Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem-solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 89-100.
In this article, Wood, Bruner and Ross explore the nature of the tutorial process; and how adults or ‘experts’ help children or novices, or the one less ‘expert’ in skill acquisition and problem solving. The authors argue that although many of the high primate species acquire new skills via observing their elders, it is only us the humans that perform the ‘intentional’ tutoring, which distinguishes man as a unique species. Hence, they maintain that it is vital to investigate the nature of tutoring and teaching; and the main aim of this paper is to exam the major implications of the interactive, instructional relationship between the adults and the children so as to contribute to children’s learning.
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In order to achieve this goal, Wood et al deploy the qualitative research method. 30 children aged three, four, five years old are asked to construct a pyramid from wooden blocks under the instructions of a tutor, a task that is fun enough to interest the children, that is within easy reach of children’s skill, and that can yield new knowledge; in addition, in the tutoring process, the tutor’s aim is to allow the child to perform the task on his or her own as much as possible.
Through observing and analyzing the changing interaction of tutor and children, the authors conclude that the younger children need more help: the tutor has to keep the goal before the child’s eye and lure him or her to perform this particular task. With the four-year-olds, who can already focus on the task, the tutor’s task is to interpret discrepancies to the children. As for the oldest children, the tutor is mainly a confirmer or checker of their work.
And then, the authors elaborate more on six general features of effective scaffolding based on the data. These are recruitment, reduction in degrees of freedom, direction maintenance, marking critical features, frustration control, and demonstration. Wood, Bruner and Ross are one of the first to define the term ‘scaffolding.’
The metaphor is so apt and appropriate that it is still widely used nowadays by many educators, including myself, and the six features are reliable yardsticks against which a scaffolding is measured. This seminal article lays foundation for many other research papers of scholars and many lesson plans for educators. For me specifically, it illuminates my reflection on one of my teacher-student scaffolding experiences and offers much inspiration to improve my teaching.
Notwithstanding the above, however, there are still limitations of this article. As Read has commented, the concept of scaffolding is ‘elusive’ and ‘problematic’ (Maybin et al 1992), as well as having ‘a slightly slippery nature’ and with ‘potential fuzzy areas’ (Smith 2003). Therefore, many questions arise from its vagueness and fuzziness, e.g., how much scaffolding is required and how long for? How easy is it to plan for the withdrawal of scaffolding in the classroom situation?
Although Woods et al have not answer these questions explicitly, they do mention that the tutor ‘changes the rules to take account of larger segments of behavior than written into the rules,’ which inspires and elicits Hammond, Gibbons, Read’s opinion I am going to talk about later, that is, scaffolding is ‘a dynamic and situated act that is responsive to a particular set of circumstances in a particular classroom context.’ (Hammond et al 2005)
Read, Carol. (2006) Scaffolding Children’s talk and Learning. Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 11-13.
In this article, Read manifests that one crucial way to improve children’s oral proficiency in a foreign language at school is to develop teachers’ awareness of conducting high-quality classroom interaction and supporting children’s talk and learning.
Concepts of Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) and Bruner’s ‘scaffolding’ provide the theoretical framework for her argument. According to Vygotsky, learning is socially co-constructed and the external, socially-mediated dialogue will be internalized and eventually become a part of the child’s own thinking. Hence, adults need to provide interactive verbal support to guide a child through the ZPD, ‘a gap between what learners can do unaided and what they are able to accomplish with help from a more experienced peer or adult;’(Hammond et al) and the whole process is scaffolding. Read succinctly demonstrates concepts of ‘ZPD’ and ‘scaffolding,’ and also, their relationship. She confirms the contributions of the six features of effective scaffolding to foreign language teaching, but also, she suggests that the features are not fixed or static, and quotes van Lier that ‘scaffolding highlights the dynamic nature of working in the ZPD,’ and then this nature can be characterized as: ‘continuity, contextual support, intersubjectivity, contingency, handover and flow.’ ( Van Lier 1996)
Furthermore, Read concurs to van Lier’s notion that scaffolding is a multi-layered process, which goes from the ‘global,’ then ‘activity,’ and lastly ‘local or interactional’ level. More specifically, at the ‘global’ level, children perform a certain task, e.g., describing weather, as a part of classroom learning routine and as a long-term aim; the activity level involves planning a sequence to carry out the activity; the local level is more specific and contingent, requiring the teacher to decide when and how to respond to students reactions.
Based on the aforementioned theories, Read exams classroom talk and social interaction arising from stories, songs, games and real content, and eventually summarizes that even though IRF, as a way of scaffolding, may lead to the dominance of the teacher and limit learner’s opportunities to practice using the language themselves, it can still play a significant scaffolding role in developing children’s interactive and discourse skills if used judiciously, given that the mode can create confidence for children, allow the teacher to give positive feedback, and extend learner’s output. In addition, Read emphasizes the role of L1 that links the familiar and new in scaffolding young children’s talk.
