This article originally featured in the March 2021 issue of Connect.

Shea Sakamoto (Chiba)

It was winter when I moved to Japan from still-warm and sunny California. The temperature was freezing, and I couldn’t wait to get to my apartment and put the heat on. To me, this was a task that seemed simple enough and didn’t require too much thought. Then, I saw what a Japanese air conditioner remote control looked like.

Have you ever tried doing something in an unfamiliar language without proper, effective guidance? It can feel intimidating, frustrating, overwhelming or simply not worth doing at all. Unfortunately, this is exactly how some Japanese students feel about their English classes.

Cue in scaffolding. Scaffolding is a method in which teachers support students to work just beyond the level they could achieve on their own. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this area the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). By breaking target lessons down into manageable chunks, students progress toward a deeper understanding and a greater level of independence. Because your students become more competent with what you have taught them, you can gradually remove support. I usually approach this in my elementary school classes with a) introducing the vocabulary; b) teaching the target sentences; c) applying vocabulary with the target sentences; d) applying controlled practice as a class, in small groups, then in pairs; and e) application of the language by “freely” talking to as many students as they can in class.
Besides facilitating learning, scaffolds also:

  1. Model and clearly define expectations.
  2. Motivate interest related to the task.
  3. Simplify tasks and make them more
    manageable and achievable.
  4. Reduce frustration and risk by creating low-
    anxiety classrooms.
  5. Clearly show differences between the
    students’ work and the standard.
  6. Help students focus on achieving their goal.

Why is this important?
Given that classroom language learning is already inherently stressful, teachers should seek ways to reduce their students’ anxiety. How your students feel about learning English can have a profound effect on the learning that occurs within your classes.

In linguist Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Model of second language learning, the term “affective filter” is a metaphor to describe a learner’s attitudes that affect the relative success of second language acquisition. Negative feelings such as lack of motivation, lack of self-confidence and learning anxiety act as filters that hinder and obstruct language learning. Incorporating scaffolding into your classes will make your students feel like they are in an emotionally safe place. This sets the tone for a positive learning environment.

Here are a few scaffolding strategies you may or may not have tried out in the classroom yet. Or, maybe you did but have not used them lately and needed a bit of a nudge to remind yourself how helpful they can be when teaching English.

Review Prior Knowledge
When introducing your brand new lesson, ask your students about what they think the content will be about to launch the learning process in your classroom. Sometimes, you will need to ask some questions, make suggestions, and build on comments to steer them in the right direction. But once they understand what it’s all about and relate the content with their own lives, they will be more engaged with the lesson. When teaching a unit on Daily Routines, for instance, start off by asking what time your students woke up and if they remembered to wash their faces or brush their teeth before leaving the house.

Front-load Vocabulary
Pre-teaching vocabulary arms students with the information that they need ahead of time to understand the target sentences and contextualize what is going on. Prioritize practice with learning these words so that your students will gain confidence when they need to be applied later on during the lesson.

Use Auditory and Visual Aids
Show a video, have a slide presentation up on the smart board or flashcards on the blackboard. If you’re feeling a bit fancy, try using realia which means authentic objects from real life that you can use in the classroom to teach a specific concept. Incorporating auditory and visual aids are essential to classroom instruction because they function as a memory aid and help the students make better associations with the information presented to them.

Check For Understanding
It is important to note that large public school EFL classes have students of the same age in each grade but of widely mixed abilities. Some students take English classes outside of school, while others only have what they get in class each week. Checking often if all your students are still with you and have not spaced out is important to make sure they are following what’s going on.

Provide Talking Time
One of the best ways to understand a concept is to explain it to someone else. Breaking your students up into pairs and groups to articulate what you have just taught them in their own words is a great way for them to process new information. It also ensures that all your students, even your weakest ones, know what’s going on. I like to start off by having them talk to the people closest to them and after a minute or so ask who understands and who still needs a bit of help. The students who understand what is being taught can then go off to their friends who need help to explain the point of the lesson themselves.

Model, Model, Model
Modeling is a teaching strategy where a teacher explicitly shows the students how to play a game or complete an activity even before the students begin. For modeling to be effective, the teacher must know exactly what you want from your students and be highly detailed so that there are no gaps in instruction that lead to confusion.

In elementary school English classes, we tend to focus a lot on speaking. One of the simplest group activities I like to use is practicing the newly-introduced target question and answer in a circle. First, I will tell my class that they will be grouped in fours. Then, on the board I will draw a diagram of how the speaking activity is going to go. The members of the group are also labeled accordingly.

Then, I pick three kids or ask three people in a group to stand and go through the precise steps I want them to take. I always go first and take the role of Student A. I model the target language, attitude and behavior while giving out instructions. Student B will respond to my question and ask Student C the target question. Student C will respond to Student B and the question to student D. Finally, Student D will ask me the question, and I will have a chance to answer. When my group completes the circle, we all take our seats.

In my experience, modeling bad examples after the good example and having students point out what they are not supposed to do makes them more mindful of the target language, their manner of speaking and even their non-verbal communication cues.

Prioritize Practice
With more complicated activities than the one mentioned above, take some time to practice with them for a few minutes before letting them. If it is a game, let the first round be a practice round between teams before they battle it out with each other. If it is an activity, open the room up for questions or clarifications before proceeding. Whenever your students practice, verify that they are doing things correctly. Watch closely as they go through that you’ve taught and modeled for them, and if they do not meet your expectations, stop them and have them do it again.

Set Them Up For Success
Students perform better when they fully understand what we expect from them. If they have speech tests or presentations, give them concrete examples of what they are expected to achieve and show samples of high quality work. Providing a rubric is a good way to show them what it would take to get the highest marks and allow them to assess themselves as they practice.

Scaffolding strategies have greatly helped me with finding my footing as a teacher. And like everything else, it needs practice to get it right. The strategies you need to employ may even vary from class to class despite using the same material. Being intentional about how you teach will almost always result in learning gains, and it is our jobs as educators to find out what works best. Over time, you will become more attuned to knowing when your students are ready to move on to the next challenge. At the end of the academic year, you’ll probably even surprise yourself to see how far they’ve actually come along with all the baby steps that you’ve helped them take.


Photos: Shea Sakamoto


Shea is a licensed Japanese public elementary school teacher, M.Ed. in TESOL student, and a Japanese language learner from Los Angeles, California. In her free time, she likes to write about her teaching and language learning experiences on PenPenPenguin. You can follow her on Instagram