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by Sarah Field
Curriculum and Program Manager

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March 13, 2017
New FreeBIE Resource: English Learner Scaffolds for PBL

by Sarah Field
Curriculum and Program Manager

According to a recent report by NPR, there are currently 5 million English Learners in K-12 classrooms in the United States. About 1 out of every 10 students is in the process of acquiring the English language. The emphasis that Project Based Learning places on culture, collaboration, and authentic, contextualized learning makes it a powerful pedagogical approach for teaching English Learners. However, we at the Buck Institute for Education recognize that many EL students need additional scaffolds and supports within a PBL context. We are pleased to introduce the free downloadable resource English Learner Scaffolds for PBL, which is designed to help teachers plan thoughtful scaffolding for English Learners during each phase of a project.

Here’s an overview of the thinking behind this resource:

Offers Scaffolding Strategies for Content, Process, and Language Development
Teachers of English Learners can and should use scaffolds to support students in effectively accessing content and engaging in the project process, but should also scaffold language acquisition throughout the project. English Learner Scaffolds for PBL is designed to help teachers think through three questions when planning projects:

  • How can you reduce linguistic or cultural barriers to project completion and success?
  • How can you reduce linguistic or cultural barriers to content or skill mastery?
  • How can you support students’ acquisition of English language skills within the context of a project?

Reflecting on these three questions (and drawing from the suggested strategies) while planning can help teachers leverage all of the learning opportunities a project offers, making sure that English Learners are able to fully benefit from (rather than just participate in) a PBL experience.

Aligned to the Project Path
Most PBL projects follow a sequence of events that we at BIE like to call the “Project Path.” This path consists of four sequential phases:

  1. Project Launch: Entry Event and Driving Question
  2. Build Knowledge, Understanding Skills to Answer Driving Question*
  3. Develop and Critique Products and Answers to the Driving Question*
  4. Present Products and Answers to the Driving Question

*During revision cycles, students might move back and forth between Phases 2 and 3.

With the understanding that different instructional approaches are useful for different phases of a project, English Learner Scaffolds for PBL offers suggested strategies to be used in each project path phase. For example, during the critique process in Phase 3, some ELL students might benefit from text frames to help them structure their feedback.

Grounded in Research
To inform the scaffolding recommendations in this resource, we drew on the Theoretical Foundations and the Research Base of the California English Language Development Standards. This resource emphasizes the importance of both “planned scaffolding” and “just-in-time” scaffolding for English Learners, and articulates the following eight examples of effective planned scaffolding:

  • Taking into account what students already know, including their primary language and culture, and relating it to what they are to learn
  • Selecting and sequencing tasks, such as modeling and explaining, and providing guided practice, in a logical order
  • Frequently checking for understanding during instruction, as well as gauging progress at appropriate intervals throughout the year
  • Choosing texts carefully for specific purposes (e.g., motivational, linguistic, content) 
  • Providing a variety of collaborative groups
  • Constructing good questions that promote critical thinking and extended discourse 
  • Using a range of information systems, such as graphic organizers, diagrams, photographs, videos, or other multimedia, to enhance access to content
  • Providing students with language models, such as sentence frames/starters, academic vocabulary walls, language frame charts, exemplary writing samples, or teacher language modeling (e.g., using academic vocabulary or phrasing) (pg. 150)

Each recommended scaffolding strategy within English Learner Scaffolds for PBL aligns to one of these eight core examples, and this alignment is noted throughout the document.

A Menu, Not an Instruction Manual
One important guideline to keep in mind as you use this tool is that scaffolding is an art. Every project is different and every student has a unique (and dynamic) set of strengths and needs. This means that a scaffolding strategy that is appropriate for one learner might not be a fit for another, and a scaffolding strategy that is appropriate for a student in October might no longer be needed by that student in February. As you use this tool to inform your planning, we encourage you to take into consideration the demands of the project and the needs of each student, and work to create the optimum balance of challenge and support for every learner in your classroom.


We’d love to hear from you! How do you currently scaffold for English Learners in PBL projects? What tools, strategies, and supports could help you? Post your ideas, thoughts, and feedback in the comments below.


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