Scaffolding Instruction for MLs-SupportEd-English-Learners

How to provide Effective Scaffolding Instruction to Support Multilingual Learners

A Q&A with ML expert, author, and SupportEd president & founder, Diane Staehr Fenner, PhD.

Note: A version of this article first appeared on on January 28, 2019 titled Scaffolding Instruction for English Learners: A Q&A with Diane Staehr Fenner. This article was revised in February 2024 to include updated tools and considerations when scaffolding instruction.  

With multilingual learners¹ (MLs) numbering more than 12 million and comprising 22.6 percent of the general school-aged population, all teachers should consider themselves teachers of MLs. To that end, all teachers must have strategies and tools to support MLs in accessing challenging content while helping them acquire academic language. With the right tools, teachers can readily incorporate scaffolding into their instruction. This article is a summary of a Question and Answer with Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, president and founder of SupportEd 

What Are Scaffolds?

Diane Staehr Fenner: First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to our understanding of what scaffolds are and what they’re intended to do. A scaffold is a temporary support a teacher provides to a student that enables the student to perform an academic task they would not be able to perform independently (Gibbons, 2015, National Governors Association for Best Practices, 2010). This support comes in such forms as the instructional materials provided to the student, the instructional practices the teacher uses, and even how students are grouped during instruction. Scaffolds are targeted to match the specific learning strengths and needs of students and will vary as well as change over time as MLs’ knowledge of content and academic language increases (van de Pol et al., 2010; de Oliveria & Westerlund, 2023). In fact, our goal when scaffolding instruction for MLs is ultimately for students to be able to perform the task independently and without use of scaffolds. So, when planning to implement scaffolds, you should also be considering how to gradually remove the scaffolds as students gain the skills and language needed to engage with the academic content with greater autonomy.   

What are Different Types of Scaffolds for MLs?

Diane Staehr Fenner: Scaffolds can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Instructional Materials
  2. Instructional Practices
  3. Instructional Groupings (Staehr Fenner, et al., 2024)

Our Categories of Scaffolds table below includes examples of each category of scaffold, though this list is not exhaustive. In my collaboration with teachers of MLs, I find that many only think scaffolds fit into the “instructional materials” category. Scaffolds such as graphic organizers and sentence stems are frequently the first to come to mind.

Often, educators are surprised at the types of scaffolds that we consider to be within the instructional practices and instructional groupings categories. Sometimes, they’ve been scaffolding for MLs all along but just didn’t realize it! As you read through the examples of scaffolds in each category, consider what additional scaffolds you might add to the table.  

Categories of Scaffolds | Click image to download PDF
How Can I Select Scaffolds by MLs’ English Language Proficiency (ELP) Level?

Diane Staehr Fenner: Now that you’re more familiar with what scaffolds are, as well as the three different categories of scaffolds, the next step is to select and try out some scaffolds for MLs. In order to select appropriate scaffolds, you will need to know your MLs’ backgrounds, as well as your students’ academic strengths and needs. You also need to have a sense of the linguistic demands of your instructional tasks to determine which scaffold(s) will best support your MLs in being able to successfully engage with and complete the academic task. It’s important to recognize that a student’s need for scaffolding will vary with the complexity of the task or text and their familiarity with the content as well as being impacted by their level of English language proficiency.  

Selecting scaffolds can help us to look at our instructional tasks in a new, exciting way. Instead of simplifying the tasks we give MLs, consider which scaffold(s) will be critical for MLs’ success with a particular academic task and support them in reaching the lesson and unit content and language objectives (Gibbons, 2015; Staehr Fenner et al., 2024). As you consider how to scaffold a specific lesson or unit, you should think about the three categories of scaffolds that you may wish to include as well as how your lessons and learning tasks can be planned to strategically build on one another in support of student understanding and engagement (Hammond, 2023, Staehr Fenner et al., 2024). 

Also, keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules for selecting appropriate scaffolds for MLs of varying proficiency levels. Some scaffolds might be developmentally appropriate for all students (e.g., graphic organizers or pair work) and may be used as supports for the whole class, including English proficient students.  

The table below, Suggested Scaffolds at Each Proficiency Level, provides some general guidelines for teachers when selecting scaffolds for MLs at different English language proficiency levels (beginning, intermediate, and advanced). Even though this table provides a starting point, I always suggest teachers use their professional judgement when selecting scaffolds. As you review the table, consider what takeaways you have for how to gradually remove scaffolds as students acquire greater levels of language proficiency. Also, note if there are any recommendations that you disagree with.  

Suggested Scaffolds at each Proficiency Level | Click image to download PDF
How Can I Incorporate Scaffolding for MLs into my Unit Planning?

