[Guest Post] Scaffolding Our Instructions

Zone of Proximal Development. Scaffolding Instructions

Zone of Proximal Development. Scaffolding Instructions

My teaching and training career brings me in contact with really incredible people. One of these is my friend, colleague and ptec member, Ron Bradley. It is my great pleasure and honor to post his article here.  Zhenya.

I think we have all found that giving clear instructions to our students, especially lower proficiency students, can be a real challenge. We quickly learn that giving only oral instructions can be futile in getting our students to understand what it is we want them to do. The temptation is to explain the activity again, only to find that our students are even more confused, resulting in failure of the activity.

Let’s explore together some of the techniques and strategies of giving effective, unambiguous instructions and how scaffolding plays a part. Here we will define scaffolding to mean anything that supports clarity of meaning.To do this we will first examine poor instructions given in French to a lower level French class.

The French teacher gives the following instructions orally:

Bonjour classe!  Ça va?  Bon, très bien, ça va.  Bon, nous allons faire une petite activité aujourd-hui.  Et ce que nous allons faire c’est que je voudrais que vous preniez un morceau de papier et que vous numérotez votre papier de un jusqu’à dix et vous allez faire une liste de priorite de vos nourritures préférées.  Allez! …….Quoi?  Vous ne faites pas ce que j’ai dit?  Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?  Quel est le problème?

English translation:  “Good morning, class.  How are you? (students respond) Good, very well.  I’m fine too.  Good, we are going to have a small activity today.  What we are going to do is I want you to take a piece of paper and number your paper from one to ten and you are going to make a prioritized list of your favorite foods.  Go ahead….. …What?  You don’t know what I said?  What is it?  What is the problem?”

A couple of students are able to comply with the instructions, but most have no idea what to do. If we were to give the students the opportunity to offer suggestions to the teacher on how to make the instructions clearer, what might they say?

Before we hear from the students, let’s consider the following: the instructions were given only orally; all of the steps were given at one time; they were spoken too fast; there was no use of gestures or visuals of any kind to support or help the students understand what to do; and finally, there was no checking of understanding by the teacher. Consequently, the activity could not move forward and time was wasted.

Here are some of the students’ recommendations:

•    slow down and pause between phrases, checking to see if we are with you
•    give one step at a time
•    show us what to do, not just tell us
•    model the instructions, including the activity itself
•    write on the board
•    use visuals and gestures to support meaning
•    use simple imperatives, not complex sentences
•    use simple vocabulary
•    after the instructions are given, monitor to be sure we are on task

By implementing these suggestions, the teacher would insure that the instructions are clear to the students and the activity is a success. Let’s now return to the concept of scaffolding and how it plays a significant role in making the instructions clearer.

Again, we are defining scaffolding as whatever connects concepts to meaning. Examples of scaffolding are: using a gesture to give meaning to a word, phrase or sentence; providing a definition of a word; providing a visual to support meaning; using a graphic organizer to frame meaning; simply pointing to a board example when making reference.

If the scaffold is to succeed, it must help connect the student’s previous knowledge and experience to the new information being presented. If, for example, there was a student from Thailand in the class who spoke only Thai, the use of cognates would not convey meaning. We can’t assume that all gestures and facial expressions mean the same thing in all cultures. So if there is a disconnect between the student’s background knowledge and previous experience and the new concepts being presented, there will be no new understanding or learning, nothing to build upon. Planning the instructions must take these variables into account.

To summarize, scaffolding plays a significant role in getting meaning across. It is essential when giving instructions, if they are to be effective. It takes thoughtful planning to make instructions clear. But it is well worth the effort as it will save time in the long run and help insure the success of the activity and ultimately the lesson.


These two Youtube videos support the article above which actually included the French audio script. Please note that they need to be watched in sequence: number one with poor instructions, and number two with effectively scaffolded instructions.  You will meet Ellen Bradley in the episodes. She is an experienced World Learning/SIT trainer and trainer of trainers

Submitted by Ron Bradley–Global TEFL