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Scaffolding for English Learners: What's a Science Teacher to Do?

Tomás Galguera, Mills College, Oakland, California
March 13, 2003 | Language Development

Top image: Teachers share their drawings of seed germination and then arrange the drawings sequentially, an example of the "jigsaw" strategy applied to the Structures of Life module.

Editor's Note: During June 2001 Tomás Galguera worked with staff from the Bay Area Science Project (BASP) at Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, in the Science Education and English Development (SEED) Institute. The SEED Institute was funded by the California Professional Development Institute initiative of Governor Gray Davis. The goal of the initiative was to integrate subject matter content with English language development. Life science was the content for this institute. Teachers from four school districts in the San Francisco East Bay participated in this professional development experience. Using the FOSS Structures of Life Module, Galguera presented activities to assist teachers in employing scaffolding strategies to support English learners in their classrooms. The following article addresses the issues and strategies presented at the institute. For more information about the SEED project, contact Claudio Vargas ( or Joanna Totino ( at 510-643-3478.

"Constructivist" science teaching is no longer considered innovative. Still, constructivism resonates with many scientists and science educators. The idea that learning is an active process in which the learner constructs an understanding of the world by interacting with it and by solving problems in fact describes many aspects of scientific inquiry. Constructivist theories of learning and related teaching practices trace their origins to Jean Piaget (Phillips, 1981) and Lev Vygotsky (1986). More recently, Ernst von Glasersfeld (1992) has made important contributions to our understanding of constructivism specific to math and science education. However, it is Jerome Bruner (1980, 1983) to whom we owe the term "scaffolding."

As is often the case with most educational terminology, scaffolding unfortunately has lost much of its original metaphorical elegance and eloquence. Bruner (1980), picking up where Vygotsky left off, realized the importance of the role that teachers and peers play in learning. In his analysis of mothers playing peek-a-boo with infants, Bruner and Sherwood (1975) noticed that mothers not only helped infants learn the game but also allowed and even encouraged them to take the game in new directions. They described the mothers' actions as scaffolding, supporting the infants' growth into what Vygotsky (1986) calls "the zone of proximal development." Since then, the meaning of scaffolding has been irreversibly stretched to include most actions and structures–even unintentional ones–that support learning (e.g., students on their own exploring the reactions of an organism to stimuli). An important meaning in Bruner's original use of scaffolding is often overlooked: scaffolds are intentional, temporary, and flexible structures built to match the learner's development. Scaffolds, however, do allow and encourage learners to take the initiative in their own exploration.

It is no coincidence that Bruner and Sherwood (1975) coined the term scaffolding in a research article about language development. Adults naturally modify their own speech and behavior to communicate with and assist infants as they learn to speak. The same can be said about the behavior of adults and even children toward second language learners (e.g., simplification, slow speech, exaggerated pronunciation, gesturing, modeling, etc.). However, these modifications are not entirely helpful. For instance, simplified speech often is more difficult to understand than redundant speech, precisely because it contains fewer meaningful clues. Thus, we cannot leave the scaffolding of language for English learners solely to intuition and good will.

Furthermore, academic and scientific norms that to most of us are logical and feel so natural may be obscure and strange to many students. For instance, a competent scientist is not only able to refer to specific hypotheses, experiments, discoveries, constructs, and theories by their accepted names but also by the name of the scientists who contributed to these advancements. Especially in writing, failure to do so is considered plagiarism. Students coming from non-mainstream schooling backgrounds often fail to understand the seriousness of this infraction not because they are not smart but because, in their cultures, knowledge and the process necessary to build it are far from individualistic and proprietary in nature. Shared knowledge in traditional societies often lives in evolving narratives that include individuals only to the extent that their stories are interesting. An example may be the anecdote of a physician who, motivated by his child's disease, discovers a revolutionary treatment. In contrast, the scientific record is notoriously lacking in narratives about individual scientists or discoveries. Remarkably few physics college majors know much about Einstein the person or how he arrived at the widely-known E=mc2.

What can science teachers do to ensure that their English learning students not only learn English and science but actually do so optimally? Before addressing the question of scaffolding for English learners in science, we need to consider who English learners are. Using the Limited English Proficient definition in the No Child Left Behind Education Act (2002), one finds over 1.5 million such students in California classrooms (California Department of Education, 2003). However, the term "English learner" needs to be more inclusive in order to address important issues facing most science teachers. It should include students who regularly use languages that are significantly different from what counts as academic English. This is especially true in science, a discipline in which academic English is further specialized.

