Scaffolding: An Overview

Scaffolding is the term given to the provision of appropriate assistance to students in order that they may achieve what alone would have been too difficult for them. Visual scaffolding is support that includes images and words that can be seen as well as heard. Visual scaffolding is an excellent way to provide comprehensible input to ESL students so that not only will they learn the essential subject content but also they will make progress in their acquisition of English.

The theoretical basis for this workshop is provided by 3 renowned researchers in cognitive / educational psychology and second language acquisition: Vygotsky, Krashen and Bruner.

Vygotsky: Zone of proximal development

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, introduced the concept of a zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is the notional gap between a.) the learner's current developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving ability and b.) the learner's potential level of development as determined by the ability to solve problems under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

Krashen: Theory of second language acquisition

Stephen Krashen, a researcher into second language acquisition, devised a similar notion for the kind of input that an ESL student needs in order to make progress in acquiring English. He called this gap i+1, where i is the current level of proficiency.


Clearly, an ESL student cannot cope with or learn from language input that is at i+6 or i+13. The input must be made comprehensible. Indeed, Krashen states that comprehensible input is a sufficient condition for language acquisition. However, Krashen further claims that no language will acquired in the presence of the affective filter. This simply means that a ESL student who is nervous or bored in class will learn neither subject content nor new language, even if the input is comprehensible.

Bruner: Scaffolding

Jerome Bruner, researcher in cognitive and educational psychology, coined the term scaffolding as a description for the kind of assistance given by the teacher or more knowledgeable peer in providing comprehensible input and moving the learner into the zone of proximal development.

Scaffolding includes all the things that teachers do already when they predict the kinds of difficulty that the class or individual students in it will have with a given task. Typical examples are the activation of background knowledge at the beginning of the lesson or a brief review of key vocabulary at the end of it. The Writing Process is another prime example of scaffolding.

The importance of visual scaffolding for ESL students

ESL students are particularly dependent on scaffolding*, but often the purely oral scaffolding undertaken by the teacher is not enough. ESL students greatly benefit from the type of scaffolding that makes extensive use of visual aids hence the term visual scaffolding. When students can see an image of what the teacher is describing or see the key words that the teacher is explaining, this not only serves to make the input considerably more comprehensible, but serves to remove the affective filter which results from the fear or boredom that comes of understanding very little in class.

The Smartboard and its software are excellent tools for the production and viewing of content that is both interesting and comprehensible.

* Of course, like the real scaffolding, visual scaffolding can and should be removed when it has served its purpose.

Workshop handout links
Vygotsky reading
Krashen reading

Other links
Using Scaffolded Instruction To Optimize Learning
Instructional Scaffolding (Wikipedia page with onward links to Vygotsky, Krashen, Bruner and Cummins, the other major figure in Second Language Learning.)
A comprehensive analysis of scaffolding on the Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching and technology webpage
The discourse of a learner-centered classroom (JSTOR article investigating the implementation of 6 scaffolding functions)