Scaffolding: the art of building with the GSE

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One thing we hear about all the time in language teaching is the need for ‘scaffolding’. When I lead teacher-training sessions, I take extra time to focus on what scaffolding is and how to use it in a lesson. Through years of experience, I have found that a lesson that demonstrates excellent scaffolding will improve the results I can expect from my students. Over the past few months, the Global Scale of English (GSE) has put a new focus on the way I think about scaffolding. Building with the GSE means teachers have a new way to plan lessons that include strong scaffolding to achieve demonstrable progress.

What is scaffolding?

To start, let’s define the term. One of my favourite examples of scaffolding is learning how to ride a bike. Scaffolding is about support; it’s about building an experience in the mind of the learner to help them move from watching others do and achieve to being able to do themselves. We begin by watching parents and others ride a bike, then practise ourselves with help from parents, peers and training wheels, until finally we can ride unsupported.

In the classroom, creating support means allowing time for student interaction, observation and practice. Teachers can further support learners by planning lessons that move through the stages of scaffolding. This allows learners, when working together, to ‘hold’ each other’s respective ‘bikes’ until they come to a place where they are comfortable about ‘letting go’.

One of the ways in which I look to see if a lesson I am planning has scaffolding is to see how the activities in it build from start to finish. In a well-scaffolded lesson you won’t see several different activities, but rather several similar activities leading to the same place. A simple example is to teach students words that describe characteristics.

Let’s start with this objective:

Characteristics of Personality
Objective SWBAT use characteristics of personality to describe family members in a classroom mingle activity.

From my objective I can see that I need to teach the following:

  • Characteristics of personality
  • Model dialogue to describe people

I will take the target language from my course book, which will also save me some time and work. It includes an activity to clarify the characteristics – a gap-fill practice dialogue where students can use the vocabulary to describe pictures of fictional characters. So, that’s half of my class planned out. Now I need to get my students to describe not just fictional characters, but their own family members too. From here my lesson unfolds:

Characteristics of Personality
Objective SWBAT use characteristics of personality to describe family members in a classroom mingle activity.
TL quiet, strong, friendly, careful, honest, boring, serious.
Materials PPT, Book, Paper, Pencil
Procedure
2 min 1. Use pictures of some famous actors on a PPT or project on an overhead projector. Elicit characteristics to check prior knowledge.
2 min 2. Write the TL on the board. Have Ss work in pairs to match TL to the pictures of actors. Clarify any words that are new.
5 min 3. Have Ss complete the vocabulary activity in the book. Check answers.
5 min 4. Have Ss complete the dialogue in the book. Check answers. Erase board or close PPT while Ss work.
10 min 5. Have Ss complete the description of characters in the book. Check answers.
10 min 6. Have Ss draw members of their family.
15 min 7. In pairs, have Ss describe members of their family to partner. If necessary, have Ss use the dialogue from the book and change to match family members.
2 min 8. Ss close books. Have Ss mingle and ask at least three other Ss to describe the characteristics of the family. Listen and note any incorrect use of vocabulary or trouble with pronunciation.
As time permits 9. Review and clarify any errors after the mingle activity.

This lesson will allow me to accomplish my objective by demonstrating clear scaffolding. Let’s look at how this works:

Procedure
2 min 1. Use pictures of some famous actors on a PPT or project on an overhead projector. Elicit characteristics to check prior knowledge. Scaffolding: Check prior knowledge, focus only on teaching words that are new, not words the Ss already know.
2 min 2. Write the TL on the board. Have Ss work in pairs to match TL to the pictures of actors. Clarify any words that are new. Scaffolding: Spend time only on new words. Observe Ss to see what is difficult.
5 min 3. Have Ss complete the vocabulary activity in the book. Check answers. Scaffolding: Make sure all Ss know the words before we move on.
5 min 4. Have Ss complete the dialogue in the book. Check answers. Erase board or close PPT while Ss work. Scaffolding: The dialogue is a model for conversation that the Ss will have at the end of the lesson. Every activity after this will use the dialogue format to support learner success.
10 min 5. Have Ss use the dialogue to describe the characters in the book. Check answers. Scaffolding: Using the dialogue from step 4, Ss complete step 5. The dialogue will change a little and still provides support to the learners.
10 min 6. Have Ss draw members of their family. Scaffolding: Visual tool, but without words. This will help support learners as they have an unscripted conversation.
1 min 7. In pairs, have Ss describe members of their family to partner. If necessary, have Ss use the dialogue from the book and change to match family members. Scaffolding: Same dialogue from book, ONLY if students need it. I can encourage Ss in pairs to just use the pictures. Dialogue must change now to reflect the family members, not indicated in the book work. Work in pairs helps model the final activity.
14 min 8. Ss close books. Have Ss mingle and ask at least three other Ss to describe the characteristics of the family. Listen and note any incorrect use of vocabulary or trouble with pronunciation. Scaffolding: The pictures. At this point the only scaffolding learners have are the pictures. The language and the dialogue are not available so learners can demonstrate they have achieved the objective.
As time permits 9. Review and clarify any errors after the mingle activity.

