7 Ways to Scaffold Instruction for English Language Learners

7 Ways to Scaffold Instruction for English Language Learners

As a speech language pathologist, I often get questions surrounding instructional strategies for English Learners whenever I facilitate professional development workshops, so I thought that it might be beneficial for me to share those recommendations with Teach Learn Grow readers. While these strategies are quite broad in scope, they can be used in conjunction with NWEA Learning Continuum statements derived from MAP data and have proven to be most beneficial in demonstrating growth for my students over the years. I hope that you too will find them helpful.

Understand L1 syntax

Understanding first language (L1) syntax allows the teacher to determine if the first language is impacting production of the second language (L2). Knowing the structure of L1 provides teachers with quick, concrete information regarding developmental patterns of sentence structure for English. If the student creates a sentence in English, using the patterns of their first language, then this is a difference that will be corrected as the student becomes more proficient in English. Simply pointing out the difference can correct the problem.

Create a list of cognates and false cognates

Teachers need a basic understanding of cognates and false cognates to determine the impact that L1 has on meaning in L2. Cognates are words that are similar or identical in both English and the students’ native language. False cognates are words that have similarities in spelling or sound, in both languages, but the meaning is different. This is where many L2 learners make comprehension mistakes; they generalize the wrong meaning of the word to the new context. Knowing this, allows the teacher to either pre-teach the English meaning or to identify why students are making the mistake that they are making in content understanding. Either way, it is generally a quick fix.

Teach critical vocabulary outright

When vocabulary is critical to the understanding of the content or concept being taught, teach the vocabulary as a prerequisite. Sending students to the dictionary for every word they don’t understand just slows their ability to interpret the text. If the vocabulary is a critical component to the instruction, then teach it outright. This allows students to think about the learning objective, instead of minute details that impact their access to the content.

Consider the student’s level of English proficiency when designing instructional tasks

Align instruction to the students’ English proficiency. This means that students may need to have a structured response, pictorial choices, or concrete manipulatives in order to participate in the instruction. Structured responses may take the form of a sentence starter, a graphic organizer, a chart, or even questions posed with a multiple choice format. As the students’ English improves, these supports can be reduced or even removed. Providing these supports allow students to be successful in academic content while they are learning English.

Engage English learners in academic discourse

Allow English learners to “practice” English in the classroom. Providing “safe environments” for students to engage in discourse with peers and the teacher, not only builds English oral skills, it also provides students with the opportunity to practice academic-focused language. Because academic language develops more slowly, students need to practice using this type of language, in structured ways. Often we believe that students can’t participate in L2 discussions using academic language without first having a strong background for social language in L2, but this is not the case. Students can learn academic language, both structure and vocabulary, at the same time they are learning social language. We just have to engage them in the academic conversations.

Teach transition words

One major difference in social language and academic language is the use of transition words. Effective academic language requires transitions between thoughts to ensure that the listeners (or readers) understand the thinking behind what we are saying. For English learners, this means that the teacher may need to pre-teach or provide a structured format for including the words into the conversation. This may take the form of an outline that uses sentence starters which includes the transition words that are critical for the content.

Pre-teach abstract language

Explicitly teach the social contexts of language. This often means that students need to have abstract language interpreted prior to engaging in discourse or print that includes these language forms. If the content contains idioms, metaphors, similes, slang or other such abstract language, then directly teach the meaning prior to introducing the content. This allows students to understand the meaning of the content, without struggling with syntax and vocabulary that has alternate meanings.

As you review your latest MAP data and start thinking about instruction, consider pairing these instructional strategies with Learning Continuum statements. They may be able to help you move students through multiple RIT ranges demonstrating considerable student growth. And, don’t forget to check out our Spanish version of MAP for Math and CPAA.

Blog post

Helping students grow

Students continue to rebound from pandemic school closures. NWEA® and Learning Heroes experts talk about how best to support them here on our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

See the post


Put the science of reading into action

The science of reading is not a buzzword. It’s the converging evidence of what matters and what works in literacy instruction. We can help you make it part of your practice.

Get the guide


Support teachers with PL

High-quality professional learning can help teachers feel invested—and supported—in their work.

Read the article