Language facilitates learning. Through interactions with adults and collaboration with classmates, children learn things they could not accomplish on their own. Adults guide and support children as they move from their current level of knowledge toward a more advanced level. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) described these two levels as (1) the actual developmental level, the level at which children can perform a task independently, and (2) the level of potential development, the level at which children can perform a task with assistance. Children can typically do more difficult things in collaboration than they can on their own, which is why teachers are important models for their students and why children often work with partners and in small groups.

A child’s “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978) is the range of tasks that the child can perform with guidance from others but cannot yet perform independently. Vygotsky believed that children learn best when what they are attempting to learn is within this zone. He felt that children learn little by performing tasks they can already do independently—tasks at their actual developmental level—or by attempting tasks that are too difficult or beyond their zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky (1986) and Jerome Bruner (1986) both used the term scaffolding as a metaphor to describe adults’ contributions to children’s learning. Scaffolds are support mechanisms that teachers, parents, and others provide to help children successfully perform a task within their zone of proximal development. Teachers serve as scaffolds when they model or demonstrate a procedure, guide children through a task, ask questions, break complex tasks into smaller steps, and supply pieces of information. As children gain knowledge and experience about how to perform a task, teachers gradually withdraw their support so that children make the transition from social interaction to internalized, independent functioning.

The teacher’s role in scaffolding or guiding students’ learning within the zone of proximal development has three components, according to Dixon-Krauss (1996): 

  1. Social Interaction.  Teachers support children’s learning through talk.
  2. Students’ Needs.  Teachers provide support based on feedback from the children as they are engaged in the learning task.
  3. Variable Support.  Teachers vary the amount of support they provide according to children’s needs.

Teachers provide scaffolds that are responsive to English learners’ language and learning tasks.