This article on scaffolding learning for ELLs is Part 15 of WIDA’s Essential Actions Series.  Click here to read the first article in the series.

A graphic that describes scaffolding options.

In education, scaffolding doesn’t mean literally constructing planks and poles against the side of a building. It’s a metaphor for providing students with temporary, supportive structures that, just like in constructing a structure, are “gradually removed as the building nears completion.” (Riddett, 2015).  When a student demonstrates proficient independence, the scaffold is no longer needed (Gibbons, 2002). 

Our ELs’ achievement is directly related to my ability to scaffold learning experiences.Twitter

Scaffolding is the focus of Action 12 in Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards (Gottlieb, 2013).   Categorized under three groups – sensory, graphic, or interactive –  scaffolding can be incorporated during the lesson cycle or within an assessment task.  Without scaffolding, ELs often struggle needlessly to access grade-level content and are less able to perform well academically.

In this article, we’ll examine three core kinds of scaffolding and explain how they’re best applied.  

Research Says

There’s a significant body of research around the practice of using scaffolds to support instruction.  Here are some key findings found in WIDA’s Essential Actions:

  • Instructional supports empower ELs to achieve academically and access grade-level material (Gottlieb, 2013).
  • Using a range and variety of instructional support tools enables ELs to engage with grade-level objectives and content (Gottlieb, Katz, & Ernst-Slavit, 2009; Himmele & Himmele, 2009).
  • Instructional supports can also be built into assessments to empower ELs to express their understanding and demonstrate their skills (Gottlieb, 2006).

The research highlights the need to provide various forms of scaffolding to support instruction and performance on assessments.  Learning new content that is often abstract is difficult enough;  learning it in an unfamiliar language adds a level of difficulty that native speakers do not experience.  Scaffolding provides ELs with greater access to content and facilitates the demonstration of their learning.

Sensory Scaffolding

Sensory scaffolds allow ELs to use their senses to understand abstract concepts or learn new ideas.  For most students, using visuals and manipulatives are effective forms of sensory scaffolding because images and gestures contain meaning without a dependence on language.  Additionally, for Entering ELs, it’s the most effective kind of scaffolding in general because there are fewer language barriers to understanding.  

For example, the tactile nature of conducting a science lab invites ELs to manipulate objects in order to construct the meaning of abstract concepts.  Besides tactile scaffolds, educators can use visuals as another useful form of instructional aids.  Humans are visual learners because, with our eyes, we can take a large amount of information in at once and use it to construct meaning.  Like tactile scaffolds, visual aids help students understand abstract concepts easier than printed texts can.

When physical objects and visuals are combined together, they offer even more opportunities to access content. For example, Mr. A (a science teacher)  wanted to teach his students the concept of food chains and food webs.  He designed an activity where the students received strips of paper that each contained an animal. Students then moved the strips of paper around to reconstruct the food web.

The ELs benefited from physically moving the cards around to internalize how food chains and food webs work. These concepts would have remained abstract for many ELs had they simply read the descriptions.

Science cards and arrows arranged by students in a food web. Example of sensory scaffolding.

Interactive Scaffolding

As much as human beings are visual learners, they’re also social learners too.  This is why in addition to sensory and tactile support, educators should integrate social interaction into the lesson design.  For ELs, social scaffolding is an excellent opportunity to use language for meaningful purposes.  ELs have to use language and content to discuss ideas, offer observations, and form opinions.  In the process, they synthesize content knowledge and internalize language.  

Interactive scaffolds are essentially a kind of learning through collaboration, and are best used with ELs who like socializing.  My ELs collaborate in these three specific categories: synthesizing knowledge, planning actions, and creating products.  There are many easy ways to design student interaction in the lesson cycle.  This Edutopia article from Sarah Wike Loyola entitled “In language classrooms, students should be talking” explains why interactive scaffolds are effective and provides a list of five structures we can implement.

Another fantastic interactive scaffold is the jigsaw because it makes students internalize one aspect of the new content, learn to listen carefully when peers present their aspect, and work collaboratively to piece all the things they’ve learned to create new understanding.

Mr. J’s 7th grade history class provides an perfect example of a jigsaw.
Wanting students to learn the different parts of a river,  he assigned each table group to study a specific part of the river (top, middle, end).  Students researched their assigned parts (Researching phase). After a period of researching, he had them form a new groups.  This new group had students who were experts from the top, middle, and end groups.  