Diane Staehr Fenner:As you consider how to effectively integrate scaffolding into an upcoming lesson or unit, our Scaffolded Unit Planning Checklist will provide you with some considerations in doing so. Referring to this checklist can support you as you align the strengths and needs of your MLs with the linguistic and content demands of the learning tasks and learning objectives. When scaffolding instruction, I also recommend you constantly reflect on the efficacy of particular scaffolds you use and adjust your instruction appropriately. In addition, I suggest you ask your MLs for their input on scaffolds to determine which ones work the best for them and which ones they may no longer need. 

Scaffolded Unit Planning Checklist | Click image to download PDF
Should I Scaffold Assessments?

Diane Staehr Fenner: Scaffolding for MLs should not be limited to scaffolding instruction only, but should also include the scaffolding of assessments as a way of making those assessments more valid for MLs. Imagine not only being instructed in a language you are still learning, but also taking content assessments in that same unfamiliar language. While some teachers may feel that scaffolded assessments give MLs an unfair advantage over proficient students, that is simply not the case. When you remove or diminish the language barriers that might be obstacles for MLs, you increase the validity of that assessment. As a result, you will be able to identify students’ content knowledge and skills more accurately. An assessment does not need to look the same for all students, as students can demonstrate what they know and can do in varied ways (Gottlieb, 2016, 2021). 

In scaffolding an assessment, for example, MLs at beginning levels of English proficiency may demonstrate their understanding of content through non-verbal assessments such as picture sorts, where MLs at higher levels of proficiency may benefit from using sentence stems or frames to complete an assessment (August, et al., 2014) As with scaffolded instruction, as students gain English proficiency, teachers can gradually release scaffolded support on classroom-based assessments (Gottlieb, 2016, 2021).

How Can I Collaborate to Scaffold MLs’ Instruction and Assessment?

Diane Staehr Fenner: One final consideration in successfully scaffolding instruction and assessment for MLs is to collaborate.  As you begin scaffolding your instruction, think of other teachers who could support you in this endeavor. If you’re a grade level content teacher, you could turn to an English language development (ELD) teacher in your school for resources and advice on how to scaffold a particular lesson or unit. If you’re an ELD teacher, you could offer to work with content teachers to suggest scaffolds for particular lessons, units, and assessments. You also may wish to offer to model the use of scaffolds in a particular lesson with a teacher who would like more support with scaffolding instruction for MLs. The tools that I have shared in this article can also be helpful resources during collaboration. Without a doubt, collaboration is key to successfully implementing scaffolding for MLs, and MLs will benefit when scaffolding practices are used consistently across classrooms.  

This is a starting point to help teachers incorporate scaffolds into their instruction for MLs, framed around one chapter in Unlocking Multilingual Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible(2nd ed.) by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, Dr. Sydney Snyder, and Meghan Gregoire-Smith. The book provides a wealth of strategies for teaching MLs and ensuring they can succeed in today’s rigorous classrooms. SupportEd’s Multilingual Learner Instructional Strategy Toolbox also offers a set of 30 ready-to-implement strategies designed to support ML educators in scaffolding instruction across grade levels and content areas. For more in-depth training on scaffolding for MLs, please see SupportEd’s in-person and virtual professional development. 

About SupportEd

SupportEd is a woman-owned business based in Fairfax, Virginia providing Multilingual Learner (ML) professional development, personalized coaching, technical assistance, and resources for educators across the United States and Canada. Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, four-time best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd builds authentic partner relationships and meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit every partner’s strengths and goals. SupportEd equips teachers and administrators with the practical tools and strategies necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.


August, D., Staehr Fenner, D., & Snyder, S. (2014). Scaffolding instruction for English language learners: A resource guide for ELA. 

de Oliveira, L., & Westerlund, R. (Eds.). (2023). Scaffolding for multilingual learners in elementary and secondary schools. Routledge. 

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. (2nd ed.) Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Gottlieb, M. (2016). Assessing English language learners: Bridges to educational equity. Corwin. 

Gottlieb, M. (2021a). Classroom assessment in multiple languages: A handbook for teachers. Corwin. 

Hammond, J. (2023). Scaffolding: Implications and equity for diverse learners in mainstream classes. In L. C. de Oliveira & R. Westerlund (Eds.), Scaffolding for multilingual learners in elementary and secondary schools (pp. 9–28). Routledge. 

National Governors Association for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards. Glossary of key terms. 

Staehr Fenner, D., Snyder, S., Gregoire-Smith, M. (2024). Unlocking multilingual learners’ potential: Strategies for making content accessible (2nd ed.). Corwin.  

van de Pol, J., Volman, M., & Beishuizen, J. (2010). Scaffolding in teacher-student interaction: A decade of research. Educational Psychology Review, 22(3), 271–296. 

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