What do window washers, construction workers, and teachers have in common?
They all use scaffolding. I’ve talked about how scaffolding in ESL class is like scaffolding in construction class, so I’ll use another analogy here, and I think it might be even better.
What Is Scaffolding?
When I was a kid learning how to ride a bike, I had training wheels on my first two wheeler as I am sure you likely did, too. Those training wheels provided support as I rode my little purple bicycle with the pedal breaks up and down the street in front of my house. With them, I could ride a bike. Without them, I fell and fell again. But before all that falling happened, I build confidence and learned the skills I would need to succeed without that extra help.
That’s kind of what scaffolding is like for your ESL students. You want them to accomplish the same activities that fluent English speakers do, but they lack the skills at the moment. So by giving them a little extra support, you make it possible for them to do what everyone else is doing. Accomplishing tasks in English.
What tasks they accomplish depend on what you are doing in class, but the goal is always the same. Helping ESL students succeed by giving them the extra support (or wheels) they need.
4 Tools for Putting Scaffolding to Use
When I was teaching my third grade ESL students, I wanted to challenge them, and I wanted them to have experience with the type of material they would be tackling in their mainstream fourth grade class the following year. So I decided we would work through a novel as part of our reading class.
I was limited by my school’s library, so I chose Mr. Popper’s Penguins. It was an easy chapter book and a fun read for my eight and nine year old students, and by taking it one little piece at a time and putting scaffolding into use, my students were able to complete the book successfully. Reading that book was one of the most memorable parts of their school year based on how many pictures they drew of penguins and how many times they talked about it afterwards, so all the work on my part and theirs was definitely worth the effort.
Part of that success came from the scaffolding techniques I used to insure their success. These are tools you can use with your ESL students whether they are in an ESL class or are part of a mainstream classroom. Here are some of the scaffolding techniques I used as well as some others I wish I had as my students read their first chapter book in English.
I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Just a little tweak and this statement exemplifies one method of scaffolding for ESL students – I’ll understand it when I see it. Since language learning is so abstract, giving ESL student something concrete to grab on to while they are completing a task, in this case reading a book, can make a big difference in their comprehension. There are lots of ways to include visuals when teaching English – charts, tables, pictures, videos…you can probably think of a dozen more.
If you are teaching a novel like I did, you can give visual scaffolding by showing part of the movie based on the book. If you don’t have a movie handy when you’re teaching your novel, I taught Mr. Popper before the Jim Carey flick was made, consider using puppets in class. Either put on a show for your students or have them put on a show. Have the puppets act out the content of a scene or chapter for your students before they read that section. Since they will have seen what happens before they read about what happens, their comprehension will increase.
As ESL teachers, we are always teaching vocabulary, aren’t we? It’s essential in language learning. You can know and use all the grammar in the world and not be able to communicate if you don’t know the right vocabulary. That is true in reading class, too. I remember when my son was young and we had entire conversations of baby babble which made absolutely no sense. That can be how reading in English feels to your students if they don’t know the vocabulary they are reading. They can read the page, but how much of it can they understand?
Set your students up for success by teaching them the vocabulary they will encounter before they see it on the page. You probably have your own favorite methods for teaching vocabulary, but don’t be afraid to try new ones from time to time. Eventually, you will find a few that work best for this particular group of students you have right now. But whether you are using new methods or old ones, knowing those words before they read them will make a world of difference for your ESL students and how much they understand of what they read.
Use Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers are great for ESL students. Most of them are a beautiful combination of graphics and text, and putting words into a physical arrangement can help students see the connections between ideas. Effective graphic organizers don’t have to be complicated, either. Flow charts are great for organizing information from a novel since so much of what happens on the page is cause and effect. As students visualize the events while they read, they can connect the ideas in their mind.
Connect Content to Real Life Experiences
Getting students to talk about their own experiences particularly those that relate to what they are learning in class is a great way to help them connect previous experiences with what they are learning, another great scaffolding tool.
In my case, we took time to talk about zoos and penguin exhibits as we read Mr. Popper’s Penguins. But how much more amazing would it have been if we could have visited a zoo as part of our reading unit? Or if we had animal handlers come to class and bring penguins for students to see and touch and talk to (hypothetically speaking, of course).
When you are thinking about scaffolding opportunities to use with your students, think about what connections they already have to what you are covering in class. How can you get them to remember those experiences and talk about them? Or can you create new experiences for them? Doing a unit on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Bring in candy bars for students to sample. Tackling Jumanji? Let students play the game of Life in class before starting the book. It may take some effort on your part, but the more you can help your student experience firsthand what they will be reading about or make connections to things they have already done in life, the more they will understand as they read.
It may seem intimidating to throw an English novel at a bunch of ESL students and expect them to read it successfully, but that’s not really what you are doing when you use scaffolding appropriately.
What you are doing is setting a goal, breaking it into small pieces, and giving students the tools they need to accomplish each step on the journey. You’re saying, “I want you to ride a two wheeler to school, but I’m going to give you directions and some extra wheels to keep you balanced.” Don’t be afraid to expect great things from your ESL students, but make sure you give them the tools they will need to accomplish them by using scaffolding.
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