They then shared their research with each other (Presenting phase). Finally, students returned back to their original grouping, and they worked in their groups to formulate a thorough understanding of all the parts of the river (Co-constructing phase).  Here is an image to help you visualize Mr. J’s jigsaw.

Arrangement of student groups for an ELL jigsaw. Example of interactive scaffolding.

Mr. J could have taken the traditional route to deliver the content, but instead he empowered his students to collaboratively learn content while developing communication and interpersonal skills. I recommend using jigsaw when a unit has a lot of content.  This way, the content can be segmented and reinforces learning through inquiry. If you’d like to learn more about the practice, I encourage going directly to Jigsaw Classroom, the organization responsible for creating the jigsaw itself.

Of all the interactive scaffolds that I use, I prefer Think-Pair-Share (TPS) the most because of how easy it is to implement.  To foster comprehensible input, ELs often need to pause during instruction and synthesize the content that was just presented before learning new content.  This is when TPS is an effective tool.  During Visible Reading, I might ask, “What did you learn from reading the last few paragraphs?  Let’s do a TPS to synthesize what we learned”.  I let them think for about a minute.  Then they turn to a partner, whom I assign, and share their thinking.

TPS is like a verbal Quick Write.  Students are given a prompt, given time to think about it, and then orally share their understanding of it.  Their responses are not graded, but they do provide a wealth of formative data on their understanding.  

Jennifer Gonzalez, a highly-regarded education blogger, wrote an extensive article about TPS on her blog, Cult of Pedagogy.  She consistently produces valuable content that can be easily implemented by the busy teacher.

The most important principle that I want to share about interactive scaffolds is that if something is important for students to internalize, use an interactive scaffold (mainly TPS) to have them verbalize it.  If they can correctly articulate it, they’ve owned it.

Graphic Scaffolding

Scaffolding using graphic supports means teaching through charts, tables, and graphic organizers that morph numbers and data into visual representations.  Graphic scaffolds are particularly effective when teachers want to communicate highly abstract concepts or show the relationships between things in a phenomenon.

Because graphic supports are texts with visuals, they should be treated as texts.  It’s vital that teachers demonstrate close reading skills when explaining charts, graphs, tables, and timelines because it usually takes multiple readings for a student to fully comprehend the graphic’s ideas.

Since graphic supports usually lack the storytelling element inherent in visuals, we need to provide more guided support in reading them.  The title is often the most important place to start when reading graphs, tables, and charts because it provides the main purpose of the graphic.  For example, the table below from a scaffolded science lab report contains a title that orients ELs to the table.

Graph explaining variables to ELLs for a lab report. Graphic scaffold.

When reading graphs, remind your students to pay careful attention to the “X” and “Y” axis on a graph or read the individual slices of a pie chart. Moreover, because they are highly abstract, I prefer to reserve using them only with ELs who have highly developed cognitive abilities.

Interactive tables – where the teacher designs a table with items the students are to fill in – are the most frequently used form of graphic support employed by content teachers.  While charts, graphs, and timelines scaffold ELs’ understanding of content knowledge, interactive tables empower ELs to communicate it.

Because tables are a form of writing, they should be treated like an act of reading.  Educators have to directly teach ELs how to interact with a table and how to fill the empty spaces.  Make sure that students must not be overwhelmed by a number of things the table is asking them to produce. Keep it simple.

The following table was co-created with Mr. Arno to help ELs produce a lab report.  Notice how it helps ELs provide the necessary information for the “Materials” section and only asks for two things at a time.

Form to fill in materials needed for lab report. Example of a graphic scaffold for ELLs


Scaffolding is used to erect stunning buildings.  Though we’re not in the construction business, we are trying to impart knowledge, skills, and mindsets will serve students long after they’ve left our classrooms.  

Scaffolding helps students develop the skills that they can later call on and build upon in their future endeavors. 

Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessing English language learners: Bridges from language proficiency to academic achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gottlieb, M., Katz, A., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2009). Paper to practice: Using the English language proficiency standards in PreK–12 classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Gottlieb, M. (2013). Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s Framework for English Language Development Standards. Madison: Board of Regents of the U of Wisconsin System.

Himmele, P., & Himmele, W. (2009). The language-rich classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Riddett, C. (2015, April 2). The teaching learning cycle. Retrieved from