Supporting English Learners with Sensory, Graphic, and Interactive Scaffolds

Scaffolding is an essential practice to support English Learners and can be grouped into three categories: Sensory, Graphic, and Interactive
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About This Strategy

To scaffold means to provide students with supportive and timely supports to help them access grade level content. This practice is especially effective for English Learners, as it allows them to access and understand curriculum in a thoughtful and purposeful way. Scaffolds for ELs can be categorized into three groups: Sensory, Graphic, and Interactive supports. Each one of these supports plays a vital role in empowering ELs to engage with grade level content. Sensory scaffolding allows ELs to use their senses to interpret complex information while breaking down language barriers, since this type of scaffolding does not rely heavily on language. Graphic scaffolding allows ELs to gather meaning through visual representations, such as graphic organizers, infographics, or charts. Finally, interactive scaffolding allows ELs to learn socially and use language in a meaningful way. All three types of supports give ELs the opportunity to access and comprehend grade level material.

Implementation Steps

  1. Determine the concept or skill you want students to learn. 

  2. Break down the lesson or skill into small chunks or learning bursts to give students time and space to process the new material as you teach. Scaffolded instruction can be viewed as a staircase where each new concept has its own level or stair. Chunking the learning will support ELs in navigating through the lesson in a manageable way. Refer to BetterLesson's Language Bursts strategy in the BetterLesson Lab to deepen your understanding of how to chunk instructional material for students.

  3. Determine how you will scaffold each lesson or chunk of the lesson for English Learners. Ask yourself, "Would a sensory, graphic, or interactive scaffold offer the most support to students in this section of the lesson?" Use the 3 Types of Scaffolding for ELs Infographic or the ELL Strategies Overview document both linked below as a guide to support in this decision. You might use more than one scaffold in your lesson. You may also use a different scaffold for each chunk of your lesson.

  4. Incorporate at least one scaffold into your lesson. To determine one that fits best, consider your content and teaching objective as well as the language needs of the ELs in your classroom. Refer to WIDA's Scaffold and Support Language resource for support in determining which types of scaffolding are helpful for various content areas. Refer to WIDA's Can-Do Descriptors for support in determining the language needs of the ELs in your classroom.

  5. Vary the type of scaffolds you use in your lessons and across units. Try to balance between sensory, graphic and interactive when possible. 

    • Sensory scaffolding allows ELs to use their senses to interpret complex concepts. An example of this would be the use of realia, pictures, or manipulatives to introduce a concept. 

    • Graphic scaffolding allows ELs to gather meaning through visual representations. An example of this would be the use of graphic organizers within a lesson. 

    • Interactive scaffolding allows ELs to socially learn and use language in a meaningful way. An example of this would be strategically pairing students to work in a partnership and allowing them to discuss and process the new content together. 

  6. To determine the effectiveness of the scaffolding, check for student understanding throughout the lesson. You could also allow for student feedback on the helpfulness of the scaffolds using a technique similar to BetterLesson's "Seeking Authentic Feedback to Improve Practice" outlined in the resource section below. 

  7. To check for understanding, students could use a self assessment technique like the one referred to in BetterLesson's "Marzano's Self-Assessment Rubric" in the resource section below.

EL Modification

When determining which scaffold to use for a lesson, think about the supports related to the language of the content area you are teaching. It is imperative that ELs get ample opportunities to practice speaking and listening, as well as reading and writing, so keep this in mind as well when choosing appropriate scaffolding. Use the "Sensory Supports by Content Area" document on page 2 in the resource section below to assist in finding scaffolds related to the language of various content areas.

Special Education Modification

Students with disabilities will benefit from the use of scaffolding as well. Refer to a student's IEP to determine the type of scaffolding most beneficial to individual students.

Questions to Consider

  • How might you access an EL student's language proficiency level?
  • What are some ways you can assess the effectiveness of a scaffold?
  • How might you find time to incorporate ample opportunities for speaking, listening, reading, and writing in your content area?

Coach Tips

Heather Meesey
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Scaffolding is something that can benefit all students, not just ELs. It's important to intentionally plan for the scaffolds you hope to incorporate into a lesson. I make sure I included them in my lesson plans. This will allow you to vary and balance all three types of scaffolding over time and assure that students have access to a variety of supports within a lesson or unit.

Tech Tools

Google Drive

  • Google Drive is both a versatile cloud storage device and a provider of apps, such as docs, sheets, and forms.

  • Google Drive could support this strategy in a number of different ways. Google Docs could be used to build a lesson planning template that includes scaffolds used in the lesson.  Google Sheets could be used to track the types of scaffolds used within a unit.

Related Lessons

  • Explore Freddy's Approach to Planning by grade 3 BetterLesson Master Teacher Freddy Esparza included in the resources below to see how to use data to backwards plan for units and lessons.

  • Explore Daniel's Approach to Planning by grade 5 BetterLesson Master Teacher Daniel Utset-Guerrero included in the resources below to see how to use data to backwards plan for units and lessons.

  • Explore Shoulder Partners and Pop-Up by grade 8 BetterLesson Master Teacher Tanesha Dixon included in the resources below to discover one way of utilizing an interactive scaffolding activity in the classroom.

Consulted Resources

In developing this strategy, the following resources were consulted: 

  • WIDA Scaffold and Support Language. Colorado English Language Proficiency Standards

  • Huynh, Tan. Empowering ELLs-Three Types of Scaffolding: There’s a Scaffold for That.

  • WIDA Can-Do Descriptors. Wisconsin Center for Education Research

  • Gottleib, Margo. Sensory Supports by Content Area. WIDA