of course, that the learning occurs, but it is within the teacher, who sits at the juncture of the forces above, below and sideways that the learning situations are framed. (Bazerman, C. (1994), ‘Where is the classroom?’, from A. Freedman & P. Medway (eds), Learning and teaching genre, Portsmouth NH, cited in Johns, A. M. (1997), Text, Role and Context: Developing Academic Literacies, Cambridge, C.U.P.)

— Students prosper best in an environment of MESSAGE ABUNDANCE. That is, as many channels of communication as possible are used to support a variety of learning styles.

— Teachers of students from language backgrounds other than English cannot take too much background English language/cultural knowledge for granted.

— Key terms should always be written up on the board, shown on overhead or in some kind of presentation program, and carefully defined and demonstrated in context.

— Much use should be made of diagrams, flow charts, mindmaps and other means of visualising concepts.

— Group and pair work should be used frequently as this gives more opportunities for contingent scaffolding, for students to articulate ideas for themselves, and for handover to take place. In Ms Walles’s class especially, drama methods such as hotseating proved powerful strategies for developing understanding and creativity.

— At a Bondi District ESL Information Network Meeting in late 2003 the topic was ESL in Science. Close study of answers from the HSC Standards Package for Physics reveals clearly that certain text types and a certain level of language are critical for best results in that subject, more now than in the past. The text types needed for success in each subject should be explicitly modelled, analysed and practised. For example, see Teaching Science to ESL students. There is excellent material on the ESL Page of the Victorian Department of Education Curriculum @ Work Pages: also links to Art, English, Health and PE, LOTE, Mathematics, Technology, Social Sciences, with mainstream ESL ideas for all of them.

# Good teachers often do all of the above intuitively or through experience. Ms Guthrie (the Modern Languages teacher involved in the project in 2002; Ms Guthrie passed away in 2007, I am sorry to report) commented on how affirming it was to see just why certain procedures worked. Ms Ross, a new teacher at the time, found the thinking involved of great benefit; being able to see on the subsequent videos just how scaffolding was working out in her lessons was a very positive piece of professional development. To be more conscious of scaffolding can also assist any teacher in more effective unit and lesson preparation.

More ideas on scaffolding

Some definitions and guidelines, adapted from Anita J Woolfolk, Educational Psychology (Edition 7, Allyn and Bacon, Boston 1998).

Scaffolding: Support for learning and problem solving. The support could be clues, reminders, encouragement, breaking the problem into steps, providing an example, or anything else that allows the student to grow in independence as a learner.
Assisted learning: Providing strategic help in the initial stages of learning, gradually diminishing as students gain independence.
Zone of proximal development: Phase at which a student can master a task if given appropriate help and support. (It can be argued that it is this zone that all learning occurs.–NW) See also Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

Some strategies to scaffold complex learning:

* Procedural facilitators: e.g. encouraging students to use “signal words” such as who, what, when, where, why and how after reading a passage.
* Modelling: the teacher might model the generation of questions about the reading.
* Thinking out loud: this models the teacher’s expert thought processes.
* Anticipating difficult areas: during the modelling phase, the teacher anticipates student errors or difficulties.
* Providing prompt or cue cards: these may be used by the students in an early phase of learning and withdrawn as the students master the material.
* Regulating the difficulty: tasks involving implicit skills are introduced by beginning with simpler problems, providing the students with extra practice after each step, and gradually increasing the complexity of the task.
* Providing half-done examples: giving students half-done examples and having them work out the conclusions can be an effective way to teach students how to ultimately solve problems on their own.
* Reciprocal teaching: having the teacher and students rotate the role of teacher. The teacher provides support to students as they learn to lead discussions and ask their own questions.
* Providing checklists: students can be taught self-checking procedures (see an example by another ESL teacher below) to help them regulate the quality of their responses.


Tailor scaffolding to the needs of students.

* When students are beginning new tasks and topics, provide models, prompts, sentence starters, coaching and feedback. As the students grow in competence, give less support and more opportunities for independent work
* Give students choices about the level of difficulty or degree of independence in projects; encourage them to challenge themselves but to seek help when they are really stuck.

