Scaffolding Language for EAL Learners

Ultimate Guide To Scaffolds & Scaffolding - Tips For Home

Scaffolding is essential if we are to support EAL learners in the mainstream classroom. Gibbons (2002, 2008) suggests scaffolding should be viewed as a temporary structure that will gradually be taken away. Furthermore she reports that scaffolding should not be viewed as help but something that helps learners move towards new skills, concepts or levels of understanding (Gibbons, 2002 & 2008). You might scaffold content and you might scaffold language. EAL learners need their language to develop within curriculum contexts, therefore, scaffolding language is essential. This post will look at some of the ways we can scaffold the language skills of writing, speaking, listening and reading.

Scaffolding Writing

  • Substitution Tables – Substitution tables are a great scaffold for beginner EAL learners. They can also be used with more proficient learners . For beginners, the choices we give learners are less than they would be with more proficient EAL learners.
Substitution Tables are a great scaffold for writing
  • Writing frames – these are a great scaffold for EAL learners. The level of detail the writing frame has will depend on the language proficiency of the learner. A New to English (DfE Code A) learner will need a lot more language included in the writing frame. I would suggest that the writing frame for a beginner focuses on language input rather than content and language input. By this I mean the frame omits language items such as key verbs or connectives. This focuses on the learner developing their language knowledge through the content in which the text is written. For more proficient learners, writing frames will have less language but will play a scaffolding role through the inclusion of key language features related to the particular genre that the learner is writing in. For instance, if a learner is being asked to write a comparison then the writing frame should include: connectives for comparing and contrasting and key verbs that are typical of this genre.
  • Pre writing brainstorms, key visuals, planning, the writing process – all of these scaffold writing. They give learners ideas, language and a chance to structure what they will write. It is unfair to get any learner to just write and this is certainly true of EAL learners. They need these writing scaffolds to be successful. Below is an image of a graphic organiser that we can use to scaffold writing. This graphic organiser pictured below comes from an excellent publication by Tacaiochta & Leibheal (2008) which you can access by clicking on this link.
Tacaiochta & Leibheal (2008)

For key visuals, I highly recommend reading the journal article in this link here Slater and Gleason (2011) highlight the work of Mohan. On page 7 of the journal article there is a fantastic graphic which shows knowledge structures and key visuals (see below)

There is another great article on Mohan’s knowledge framework from NALDIC click (2011) here The key visuals pictures above are examples of how we scan scaffold EAL learners writing by providing structure and visuals ways to organise their thoughts into writing.

Scaffolding Listening

Yes, we should scaffold EAL learners listening as well. This can be really beneficial it helps learners hear the types of academic language they need to develop. Scaffolding listening gives EAL learners something to focus their listening on. You might:

  • give a list of keywords for learners to listen out for and circle as they hear them. This list should also include words you do not expect to use. Keywords might be directly related to the topic or they might be particular academic words such as connectives or key verbs.
  • Provide series of pictures / phrases / sentences and as learners listen they sequence them into the order they are used. To develop the language of sequencing, after learners have finished, you could ask them to sequence the pictures / phrases or sentences using sequencing language such ask: first of all, next, after that, then, finally etc.

Scaffolding Speaking

  • Use speaking frames that scaffold the way you want your learners to answer questions or take part in a discussion. Speaking frames can provide EAL learners with the models of language you want them to develop. Include subject specific words and phrases, key verbs and connectives which will help to develop academic language related to curriculum contexts.
  • Substitution tables – as well as being a useful scaffold for writing, substitution tables can also scaffold speaking. Learners are given choices of certain phrases or typical patterns of language that you want them to develop. This could be related to the genre being used such as comparing, contrasting, describing or evaluating etc. By using substitution tables as a scaffold we are giving our learners opportunities to develop language within curriculum contexts.
  • Keyword lists – keywords that you want your learners to use in speaking can be displayed and referred to.
  • Key visuals – can help to scaffold the type of talk you want your learners to have. Key visuals might also include keywords that help learners think of the language they need to include in speaking. Key visuals should also take into account the cultures and prior experiences of your learners.
  • Being clear about the type of talk you want your learners to use. This is important to consider when scaffolding talk. Different types of talk will have different types of language and we can scaffold our EAL learner talk by providing them with these typical language features. For instance, when you ask your learners to compare two things there will be certain language patterns that you would expect to use.

Scaffolding Reading

Much like all the other scaffolds, the scaffolds you use for EAL learners will vary according to their language proficiency. Beginner EAL learners will benefit from understanding the whole text in the first instance. In this way they can make meaning from the big idea that the text is about. More proficient EAL learners will benefit from scaffolds such as skills development. Below are some of the scaffolds we can use with our EAL learners when reading.

  • Explicit links to prior learning / building background – this is an essential scaffold for EAL learners. Prior to reading a text making explicit links to prior learning and building background knowledge around a text are vital. To do this you could use such strategies as KWL Charts, discussion around the text, visuals, real objects, vocabulary matching activities, pre teaching vocabulary or use of first language. All of these strategies can be used to build background and make explicit links to prior learning.
  • Margin Questions – Margin questions scaffold reading by pointing to where an answer can be found. This scaffold EAL learners reading because it takes away having to locate specific information. Margin questions are a really great way to support beginner EAL learners.
  • Highlight / underline key parts of a text – Like margin questions, doing this scaffolds reading by allowing learners to focus on answering a question rather than having to locate and answer a question.
  • Matching activities – matching pictures to parts of a text, phrases to pictures, words to pictures or original to adapted text.
  • Chunking – breaking a text into manageable parts is a way to scaffold more complex texts that learners might have to read. Breaking a text down into smaller more manageable parts takes away some of the fears that learners might have. It allows them to focus reading on shorter more accessible parts of a text.
  • Use of first language – allowing learners to use their first language can scaffold the reading in the second language. To do this you can by translated versions of texts, use an online translation tool such as Google Translate or a newer one Microsoft’s Immersive reader (read this article about using Microsoft Immersive Reader).

Scaffolding language for EAL learners has enormous benefits for their content and language development. Our EAL learners need a range of scaffolds if we are to support them. There are many more scaffolds than I have posted here but hopefully this has given you some ideas for use in your classrooms. All the best!


Gibbons, P. (2002) Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning. Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. Heinemann. Portsmouth, NH.

Gibbons, P. (2009) English Learners. Academic Literacy and Thinking. Learning in the Challenge Zone. Heinemann. Portsmouth.

Slater, Tammy and Gleason, Jesse Soule, “Integrating Language and Content: The Knowledge Framework” (2011). English Conference Papers, Posters and Proceedings. 7.

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