Scaffolding for English learners in "Sheltered Instruction: Doing it Right," Afda Walqui (1995) recommends six types of scaffolding for sheltered classrooms. These are modeling, bridging, contextualization, schema-building, text re-presentation, and metacognitive development (See Table 1). In this article, I borrow Walqui's taxonomy to suggest six possible ways to scaffold science instruction for English learners. I also stress the need to (1) continuously assess students, (2) adjust the scaffolding to match their strengths and needs, and (3) pay attention to their language development and cultural backgrounds in order to (4) ensure that they become autonomous and successful learners.


Modeling comes intuitively to most teachers and entails demonstrating procedures and providing examples of work to students. Yet, modeling in a science classroom must happen at various levels. Practically, science teachers of English learners must model skills and procedures such as labs, reading and note taking, and classroom participation. Examples of laboratory reports, research papers, notes, and posters or other similar ways of representing scientific information such as charts, graphs, and diagrams can be used as models. In addition, teachers may model participation routines that contribute to the order and stability of the classroom (e.g., "warm-ups" and "problem-of-the-day"), especially when students are not familiar with such routines. Broadly, teachers must also model norms of behavior and thinking as well as values shared by scientists. The scientific process itself embodies a core set of norms and principles that must be explicitly modeled, especially for students whose cultural backgrounds may favor conflicting norms. As mentioned, students from cultures that favor group membership over individualism may have difficulties understanding the importance of acknowledging individual contributions to the scientific knowledge base. Even if students understand the logic behind naming scientific theories and discoveries by their known names and the names of their respective scientists, they may still feel disinclined to claim ownership over their own contributions because of deeply held beliefs and values. This may result in a lack of participation in classroom discussions and a bias against naming specific theories, discoveries, and scientists.

Explicit modeling is an element of cognitive apprenticeship (Rogoff, 1990) in which expert teachers invite, guide, and support apprenticing students into academic discourse communities. Teaching in this manner relies on being able to assess the needs and abilities of students and tailor the modeling accordingly. In doing so, we must keep in mind that English learners devote much attention to understanding directions. Therefore, if instead of always having to follow directions for new procedures in a classroom, they are familiar with a set of procedures or interaction routines, English learners are better able to devote attention to content. Finally, there are practical advantages for teachers in explicitly modeling participation routines. Rather than having to provide detailed directions to students, especially for small group or pair work, teachers can efficiently organize students by simply referring to a routine by name (e.g., "Think-Pair-Share").


Bridging consists of helping students make personal connections between their individual experiences and science content. Piaget and Vygotsky view the relationship between academic content and individual experiences differently. Regardless of whether we subscribe to Piaget's, Vygotsky's, or to any other perspective, we must keep bridging in mind when teaching English learners. As we are painfully aware, most students fail to see the relevance of science in their lives. This is especially true for English learners who, for multiple reasons, may have limited exposure to science in and out of school.

Another reason to use bridging as a scaffold is to make the learning experience positive for English learners and enhance their learning. It is not uncommon for English learners to latch onto a text or curriculum with which they have a direct connection and expertise in, such as agricultural and animal husbandry practices, natural phenomena, or animal and plant species. Such connections turn abstract and distant academic knowledge into concrete, personalized, and tangible understandings that are memorable to students.

Just as with modeling, teachers must also be explicit in bridging. A common mistake made by inexperienced teachers of English learners is to assign a text that seems directly related both to the students' cultural background and to specific content. An example might be reading Lynne Cherry and Mark Plotkin's The Shaman's Apprentice: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest (1998) as part of a unit on the rainforest in a classroom with a majority of Latino students. Without framing questions or an appropriate introduction, students may focus their attention on the relationship between the child and the shaman or on religious questions in the story rather than on the great loss associated with the destruction of the rainforest. An even more troubling issue rests on stereotypical notions that often inform teacher's choice of content they believe to be relevant to students from different cultural, ethnic, and linguistic groups. In this example, it is likely that, even for students who grew up in a rural setting in Latin America, the story has little significance or relevance. Consequently, a text that might have offered powerful jumping-off points for discussion may go unnoticed by students, much to the frustration of the teacher.