Make sure students have access to powerful tools that support thinking.

* Teach students to use learning and organisational strategies, research tools, language tools (dictionaries or computer searches), spreadsheets, and word processing programs.
* Model the use of tools; show students how to use an appointment book or electronic notebook to make plans and manage time, for example.

Capitalise on dialogue and group learning

* Experiment with peer tutoring; teach students how to ask good questions and give helpful explanations.
* Experiment with cooperative learning strategies, small group work, and so on.

Some teachers will be familiar with scaffolding as a phase in the “learning-teaching cycle” promoted, quite rightly, in much of the material on literacy.

There is a danger, however.

* First, ask yourself if the scaffolding is really necessary. If the text type (for example) is already familiar, scaffolding may not be necessary.
* Second, ask yourself if the scaffolding is in the most appropriate form or terminology. I have read examples that even I have trouble understanding, and which are in fact more difficult than the base task. It may be the fault of curriculum documents and instructional materials which, in their desire to open up new approaches and concepts, stray way beyond the zone of proximal development of staff, let alone students!
* Third, ask yourself if the scaffolding/modelling is unnecessarily restrictive. Experience has shown that a too rigid adherence to text-type models can inhibit students, and may indeed not reflect the real range of possibilities in addressing a particular context, purpose or audience. See the DET document Focus on Literacy: Writing [2000] for more discussion:

The main message of Focus on literacy: Writing is that our focus should be on the social purpose of anything we ask students to write. Often our purpose is to engage, move, persuade or delight a reader. The social purpose should dictate, not only how something is written, but also how it is assessed.

Our main focus should be on social purpose, not text type. Text types are only typical ways of fulfilling certain writing purposes. Often, a writer’s purpose demands that an atypical approach has more impact, such as beginning a narrative with the ending, or not describing a character until later.

We now have evidence that too much emphasis on the text types of the primary syllabus, namely narrative, recount, explanation, discussion and exposition, can lead to poor writing, because when we write something our purpose is not to reproduce a text type but to engage a reader’s attention.

— Paul Hardage, Chief Education Officer, English, in Curriculum Support for Teaching in English 7-12, 2001 Vol 6 No 1.

Go Forth and Correct Thyself

Written by another experienced ESL teacher who prefers to remain anonymous.

Remember the luxury of writing when there was time: being able to reflect and meditate on ideas and words; editing to erase the things you really didn’t want to say; appreciating your growth in written communication?

When I was teaching adult learners, students wondered how they would ever do those things in English and often asked me, “How will I improve? How will I know how to write correctly when the teacher isn’t with me?”

So I introduced a systematic approach to writing analysis that would encourage and develop the students’ ability to self-correct. We discussed the important elements of writing, and categories for analysis were selected. For example: meaning, text structure, many facets of grammar, spelling, punctuation, handwriting…whatever the students were able to understand at their stage of writing. An abbreviation was assigned to each writing component. When the students handed in a piece of writing, I identified any errors with the appropriate abbreviation. The students recorded their types of errors, then attempted self-correction. The purpose of keeping a diary of their errors was so they could focus on particular weaknesses in subsequent writing tasks. As their experience of writing grew, they became more skilled at identifying their problems and amending them.

I also encouraged students to read their texts aloud to themselves. Often they could more easily hear anomalies than recognise them in writing.

My comments

* This is a highly scaffolded approach to the difficult question of error. Wherein is the scaffolding? How does this method locate the student’s zone of proximal development? How does it balance challenge and support?
* A modification of the method I have used is to focus on one class of error–subject-verb agreement for example–and highlight (rather than mark out) instances of the error. The student then attempts self-correction.

See also: Literacy and ESL on the AIS Literacy Site; Scaffolding Literacy; Roslyn Arnold, Empathic intelligence in pedagogy.

# Here’s a good education blog, and a clever pun: The Blog of Proximal Development. The writer, a Canadian, has a fine understanding of pedagogy (there is NOTHING wrong with that word) and literacy teaching. I recommend it very warmly.

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Posted by on December 7, 2006 in esl for teachers, for teachers, pedagogy


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