Students cannot learn what they cannot understand. For ESL students, there is a greater challenge when content material is the target knowledge. For native speakers, learning the content itself may be a challenge, but ESL students also have their language ability factoring into what they learn. Even if a student is capable of understanding the content his or her teacher is presenting, if that student cannot understand the language in which the content is presented, she cannot learn the content. One approach to assisting your students in this situation is to use scaffolding in the ESL classroom. Scaffolding, when done correctly, can bridge the gap between the language a student may struggle with and the content he is more than capable of learning.
HOWTO: Scaffolding in the Content Classroom
What Is Scaffolding?
In construction terms, scaffolding is the additional structure built onto another to make some improvement or repair possible. Imagine the planks and pipes attached to a house that is being repainted. Without the scaffolding, the painters would not be able to perform the necessary work on the building.
In learning, scaffolding serves a similar purpose. Scaffolding is additional information or assistance that aids the learner in internalizing information, and like physical scaffolding, that assistance is removed once the learner has acquired the target material. With ESL students, scaffolding is of great use since the language barrier can hinder learning content material that the student might easily learn in his first language. If you are teaching ESL students, there is no need to be intimidated by the term. You can still assist your students through the learning process with these suggestions.
One of the easiest ways to use scaffolding in a content area is to get your students thinking about what they already know about a given topic. When a student has previous knowledge in mind, it is easier for him or her to build on that knowledge. Simply asking some questions about the topic on which you will teach can be enough to get your students’ minds in the right place. By giving your students some discussion questions about your topic, you not only activate their prior knowledge about the subject (also known as schemata) but you also give them an opportunity to practice their listening and speaking skills. Discussion questions take minimal preparation and are a perfect warm up activity for your ESL students!
For some students, you can help them in content learning situations by stating the goals prior to the lesson. Even better, write the goals of the activity on the board. When students know the objectives of the lesson, they are able to focus on the most important elements of the material. For example, if the ultimate purpose is to compare and contrast two types of cars, tell your students that they will be doing that activity before you give them the information on either of the cars. If you want your students to remember the main plot points of a story, tell them before they read the piece. By informing your students of the goal before starting the activity, they will be able to focus on the important information and filter out the less important points in the material.
A third way to use scaffolding effectively with ESL students is to provide pictures or visual assistance with the content you are teaching. For example, if you are reading a text in class, take a few minutes for your students to look at the pictures included with the article or story and try to predict what information may be included in the piece. If you are reading a longer piece like a novel, there is nothing wrong with watching the movie version before your students have read the book. The visual information will assist them as they read the novel increasing their comprehension. If you are presenting new information to your students, try to include a visual representation of that information. Can you use a bar graph, pie chart or other graphic display of the knowledge? Can you bring in photos or print pictures from the internet that illustrate what you are describing? If you can, your students are sure to appreciate it. Try to write key words and new vocabulary on the board to give your students a visual connection with the words themselves.
You can assist your students in their content as well as language learning by asking them to produce the information in different forms after the lesson. You may want to have students answer questions orally as an initial response. Then give each person some time to complete a graphic or chart with the information that they learned. When students are giving answers, you can provide a word bank or choices of answers to further assist them. Finally, ask your students to produce the information that they were given through written answers. In any case, allowing your students to work in groups will also decrease their anxiety and help the answers come more freely.
For anyone who has taught ESL for any length of time, simplifying your language with your students will come naturally. Speaking more slowly and articulating words, not allowing one word to blend into the next will help your students understand the material you are presenting. In addition, using simple tenses and refraining from difficult vocabulary or slang and idioms will also be a way of assisting your students as they learn content in their second language. After a time, you will learn what vocabulary your students do not understand or what is unfamiliar to them.
Learning a second language is not easy, and learning content material in that second language can be even more difficult.
The more you can do to help your students as they learn, they more success they will see throughout the process. Though the term ‘scaffolding’ may seem like something complicated or foreign, you are probably already using these techniques with your students. Keep doing what good teachers do and your students will certainly see success in both language and content learning!