Science teachers need not only to know their students' individual stories but also develop relationships with them in order for scaffolding to be effective. This is particularly true of bridging. Similarly, teachers must be able to assess students' needs and development in order to use bridging that is not only relevant and engaging but also developmentally appropriate. Examples of strategies that combine elements of assessment together with scaffolding include KWL charts, anticipatory guides, brainstorming, and framing questions, among others. In all of these, the student is asked to focus on their experience before they encounter new material. It is important that English learners are not left to make connections on their own. It is true that arriving at epiphanies on our own can be especially rewarding. Yet, nothing can be more frustrating and defeating than not "getting" these connections, especially for students whose schooling experience may be fraught with negative experiences.


Teachers participating in the seed workshop apply the "Think-Pair-Share" strategy to the germination investigations in the FOSS Structures of Life module.


A third type of scaffolding in Walqui's classification is that of providing a meaningful context for both the content and the language being taught. This is a particularly appropriate scaffold for science, a discipline that strives toward objectivity and precision both in its practices and language. Whereas a major goal of most science teachers is that students use appropriate, precise, context-free language (e.g., "My prediction is that the reaction will be exothermic."), science, particularly hands-on science, provides rich contexts for students to use language. Jim Cummins and Merrill Swain (1986) make a distinction between everyday language and academic language. The former is concrete, contextualized, and made up of a relatively limited vocabulary; the latter is abstract, decontextualized, and thick with specialized terms. Consider the differences between a student's description of a physics experiment to a teacher at a lab and a physicist's description of an experiment to colleagues at a conference. At the lab, the student is likely to give a less than linear chronology of events, use non-precise rather than precise language (e.g., "that way" instead of "perpendicularly"), point to the apparatus and related objects, and use hand gestures and even sounds for added emphasis. In contrast, the physicist will prepare a presentation that will follow established norms, such as describing the purpose, methods, findings, and implications. Furthermore, the physicist will be careful to use precise and appropriate terminology, striving toward an objective and somewhat detached tone.

In keeping with Bruner's (1980) observation that scaffolds allow the learner to take over, any context we provide for English learners must not remain a permanent fixture. Rather, students must be encouraged and supported as they gain proficiency in using the variety of English favored in science classrooms as well as the taught content and skills. For the science teacher, this means scaffolding students as they move and gain proficiency from "context-embedded" to "context-reduced" situations. Cummins and Swain (1986) are also helpful in reminding us of the cognitive demands in different situations and tasks, which should serve to remind us to attend not only to the contextual but also to the cognitive demands on students. What this all means for the science teacher of English learners is that, when making instructional decisions, one must balance the assignments' level of difficulty with the contextual language demands. For contrast, consider the linguistic and cognitive demands on a small group of students chatting about museum specimens of mammals while handling them, a "context-embedded" and relatively easy task. Now consider the demands faced by individual students completing an exam, in which they have to define mammal, respond to a list of true/false statements about mammals, and match individual species with their corresponding habitats. Recent policy trends suggest that the latter is a situation in which all students are expected to perform adequately to succeed in school.


We organize knowledge based on our experiences and sense of the world into structures or "schemas" (Bartlett, 1932). Thus, when we are told that the chemistry course includes a lab requiring reports, a set of expectations comes to mind. The extent to which these expectations will be fulfilled depends on whether we have schemas for (1) chemistry courses, (2) chemistry labs, and (3) lab reports and whether these schemas match the actual course, the lab, and the report requirements. For students with no experiences in chemistry or even science, their expectations may be entirely based on popular culture stereotypes. Even English learners with excellent schooling in their native countries may experience confusion because the particular course and lab requirements are not what they were used to. For these reasons, scaffolding that helps English learners organize knowledge into recognizable patterns is essential in K-12 science classrooms, where both procedures and skills as well as content knowledge follow established norms.

Explicitly organizing content knowledge into structures commonly used in science such as cycles, taxonomies, systems, processes, definitions, principles, and rules and providing students with structured opportunities to do the same will enhance their understanding of science concepts. English learners' preoccupation with understanding vocabulary and detailed information hampers their ability to understand and remember information. Therefore, we must teach them to look for particular organizations of knowledge. Doing so will help them understand the details and distinguish between essential and peripheral information. Examples of schema-building scaffolding include the use of graphic organizers, charts, matrices, and word webs. However, in order for these scaffolds to work, we need to be explicit about the reasons behind them. We also need to make sure that the schemas we expect students to build are appropriate for them, and, eventually, ask them to construct their own.