In conclusion, on the basis of Vygotsky’s ZPD and Bruner’s scaffolding, Read synthesizes multiple ways, i.e., six features of scaffolding, three-layered scaffolding, IRF, and children’s L1 to give implications on supporting children’s learning from initial, spontaneous responses (often in L1) to increasing competence, autonomy and creativity in L2.
This piece of work is rather informative and helpful for educators and researchers, although the scope of it is limited—Read only talks about the choices of discourse strategies, not mentioning the part in which tasks are planned, designed, sequenced, how these tasks are built on students’ prior knowledge and experience, and missing the ‘designed-in’ level that Hammond (2005) constructs in his enriched and robust scaffolding model.
Nonetheless, this article is also beneficial to me due to the facts that it considerably enhances my understanding of the nature of interaction and my awareness of scaffolding talk in my own teaching, and most importantly, equips me with the indispensable knowledge of various effective ways of scaffolding.
Hammond, J., Gibbons P., (2005). Putting Scaffolding to Work: The Contribution of scaffolding in articulating ESL education. Prospect 20(1), 6-30.
Having been aspiring to investigate what exactly scaffolding looks like in the enacted curriculum, and to help ESL students who are grappling with the language demands for academic study, Hammond and Gibbons performed a research in which they worked with the metaphor of ‘scaffolding.’ In this paper, they presents the outcome of their research—a more robust and enriched model of scaffolding.
The research that underpinned their attempts to create an enriched model of scaffolding involved 30 participants, including researchers, ESL consultants and teachers. Their jobs were, in the first stage, to understand the role of scaffolding through analyzing pedagogical practices that were designed to help these ESL students; and in the second stage, to build a scaffolding model and apply that model to the six participating schools, and evaluate the impact of it. Regarding the theoretical background, Hammond et al still discuss scaffolding within a social theory of learning: they draw on Halliday’s (1978) systemic functional mode of language that is concerned with ‘ways in which language functions to make meaning in various cultural, social and vocational contexts;’ and combine this theory with Vygotskian ones, which distinguishes this article from other scholars’ that are based on Vygotsky’s theory only.
Analyses of data from the research lead Hammond et al to conclude that scaffolding is a combination of the pre-planned or macro level, and the contingent or micro level. At the macro ‘designed-in’ (Sharpe 2001) level of scaffolding, teachers should pay more attention to students’ prior knowledge and experience, which enables them to make appropriate and congruent selection of tasks. Besides, decisions about sequencing of tasks should be made judiciously. Moreover, through the use of various participation structures, i.e., individual, pair or group, or whole class structures, teachers are able to provide different levels of support for different students. Also, semiotic systems, mediational texts, and metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness also play an important part in constructing a well-planned teaching program. Contrary to the pre-scripted and pre-planned “macro” scaffolding, the “micro” or interactional one is more of a contingent and dynamic nature. In order to perform the interactional scaffolding well in an ESL classroom, teachers need to link new knowledge to students’ prior experience, to recap and comment on students’ response, to appropriate or recast student contributions, to provide cued elicitation and to increase prospectiveness.
Hammond et al believe that this process of data analyses and model building teaches them much about the nature of scaffolding, and also, what scaffolding looks like. They admit that, however, this model of scaffolding is inclusive and delicate as the features are most distinctive ones emerging from the data, and the resulting list is not exhaustive. Another limitation is that the dimension is not broad enough, whereas the perspective of students are omitted. Therefore, they anticipate refining the list of features, and also, including the student dimension in this model.
Still, I contend that this model of scaffolding is instructional and illuminating for me as an ESL teacher. The authors assemble approaches of scaffolding that we teachers usually use in our daily teaching activities and ones that are useful, yet usually overlooked, and construct them into a system. I believe that this model will provide much more instructions and enlightenment in teacher’s planning and performing scaffolding.
Gibbons, Pauline.(2002) Chapter one. Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
In the first chapter of Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning, Gibbonsgives abrief introduction of this book. She claims that this book is concerned with many ways that teachers can scaffold EL (English Language) learners through the learning contexts that they provide in the daily life of the classroom–contexts where students are given high challenges, but also high support and multiple opportunities to tackle these challenges so as to develop English for learning.
Though interviews and classroom observations, Gibbons finds that there is an increasing number of EL learners in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Many of them are supported by specialist English language or bilingual teachers only at the beginning stages of learning English. Once they pass the initial stage of language learning, this support decreases. Consequently, many students, represented by an eleven-year-old EL learner, Julianna, can talk informally with friends, yet face with academic or literacy-related difficulties in class.
