The spaces in between


scaffolding church of nativity
Scaffolding inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine

Two weeks ago I wrote a post called ‘The Game of Jewels‘ about the strength of activities like Kim’s Game, which emphasise the importance of noticing and retrieval. I said that most of my favourite things to do in class are really just adaptations of Kim’s Game so, as promised, here’s a version which uses the same principles, but which is more suited to teenage learners.

Stage 1: The teacher says a series of sentences about herself, all of which begin with a particular chunk (One thing about me is…, another thing about me is…) The class listen and try to remember what was said.

Stage 2: Learners work in pairs to try to reconstruct orally what the teacher said. One learner says what he can remember in front of the class.

Stage 3: Learners do the same activity as pairwork, with one person speaking and the other listening, and then trying to retrieve what was said. They can then swap roles.

This activity differs from Kim’s Game of course, in that it works on a purely spoken level, rather than a visual one, and because it focuses not on individual words, but on chunks of language, or grammar. The same principles of noticing, and then retrieval, are still present however. Something that is also an important feature of this activity is that it work best when there is a difference in level between the two speakers, and any learning that may happen, in the form of scaffolding, really exists within this gap. If the speaker’s level is higher, then the listener is nicely challenged to operate at the edge of her ability; if the listener’s level is higher than she feeds back to the speaker a more advanced version of what the speaker has just said.

Reflecting on his own experiences as a language learner, Earl Stevick wrote about the benefits of scaffolding in ‘Success with foreign Languages’ (Prentice Hall 1989)

‘Another of my favourite techniques is to tell something to a speaker of the language and have that person tell the same thing back to me in correct, natural form. I then tell the same thing again, bearing in mind the way in which I have just heard it.(ie having noticed the gap).  This cycle can repeat itself two or three times. An essential feature of this technique is that the text we are swapping back and forth originates with me, so that I control the content ….’’

Here’s an example of the activity in practice from one of my online sessions with teenagers in a boys’ school near Ramallah. There are lots of opportunities for scaffolding but, listening to it again now, I don’t think I take quite as many of these opportunities as I could have. Here’s a rare example from 6.00 minutes into the video.

Seif : ..and I love swimming in sea. Now I am confusing because the map behind you … I’m confusing now because the map behind you and because I don’t know you are speak with us from home or from university.

Nick : Ah. Ok. Ok. That’s good. Mmmm. One thing about you is that you have six brothers and no sisters.

Seif : That’s right.

Nick : Another thing about you is that you are feeling a bit confused because you are not sure if I’m at home or if I might be at university because of the map. Is that right?

Do you notice any other examples of scaffolding occurring in the interaction between us? Do you notice any parts where you feel you would provide more support for the learner? What about in your own classes? Which activities do you do as a teacher which encourage scaffolding to happen?


4 thoughts on “The spaces in between

  1. I think social interaction between Nick and Seif is very important. This social interaction is different from the fixed and non-flexible cassette that students in Palestine have to listen to in which all students are treated as one standard. However, social interaction in a real conversation have many advantages. One of these is that it goes along with the level of speakers.


    1. Thanks for your interesting comment Atiyyeh.

      Yes it’s impossible to adapt the level of pre-recorded listening material like on your cassettes to suit the needs of an individual learner; in my experience it’s usually either too easy or too difficult. Of course this doesn’t mean pre-recorded material isn’t valuable. As teachers of large classes it’s impossible to be interacting with everyone at the same time, and sometimes I think it can be useful to not to have to interact at all- to listen without the pressure of having to speak.

      This is a really important point you make about the teacher being able to adapt to the level of the speakers though. As their teacher you are able to do this much better than I can, in my opinion. For a start you won’t have all the problems which occur because of it being online – problems with the sound, inability to notice non- verbal signals etc. But also, because you know them much better than I do, and because you know their first language, and consequently know why they say things in a particular way, you are able to pitch what you say at a level which is just right for them. At the end of the day, it all comes down to knowing our students well, and our students knowing us well.


  2. Hi Mr. Nick 🙂
    It’s like I haven’t commented here since ages 😦 and this is really annoying…

    Regarding the technique “scaffolding technique” your talking about in this topic – which is really my favorite technique that I always use in my classes, I would like to say that it’s very beneficial to make students retrieve sth they have heard or seen using language. In other words, you grant students opportunities to practice language under your supervision which is really brilliant. Once students are able to do it with you (controlled practice), they’ll be able to do it by themselves in any given situation (free practice).

    When I started to manipulate my classes using this technique, I used to say some words and my students are to recall them which was slightly difficult without jotting down some of them. After a period of time it became much more easier and my tasks started to get more difficult as I started to use full sentences. Actually I thought it was difficult but it’s not at all, students found much more enjoyment and entertainment doing them.

    The advantage of this technique is that students are being helped without noticing, so any student will feel courage and self confidence in front of other students in the class. For teachers, you can get students where you want them to be, their level of speaking or listening, even some times you set the language items and the grammatical language they need to use.

    In this video, I think their teacher is also scaffolding them, when he reminded them with sth you have mentioned and when he provided “saif” with the meaning of his name. He was there which means that the teacher is an important pillar of the conversation.

    I’ve noticed that when it was their turn to retrieve what you’ve said, you helped them with some words like ( good – yes – that;s great) so you showed that you’re interested in what they are saying. And when you told your story about the cable car in Jericho, you opened the space for some speaking and conversation and I like it 🙂 but the thing that I don’t like is that I couldn’t go with you to Jericho because other teachers said that there isn’t much time left and we wont go… 😦
    Next time InshaAllah 🙂

    Have a nice time


    1. Thanks Sahar. I like your idea of controlled practice being with the support of the teacher, and free practice being what the learners can do on their own. It’s like Vygotsky’s ideas of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978) What learners can do now with the support of a more capable other is indicative of what they will be able to do later on their own.

      I like the bit about the cable car too 🙂 I like it because it’s where we break away from the constraints of the exercise and start interacting more freely. If I knew the students better and knew Arabic better I would have known that they didn’t mean that the cable car was liable to break, but rather that it was exciting to be on it. Thanks Atiyyeh for pointing that out to me. This is another example of how knowing your students well enables you to be better at scaffolding.


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