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Build On What You Know: Scaffolding for Language Learners

The problem I have with a lot of language teachers is this: the techniques, terms and strategies they use to teach languages cannot be easily transferred to the learners who want to do the work by themselves. I’m big on DIY language learning and on guerrilla solutions recently. That’s why today I’m tackling one of these techniques, and trying to describe it so that every language learner can at least begin thinking about using it!

From Russia with Lev: Hard Terms and Easy Explanations

“Scaffolding” may sound like something borrowed from engineering, but that is not quite the case. If you wanted to trace the origins of the educational use of the word “scaffolding,” you’d be led to Lev Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

See, now you know what irritates me about language teachers and the terms they use!

Let’s try explaining this part by part. Imagine that your task is to build a high and stable wall. You would start on the ground, sure – but soon you’d find that the next level is too high for you to reach. You would need support. So you’d bring along some boxes, of build a scaffolding – and you’d be able to reach the top of the wall and start building another part of it. Once the wall is stable and finished, you’d remove the scaffolding. Simple.

Now, back to our complicated terms: ZPD is like that space on the top of the wall. You can only just reach there, but that’s where the work needs to take place, that’s where the wall will grow if you manage to put the right parts in place. And scaffolding? That should be easy by now: this would mean anything that is put up temporarily to support you as you learn and progress.

“Scaffolding” = Challenges and Chances

Imagine a Spanish lesson.
Your teacher asks how you spent your weekend. You want to say that you went to a street market and did lots of shopping. At the beginning, all you can say is “go market street,” but your teacher helps you along with the past form of go and that begins to sound like a sentence. It goes easier from there: the nouns for food are the first ones you learnt! Your teaches knows this and helps you a bit with the past forms of verbs, letting you fill in the nouns and asking questions such as “red peppers or green?” or “how much did the chorizo cost?”
This, if you’re lucky, is what a proper use of scaffolding would involve: both a chance and a challenge. It’s a chance for you to express more than you thought possible – with the presence of carefully structured support. It’s an opportunity to learn at the peak of your abilities – in the “zone” mentioned above and previously. But it’s also a challenge: you must be aware that the support will not be there forever, and a good teacher should make sure that the structures are tested and trusted before she removes the support. Otherwise, the reality check becomes cruel – hence the legions of shaking and trembling visitors to countless countries, who were the best in their language class but find themselves suddenly struggling without their teachers’ over-protective support structures…

DIY scaffolding for guerrilla language learners

Is it possible to support your own learning? Can you build and provide the structures you need for performing in Vygotsky’s “zone?” Not always, that’s for sure. You will always need teachers and mentors to help you along if you really want to grow. But I would argue that you can plan for that support, anticipate it and (just as vitally) stop sabotaging it. Here are some steps to make it happen:
Know when you don’t need it. There’s little use in keeping scaffolding on walls that have stood sturdily for ages. If you know that you can do something, stop using props. Ask your teacher to help you learn something else. Independence and autonomy should be more than your goal: it should be built into your learning plan at regular intervals. Test yourself in the real life!
Revise and review. Even the strongest structures need a careful check-up every now and then. This piece of advice may seem contrary to the last – it’s not. A good teacher will recognize structures that need revision – and support you when you go over them (not only to learn more, but also to analyse any gaps in knowledge).
Grow and demand more. Just as the wall increases in height, so does the scaffolding – and complex buildings need complicated support. Remember that what you demand of your teacher (or yourself) today may be different than what he needs to provide next month.
Step back and take stock. When you’re close up on the scaffolding, hard at work, all you see is bricks and mortar. Get back on the ground every now and then and see what you’ve got so far! When learning languages, CEFR portfolios are quite useful for that. The result? Awareness of what your language is already good for – a clearer vision of where you’re going – and a better chance to spot the things which might need work!

Folks, like I said, this post is just an introduction to scaffolding. I believe that this is one of the most important things your teachers can do for you – and one of the crucial tools to try / become aware of.  If you want to find out more:
Read this inspiring post by Anthony Gaughan, or
See how scaffolding worked for you when you were learning your first language! (VIDEO)


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