In order to understand why this might be, Gibbons draws on Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics. According to Halliday, (1978) whenever we use language there are two kinds of contexts. The first one is a context of culture: people sharing the same culture can take for granted the ways things get done. The second one is the context of situation. This context is characterized by three features: first, field–what is being talked or written about; second, tenor–the relationship between the speakers; and third, mode–whether the language is spoken or written. These three variables constitute register. As children learn their first language, they acquire not only the syntax and grammar, but also the ability to choose different registers according to the context they are in. However, it is high-demanding and challenging for EL learners to control an increasing range of registers, especially formal and academic ones in mainstream classrooms. As a result, teachers, including specialist English language teachers should take the responsibility for helping students acquire more explicit and abstract ways to refer to things because the process of formal education is moving toward academic language.
Gibbons proposes that traditional aspects of language teaching, like grammar and vocabulary are best focused on in the context of meaning making. And the school-related registers that are more explicit, more abstract, less personal can be taught through teacher-student scaffolding and interactions. The rationale is that according to Vygotsky sociocultural theory, an individual’s development is the result of his or social experience; and the registers are a matter of social contexts and situations we are experiencing. Therefore, the teacher-student scaffolding that are of a social and interactional nature is able to assist EL learners having a command of academic registers.
This social and linguistic framework is highly enlightening for me as an EL teacher because it reminds me of the importance of teaching students registers of a language, which will certainly help EL learners be at a level equivalent to a competent native in regard to academic language, and whereby help them in subject learning and language development.
Mariani, L. (1997). Teacher support and teacher challenge in promoting learner
autonomy. Perspectives23(2). Retrieved 31 December, 2018, from
In this paper Mariani investigates the concept and nature of learner autonomy, brings up the “challenge/support” framework, and finally talks about how this concept and this framework affect educators.
First, by discussing the relationship between autonomy and its opposite–dependence, Mariani redefines autonomy as a relative and individual feature, which means that to foster students’ independence and responsibility in learning, teachers should recognize students’ need for dependence. Then, he links autonomy and dependence with two parallel concepts–challenge and support. Teachers challenge students, but also give them support to help them get independent and autonomous. Thus, in this process support includes the idea of providing scaffolding because scaffolding is something ‘temporary, something to be gradually removed as the structure being built becomes stronger and more reliable,’ a ‘transfer of control,’ is ‘handing over’(Read), all of these implies the nature and feature of autonomy. And “using scaffolding strategies, and gradually removing them, is thus a concrete example of challenge and support in action, and is at the core of the process of learning and teaching for autonomy.”
Next, Mariani creates a framework of four basic types of challenge/support patterns: (1) high challenge, low support (frustration/ anxiety zone); (2) low challenge, low support(boredom zone); (3) low challenge, high support(comfort zone); and (4) high challenge, high support(learning zone/ the ZPD). He believes that progress and learning happens when high challenge and high support are provided simultaneously; and this balance of support and challenge is good scaffolding.
This “challenge/support” framework is much profitable for us educators. For example, when teachers deploy Hammond’s scaffolding model, viz., a combination of the “designed-in or macro” level and the “interactional or micro” level to design their lesson plans, they can use Mariani’s framework to measure whether the quality of the tasks teachers set and the quality of verbal scaffolding they provide are high enough, whether challenge and support they give are balanced and appropriated, so that they can revise and adjust their scaffolding plans.
The five articles I have discussed about are all concerned with scaffolding. The focuses of them are different: Wood, Bruner and Ross concentrates on the nature of scaffolding and conceive the six critical features of it; Read synthesizes different scholars’ and researchers’ views and ways of scaffolding to explore how this metaphor help develop child’s talk; while Hammond and Gibbons create a more robust and enriched model of scaffolding themselves, which is illuminating for educators; Gibbons is different–he reminds educators that it is also important to scaffold EL learners’ acquiring of register rather than just grammar and syntax; last but not least, Mariani provides us a more specific lens of scaffolding: how teachers balance support and challenge to perform effective scaffolding. Nevertheless, all of them are quite helpful and instructional for me, and also, other educators in giving scaffolding to our students.
- Gibbons, Pauline.(2002) Chapter one. Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Halliday, M. A. K. (1978). Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of
- language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.
- Hammond, J., Gibbons P., (2005). Putting Scaffolding to Work: The Contribution of scaffolding in articulating ESL education. Prospect 20(1), 6-30.
- Mariani, L. (1997). Teacher support and teacher challenge in promoting learner
- autonomy. Perspectives23(2). Retrieved 31 December, 2018, from
- Read, Carol. (2006) Scaffolding Children’s talk and Learning. Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 11-13.
- van Lier L (1996) Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy &
- Authenticity Harlow: Longman.
- Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem-solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 89-100.