Literacy Professional Learning Resource - Key Concepts - AusVELS Levels 7 to 10 - Written Language Development: Scaffolding Specialised Language

From Term 1 2017, Victorian government and Catholic schools will use the new Victorian Curriculum F-10. Curriculum related information is currently being reviewed and may be subject to change.

For more information on the curriculum, see:
The Victorian Curriculum F–10 - VCAA

This section looks at scaffolding principles in the classroom and provides some examples of scaffolding for written language development.


 'Point of need’ scaffolding

Scaffolding students’ learning at ‘point of need’ is a crucial resource for constructing knowledge and mediating the learning that takes place. ‘Point of need' scaffolding involves two key elements:

  • repetition - of student remarks
  • re-casting - acknowledging the student’s remark and modifying it so that it is more technical

All domains have their own specialised language and teachers use talk to unpack and explain this to students. The scaffolding principles of repetition and re-casting apply to learning and teaching in all subjects as they are fundamental to effective teaching practice across the years of schooling.

‘Point of need’ scaffolding helps students to develop key concepts and extend their understandings. It is usually achieved through speaking and listening, that is, the teacher asks questions, listens carefully to student responses and uses a range of strategies to extend their thinking or clarify it. It is often used to support students to develop a new vocabulary. This vocabulary can be either specialised or technical.

In fact, teachers can do much more in terms of scaffolding at point of need. They can also provide detailed definitions of technical or specialised terms, explain new concepts or metaphors and reason with students about the meanings of the text.

Elaboration – scaffolding technicality through teacher talk

In addition to ‘repetition’ and ‘recasting’, elaboration is another important scaffolding strategy used by teachers to teach technical terms and build field knowledge. Elaboration involves:

  • teachers defining key terms for students
  • spoken language – an important role in classroom discourse.

This involves teachers in defining key terms for students and is an important part of the role that spoken language plays in classroom discourse.

In establishing shared technical terms in a domain, teachers sometimes need to use words that already have an everyday meaning and re-define them as technical terms.

Examples of scaffolding

In Geography and Science everyday words such as ‘rain’, ‘wind’ and ‘environment’ are given a different, technical meaning. Rain, for example, is redefined as precipitation that refers to all forms of water that fall from the sky.

At other times, scaffolding students into technical knowledge means using words that are used as technical terms in related subjects – as the following transcript from a Geography lesson illustrates:

You have probably learned the meaning of the term transpiration in your science lessons.

In this process, plants lose water in the form of water vapour through their leaves. This water is replaced with water containing plant food collected by the plant roots.

(Transcript from Wignell, Martin, Eggins, 1993: 151)

In this transcript, the teacher’s scaffolding involves making links to science, and pointing back to previous knowledge, and then elaborating the meaning of transpiration by providing the class with a clear oral definition.

At other times, scaffolding students into a body of technical knowledge involves teachers introducing and defining words that have a uniquely technical meaning in their subject.

In the transcript below, a teacher explains the meanings of key technical terms in a Geography lesson. The nominalisations (where verbs are turned into nouns – an important tool for building taxonomies of technical terms) are in bold.

Rainfall effectiveness , which is how effective the rainfall is, this depends on seasonality, which is what season of the year the rain falls in, and intensity, which is how hard the rain is. Really hard rain in a short time is not as effective as the same amount of rain over a longer period because with really heavy rain most of it runs off and isn’t absorbed.

(Transcript from Wignell, 1993: 151, quoted in Wignell, Martin, Eggins, 1993)

As this transcript shows, the teacher is using spoken language to scaffold students into technical knowledge and understandings which are field-specific to Geography.

The other interesting point that emerges from this transcript is the way technical terms tend to accumulate meanings. For example, understanding the technical term ‘rainfall effectiveness’ depends on understanding what the two other technical terms mean: ‘seasonality’ and ‘intensity’. In this way, one technical term can be used to define another. This is a very important aspect of building up technical understandings of knowledge.

Professional learning

Scaffolding specialised language

Scaffolding specialised language transcript Yr 7-8 History (PDF - 19Kb) (pdf - 18.96kb)
Download the transcript to support the activity outlined below.

The transcript was taken from a Year 7–8 History class in an all boys’ school. The class took place in the first week of the school year and the teacher was apprenticing the boys into historical methodology. That is, what it means to be a historian. This is generally the first topic that history students study in the secondary school.

Read the transcript and try to identify both the designed in scaffolding and point of need scaffolding strategies that the teacher uses with the class.

The key concepts the teacher would have designed into their planning are:

  • Educated guesses
  • Collaborative evidence
  • Objects
  • Computer reconstruction
  • Forensic scientists
  • Hypothesising.

In history, technical terms are used to refer to periods in time (the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modernity) as well as some ‘isms’ (communism, fascism, socialism, imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.). Although fewer technical terms are used, the challenge of language use in history is that history can be very abstract, especially when explaining why things happened the way they did.

In terms of scaffolding, the lesson is concerned with building students’ understandings of historiography (methods of historical research) and the scaffolding principles of repetition and re-casting, which apply to learning and teaching in all subjects as they are fundamental to effective teaching practice across the years of schooling.

Related materials

Previous key concept - Genre teaching and learning cycle for writing

Next key concept - Written Language Development: Nominalisation

Teaching strategy - Written strategies for all AusVELS domains