As you can see, each part of the lesson builds on the support from the previous activity to help my students achieve the goal. By in the final activity, which is my objective, the scaffolding is designed to allow students to demonstrate fluency without providing direct answers. This is the best kind of scaffolding for learners.

Analysing a lesson with the GSE

How has the GSE changed the way I think about scaffolding and how I work with my students? It’s all about having insight into learning objectives with a sense of the challenge my students will face. Let’s again take the example of describing family members.

The first thing I want to find out, in order to use the GSE for scaffolding, is around what GSE range I would find the speaking skill in this lesson. The speaking skill here includes ‘describe’ and ‘family members’. So I can use the GSE Teacher Toolkit to look for speaking skill descriptors related to describing people. Before I begin searching, I know that my intention is to design this lesson for my A2+ level class, so I will look within the A2+ range on the GSE.

Scaffolding 1

Next, I read through the results to see if I can find something that is close to my objective. I know that GSE objectives won’t have the exact same wording, so I don’t need an exact match, just something that is close. When I push the search button there are 16 matches and one is a very good description of the objective of my lesson.

Scaffolding 2

And I can confirm that I am correct about the general level of difficulty of the skill I selected for my A2+ level class.

Scaffolding 3

Characteristics of Personality
Objective SWBAT use characteristics of personality to describe family members in a classroom mingle activity.
Level GSE 39 (A2+)
Can use simple language to describe people’s personality and emotions

Now it’s time to look at the key feature of the lesson: vocabulary. This is where the GSE can be extremely useful for scaffolding. I know that the skill I’m working with is perfect for the student level, so now I want to look at my target language for this activity. First, I use the GSE Teacher Toolkit to look up the target language vocabulary to get a sense of the level of difficulty.

TL quiet, strong, friendly, careful, honest, boring, serious

GSE Values [A2+ 30-35]

quiet (36), strong (37), friendly (36), careful (39), honest (40), boring (42), serious (43)

As we can see, most of the vocabulary is around the range of my learners and only one word will be a real challenge as it falls outside the range. This helps me to think about my scaffolding. Since I expect my students to be working around the A2+ range, my goal is to provide a challenge (think i+1) that will push them to go a little further. With this in mind I go back to the GSE Teacher Toolkit, look at the vocabulary and select a few items that will really stretch my students. I choose a few words that will push them to the next level of learning, and a couple of words that are very advanced, but interesting and relevant to the topic.

Scaffolding 4

 

Additional TL

difficult (51 B1+)
independent (53 B1+)
strict (55 B1+)
rebellious (77 C1)
introvert (82 C1)
extrovert (83 C1)

Scaffolding with the GSE

Now that I know more about the difficulty levels of my lesson, I’m ready to look at my scaffolding and make some changes. Here is what I need to keep in mind:

  • The skill is at the level of my students so they should be able to do it.
  • The vocabulary in the book is at the level of my students so some of the words my students will know, while a few might be difficult.
  • My additions to the target language are above the level of my students, so these will be very difficult.

Scaffolding 5

Armed with this information, I know where I need to scaffold the most: understanding the difficult target language. When scaffolding with the GSE, what teachers need to know is what part of the lesson is going to be the most challenging and therefore require the most scaffolding. The most challenging content is the content a teacher should plan to scaffold more significantly.

