Teaching moves: How teachers scaffold learning

This weeks post is by Hands up Project trustee, Scott Thornbury

There is an assumption underlying current ‘communicative’ practice that, so long as the students are using language to communicate, they will get better – not just better at communicating, but that their language competence (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation) will magically improve.

This is sometimes the case: some learners ‘pick up’ stuff (e.g. words and expressions) from each other. But often they don’t. If left to their own devices, their language competence tends to stall. Indeed, some learners may never say very much at all.

This doesn’t mean we should abandon communicative activities. On the contrary: the more real language use, the better.  But there’s a lot of research to support the idea that the value of activities – such as discussions, role plays and drama – can be enhanced by the active intervention of the teacher. Intervention – but not interruption! Experienced teachers are able to intervene in the flow of communicative talk, without stopping  the flow or inhibiting the learners, as in this example (from Seedhouse 1997)

Learner 1: On Sunday what did you do ?

Learner 2: Oh er I stayed in home.

Teacher: At home.

Learner 2: On Sunday I stayed at home and watched the Wimbledon Final . What did you do on Sunday ?

Learner 1: On morning …

Teacher: In the morning.

Learner 2: In the morning I took a bus …

Teachers are able to support and improve learners’ language use in this way by using a number of what I call ‘moves’. These moves are collectively known as ‘scaffolding’, because they supply temporary support to the learner but also provide useful data for their long-term learning. As learners become more self-reliant, these ‘scaffolds’ can be reduced or even removed entirely.

These moves do not all come naturally. As Johnson (2019) argues, ‘Teachers need support to develop and refine the complex skills necessary to use an array of interactional scaffolds in large, fast-moving classrooms.’

For the purpose of training, I divide these interactional moves into four main types, according to their purpose (while recognizing that there is considerable overlap):

  1. Participation moves (i.e. moves that encourage participation)
  2. Production moves (i.e. moves that help construct learner output)
  3. Feedback moves (i.e. moves that respond to learner output)
  4. Language focused moves (i.e. moves that focus on features of the language)

Typical participation moves include:

  • nominating (T: What do you think, Youssef?)
  • asking display question (eliciting): (T: What does ‘homeless’ mean?)
  • asking real question (T: What would it be like to be homeless?)

Typical production moves include

  • modelling (T: Listen: Have you got any sisters? Have you got any brothers? Now, ask each other.)
  • elaborating (S. It’s a bad decision. T: It’s a bad decision because a lot of people will be made homeless.)
  • asking for repetition (S: A lot of people will be made homeless. T. Yes. Again.)
  • asking for elaboration (T: Can you say why you think it’s bad?)

Typical feedback moves include

  • validating (T. Good. Excellent.)
    • correcting (S. It no good decision. T. No. Listen: it’s not a good decision)
    • prompting self-correction, e.g. by echoing with rising intonation (S: It no good decision. T: It no good decision?)
    • asking clarification (T: I’m sorry, I don’t understand)
    • recasting (S. It no good decision. T. No, it’s not a good decision, is it?)

And typicallanguage focused moves (also called ‘focus on form’) include:

  • repeating/highlighting/emphasizing (S. I am not agree. T: Listen: I DON’T agree.)
  • drilling (T : ‘I don’t agree’.  Repeat)
  • explaining (T: ‘Agree’ is a verb. So you use ‘don’t’ to make it negative.)
  • checking understanding (T: Is ‘agree’ a verb or an adjective?)

In the accompanying video compilation, you can watch Nick Bilbrough using some participation moves in Hands Up project sessions. Do you use these in your classroom?


Johnson, E. M. 2019. ‘Exemplary reading teachers’ use of instructional scaffolds with emergent bilinguals: how knowledge and context shape their choices.’ TESOL Quarterly 53/1.

Seedhouse, P. 1997. ‘Combining form and meaning.’ ELT Journal 51/4.

5 thoughts on “Teaching moves: How teachers scaffold learning

  1. Thanks for this great post Scott. What you’ve written throws up two questions for me:-

    1) When focussing on the context of team teaching – as in ‘normal’ Hands up project sessions (a teacher in the room working directly with the learners, and a remote volunteer connecting through zoom), do you think that any of these moves are more suited to one of the teachers in the process?

    2) With schools closed again and us doing Facebook live sessions instead of zoom, how do these moves translate to this way of working, where the teacher can only see the written comments of the participants and not actually hear them?


    1. Thanks Nick for those essential questions .
      regarding.the second.one , I would.say if the teachers who.are going to.attend the session just devote. some.efforts.replying.to.the students.comments., then these.moves will.be seen obviousley!
      I mean either.by correcting the Ss.comments.or.by asking.questions.for.clarifying.


      1. Thanks Haneen. I think it’s great if teachers make themselves available for scaffolding moves on the written comments of the students in our Facebook live sessions. I guess recasting and clarification checks are going to be very useful things for them to do here. I wonder whether the students may actually be more likely to notice things because it’s in a written rather than a spoken format. What do you think?


  2. Thanks.Scott.and.Nick.for.sharing.this!
    I think.those moves are.our.real teaching.practices. We are.there.to. strengthen.the.students competence.to.use the language smoothly .
    Talking.about my own.moves ,
    1. I .always start.by.saying.something.positive like ( oh , brilliant) then.I.go.on.saying.their.thing.correctly , so.they can.notice the difference.and apply it .
    2. I love Modelling.as it.really helps.the kids to.feel.self.cofident to.answer.by using.the.model that has been used by their teacher earlier.
    3.Also.,.you.could.use questions with the correct.words . For.instance.:
    learner: I searched to my pen , but I.couldn’t find.it anywhere!
    Teacher: oh really ! how.about searching for.your.pen.under this.desk?


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