Improving Outcomes for Emergent Bilingual Students: Scaffolding Up

by Valentina Gonzalez

Imagine you have been prescribed medication with a daily dosage to help control your blood pressure. Let’s say 50 mL in the morning and 50 at night. However, you decide the pills are too large and uncomfortable to swallow. You reduce the dosage by half daily and mix it with water. The first day you feel great, no change noticed. Second day, same. But over time, something happens. Suddenly there is a difference—a decline—in your health. Why? 

Grade-level curriculum is like a prescribed dosage for all students, including monolingual and emergent bilingual students alike. Over time, emergent bilingual students who regularly receive diluted instruction are at risk of not meeting the requirements to exit ESL programs and, as a result, becoming classified as long-term English learners. Oversimplification of instruction leaves out critical academic vocabulary and important elements of content that may be necessary for subsequent learning, classes, or grade levels. 

The dilemma that teachers of emergent bilinguals often face is how to actually deliver instruction that is understandable and meaningful to emergent bilingual students while also maintaining grade-level standards. 

How do we scaffold up for emergent bilingual students so they not only receive grade-level instruction but also understand and internalize it? What does this type of instruction look like on Monday morning?

The following chart provides classroom examples of scaffolding up throughout a lesson. 

Scaffolding UP: Instead of This, Try This

Instead of…


Jumping right into the lesson.Sharing a video or other multimedia for emergent bilingual students to preview before the lesson, accessing prior knowledge and building background.This primes the brain and provides emergent bilingual students with information to connect new learning to.
Posting only an agenda.Chorally reading and annotating content and language objectives with academic vocabulary embedded at the beginning of the lesson.This activates new vocabulary and gives emergent bilingual students clear goals for the lesson. It also models annotation, a note-taking strategy.
Giving emergent bilingual students below-grade-level reading assignments.Implementing the Talk, Read, Talk, Write (Motley, 2016) routine when students are required to read, and modify the routine when necessary.These techniques infuse instruction with listening, speaking, reading, and writing and increase comprehensible input and provide low-stress opportunities for emergent bilingual students to speak and write.
Watering down and oversimplifying content.Engineering and adapting materials by chunking information, providing primary language and visual scaffolds and opportunities for peer-to-peer discussion.” “
Giving emergent bilingual students less work or an alternative assignment.Providing daily opportunities for peer interaction through songs, games, and structured conversations with the use of sentence stems to promote academic language.” “
Having emergent bilingual students memorize vocabulary words or copy definitions.Co-creating an ongoing, graphically organized, interactive word wall for the unit including words (in English and other languages), visuals, and realia.” “
Waiting until the end of the unit/lesson to gauge how well emergent bilingual students understand.Formatively assessing through the use of various total response signals and providing timely feedback and responsive instruction along the way.” “
Ending the lesson by collecting assignments.Reviewing the objectives and conducting a summative assessment at the end of the lesson/unit.This pushes learners to become metacognitive about their learning. 

If you were a newcomer in my Serbian classroom and I announced that today we were going to be learning about “faze meseca,” would you have a clue? What if I showed you the image below and pointed to what I was talking about? You might begin to access schema using your primary language. You may begin to understand or get the gist of what I’m explaining. As I labeled the image, you might start to develop new vocabulary in Serbian. 

(photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels)

Carol Salva once brilliantly said, “language acquisition strategies are not one more thing. They are THE thing.” While all of the methods above are absolutely essential for emergent bilingual students’ linguistic and academic progress, they also benefit monolingual students’ success.  

Is there an exception? Are there circumstances when we have to simplify instruction or provide instruction that is below grade level? 

The answer is that we have to meet students where they are, and as Todd Rose shares in his popular TED Talk, The Myth of Average, there is no average student. He challenges us to design to the edges. We teach students before all else. Without them, we wouldn’t have the jobs we have. Each individual student will be different and will have different needs. It’s very important to all students that we avoid putting limits on them. Middle school and high school age SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education) may require very specialized instruction upon initial entry into our classrooms. And yet, even students who have missed years of school can have the ability, motivation, and drive to exceed well beyond our wildest imaginations. Our job is to provide opportunity and support, without diluting high-quality, grade level instruction. 

Valentina Gonzalez is a content creator, educational consultant for Seidlitz Education, and the co-author of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5.

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