Scaffolding 6

Modified lesson plan with GSE-based scaffolding (changes in bold):

Characteristics of Personality
Objective SWBAT use characteristics of personality to describe family members in a classroom mingle activity.
TL GSE 39 (A2+)
Can use simple language to describe people’s personality and emotions.
TL quiet, strong, friendly, careful, honest, boring, serious.
Challenge TL  

difficult (51 B1+), independent (53 B1+), strict (55 B1+), rebellious (77 C1), an introvert (82 C1),

an extrovert (83 C1)

Materials PPT, Book, Paper, Pencil, Challenge TL vocabulary cards
Procedure
2 min 1. Use pictures of some famous actors on a PPT or project on an overhead projector. Elicit characteristics to check prior knowledge. Scaffolding: Check prior knowledge, focus only on teaching words that are new, not words the Ss already know. of TL from the book. Introduce challenge TL.
2 min 2. Write the TL on the board. Have Ss work in pairs to match TL to the pictures of actors. Clarify any words that are new. Scaffolding: Spend time only on new words. clarifying challenge TL.  Observe Ss to see what is difficult. for comprehension of challenge TL.
5 min 3. Have Ss complete the vocabulary activity in the book. Check answers.

CHANGE: Assign vocabulary activity in book for homework)

  1. Make vocab cards for new TL. In pairs, one Ss shows the card, partner names someone famous that has the characteristic.

A: [Card: an extrovert]

B: Taylor Swift is an extrovert.

Scaffolding: Make sure all Ss know the words before we move on. the new challenge TL before moving on. 
5 min 10 min 4. Have Ss complete the dialogue in the book. Check answers. Erase board or close PPT while Ss work.

4.1 Have Ss complete a second time using the challenge TL.

Scaffolding: The dialogue is a model for conversation that the Ss will have at the end of the lesson. Every activity after this will use the dialogue format to support learner success. Add additional practice for the new challenge TL.
10 min 5. Have Ss use the dialogue to describe the characters in the book. Check answers.

CHANGE: Model using tl from book and challenge TL.

A: Do you know Jimmy T?

B: Yes, he is independent and serious.

Scaffolding: Using the dialogue from step 4, Ss complete step 5. The dialogue will change a little and still provides support to the learners. Model including the challenge TL in the dialogue practice. 
10 min 5 min 6. Have Ss draw members of their family. Scaffolding: Visual tool, but without words. This will help support learners as they have an unscripted conversation.
1 min 7. In pairs, have Ss describe members of their family to partner. If necessary, have Ss use the dialogue from the book and change to match family members.

A: Who’s this?

B: This is my sister, Annie. She is an extrovert, and she’s a little rebellious. She is also very friendly. Just ask my friends.

Scaffolding: Same dialogue from book, ONLY if students need it. I can encourage Ss in pairs to just use the pictures. Dialogue must change now to reflect the family members, not indicated in the book work. Work in pairs helps model the final activity. Model using the challenge TL. 
14 min 8. Ss close books. Have Ss mingle and ask at least three other Ss to describe the characteristics of the family. Listen and note any incorrect use of vocabulary or trouble with pronunciation. Scaffolding: The pictures. At this point the only scaffolding learners have are the pictures. The language and the dialogue are not available so learners can demonstrate they have achieved the objective.
As time permits 9. Review and clarify any errors after the mingle activity.Review the challenge TL and definitions.

Assign vocabulary activity from book as homework. 

In my revised plan I’ve looked specifically at the parts of my lesson where my students will work with the challenging vocabulary content. I’ve added some extra time to practise the vocabulary and new content. Notice that the amount of time for practice did not change. As I expect the vocabulary to be the real challenge the time allocated for practice should be fine as long as I allow enough scaffolding to support work with the new vocabulary. Also, because the challenging content was an addition to the book, I revised how I would use the book content, setting some of the content as homework to give more time to practise the challenging content in the classroom. I will still meet my core skill objective for speaking with a lesson that is now designed to build my students’ knowledge at their level and provides a challenge to stretch them as they work with new vocabulary.

I’ve found the GSE to be extraordinarily valuable for planning content. If I keep the desired range of my students in mind, I can balance my lesson plan to target support right where they need it. Thinking about the skill, the vocabulary and the grammar, I can pinpoint exactly where the scaffolding will be. This can help me plan the timing of my lesson and generate ideas for how to use the content in the book, as well as what content I might need to create to supplement and support my learners. In many ways, the GSE highlights the science behind the scaffolding.

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