Text re-presentation

Learning a second language demands that we learn to recognize the language's unique patterns, norms, and rules. This is especially true when learning the variety of academic English needed to succeed in science. Native-English-speaking scientists typically have difficulties noticing the language they use, beyond specific technical terms. Teachers unfortunately have contributed to the difficulties of students by using "story" to describe a range of student-produced, written and spoken texts, regardless of whether these are in fact narratives. This is especially problematic in science, a field in which problem statements, logical arguments, and descriptions of phenomena, theories, and procedures tend to be the norm, not stories.

Apprenticing English learners into science has to include teaching them to recognize and use the preferred "genres" in each discipline. One way to scaffold this process is by asking students to re-present texts or change information from one set of conventions to another. For instance, as part of an assignment in a laboratory, students may present their lab reports as a news story. Similarly, students may be asked to translate a chemical reaction into a story with molecules as the characters. Another form of text re-presentation may include students writing and performing a play based on a process, cycle, or system. Yet another example is students creating posters and writing letters to an elected representative voicing their concern for habitat destruction. Text re-presentation is a particularly effective scaffold for English learners with creative and artistic tendencies. However, for this scaffold to achieve its language development potential, teachers must be explicit about the norms and conventions associated with each form.


As part of The Sprouting Seed investigation, these teachers work with a home group to describe all five stages of the germination sequence. having everyone in the group copy the text describing each stage is a strategy that supports english learners.

Metacognitive Development

I have left metacognitive development for last, but not because it is the least important. Rather, metacognitive development is scaffolding that must be included in all the previous five types in order for them to be effective. We need to be explicit with students about the ways in which modeling, bridging, contextualization, schema-building, and text re-presentation help them learn science. We also need to be explicit about the strategies that are behind these types of scaffolding and the need for them to be aware of their own learning. In our efforts to apprentice English learners into the knowledge and thinking ways of science, we must be explicit about skills and strategies successful science students use. One also needs to help students develop self-assessment skills and a self-understanding as a learner in order for them to take full advantage of their own abilities and knowledge. Students also need to be aware of what they know and how they learn best to know how and where to focus their attention for future learning. Though these skills and strategies may seem as "normal study skills" to many, they often are not apparent to English learners with less than adequate schooling experience. Talk about what one knows, how one knows it, and how one learns must figure in the daily conversations of science classrooms in order for English learners to learn about themselves as learners. English learners from non-English-speaking backgrounds, whose bilingualism often makes them aware of how they use language, may exhibit a predisposition toward metacognition. Still, we must be explicit about the preferred ways to think, talk, and write about science, and how one self-assess and chooses learning strategies.

Some of the ways to foster metacognitive development include using and discussing learning logs and KWL charts as well as assessment rubrics, particularly when students are involved in their creation and development. In reading, a modified version of Anne Brown and Annemarie Palincsar's (1984) Reciprocal Teaching lends itself to metacognitive development, particularly when teachers model summarizing and asking questions by thinking aloud throughout the process. An essential component of metacognitive development includes the opportunity and expectation for students to devise their own learning strategies. One way to accomplish this is to ask students to brainstorm graphic organizers and then choose the one best suited for a particular task. Especially with English learners who may be used to relatively passive student roles, it is imperative that we support them as they begin to assume responsibility and autonomy as learners and budding scientists.


Tomás Galguera goes over a point concerning scaffolding for English learners with a teacher at the Seed Institute.


Scaffolding for English learners in science can take many forms. However, we must keep several concerns in mind to be effective in apprenticing students into science, a community with its own language, values, beliefs, and norms. First, we must know our students as individuals, beyond the test scores and official designations that schools give them. Second, we must find ways of constantly assessing not only their needs but especially their strengths; scaffolding has to reflect and be sensitive to student strengths and needs. Third, English learners must be able to use and practice language authentically in its multiple forms, which translates to students often and regularly working in pairs and small groups. Fourth, we need to attend to the linguistic, cognitive, and socio-affective dimensions of scaffolding. Though language is obviously the defining variable in the scaffolding types I have discussed, we must keep in mind the whole student. Finally, you probably noticed that there were crossovers between the six types of scaffolding that Walqui (1995) proposes. This is because hers is a useful classification, a schema if you will. However, scaffolding is holistic and must permeate all aspects of science teaching if we are to answer the challenge of teaching increasingly greater numbers of English learners. This represents for us not only a serious obligation but also the potential to become better science teachers in the process.


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