How long do English learners need extensive language support? When should you reduce the language support?

Teachers who include explicit language support in their content instruction may grapple with when and how to reduce scaffolds and foster independence. Our goal is for students to accurately, flexibly, and confidently express their content understanding. Therefore, to begin to answer these questions, we must first identify the reasons for providing explicit language instruction and how we create effective language support. 

To build English learners’ independence in talking, reading, and writing, language scaffolds must go beyond getting students through the current assignment. The purpose is to equip students with linguistic resources that will help them learn how to make appropriate language choices in school, work, and social settings for the rest of their lives. It is to empower students with metalinguistic understanding – to understand that language has a structure and can be manipulated; it is malleable and can be organized to express thoughts in different ways.

Providing a Solid Linguistic Foundation

Before we can consider taking language support away, we must evaluate the quality and breadth of the language resources we have provided. Students need a robust linguistic foundation that includes a deep and expansive vocabulary of specific general-utility words and precise academic terms (content-specific “bricks”), and a broad range of language patterns (“functional mortar”). The goal of providing students with linguistic patterns is for them to internalize new language and, through experimentation and practice, gain confidence to use language flexibly and fluently. 

Characteristics of Effective Language Patternsblog image

  • High leverage
    • Useful – Language patterns are based on words and/or syntax that students will regularly encounter and need to use in academic discourse.
    • Authentic – Patterns sound natural for the context and register.
  • Portable
    • Functional – Language patterns are based on functional language that students can use in other contexts.
    • Open-ended – The pattern can be used in more than one way to create a sentence.  Model several ways the pattern works and how to vary it, using appropriate brick terms.  This turns the pattern into a language resource.
  • Flexible
    • Choice – Language patterns offer a varety of options.
    • Entry points – Provide language patterns at each of the proficiency levels of your students.
    • Metalinguistic awareness – Model modifying the patterns and demonstrating new ways to express ideas appropriate to the context.

The Importance of Structured Student Talk

In addition to providing quality language resources, we must also ensure each student practices utilizing new language multiple times during every lesson.

Students need to be able to not only read demanding academic text, but also produce oral and written language that reflects a deep understanding of their studies. They must be able to use language fluently as they participate in classroom discussions, write essays, and present oral reports. Students develop these expressive language skills when teachers explicitly teach and model the language they wish to hear and see in writing, and require that students communicate their thinking in the same way.

A defining element of explicit second-language teaching is providing ample, meaningful opportunities for use of newly taught language features with high accountability for application (Norris and Ortega, 2006). Interactive tasks must be carefully structured and clearly require, rather than merely encourage, students to use specific language correctly. 

Carefully planned Structured Student Talk gives students the time needed to practice new language and develop automatic and fluent accuracy. Structured routines should be focused, frequent, and intentionally incorporated throughout the lesson. The language resources used during routines should be appropriate for the task at hand and should build in multiple opportunities to practice the target language. To maximize the use of routines, be sure to select the right routine for the right purpose. For students to go deeper in their understanding of content, use a routine that requires them to discuss a correct answer, rather than one designed for repeated language practice.

Consider the purposes for planning and structuring student talk activities:

Fluency: Getting “miles on the tongue”

Flexibility: Putting sentences together in different ways to express the same idea

Depth: Supporting conversations to elaborate and grow ideas

Shine: Collecting summative assessment data

When we have provided explicit language instruction that is geared toward expanding language knowledge and increasing linguistic accuracy, we can then begin to see what students are internalizing. We are able to analyze language use to inform our instruction and make decisions about when and how we will transition our scaffolds to more complex language while still providing multiple entry points for different proficiency levels.

Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

Scaffolded instruction, or the gradual release of responsibility model, is broadly recognized as a successful approach for moving classroom instruction from teacher-centered, whole-group delivery to student-centered collaboration and independent practice (Fisher and Frey, 2008). This model can be applied within every lesson and can also be applied across time to determine when and how to release responsibility from teacher to students once they have learned, practiced, and begun to internalize specific skills, knowledge, and language. 

As we think about the gradual release model in relation to increasing academic language, we need to consider our student data:blog ggr final chart

  • What evidence from students’ work shows that they are communicating their ideas flexibly and accurately?
  • What ideas or concepts do students have difficulty expressing? To express those ideas, what language must they know and be able to use?
  • What language patterns and vocabulary are students avoiding, rather than using it to express their ideas more clearly?
  • What types of communication are students independently using well (without scaffolds)?

When students have had sufficient practice using the target language in speaking and writing, teachers may decide to have students create a product without scaffolds. This allows teachers to gather another data point regarding the language students are able to use fluidly and accurately.

As we examine the data, we can see where to release more responsibility to students and begin to transition the scaffolds to more sophisticated language.

The next time you ask yourself, “When should I reduce the language support?” consider what the data is telling you. The larger goal is not to take away the support completely ­– even college students and professionals use letter templates, a thesaurus, and other language resources. Instead, we must think about when we need to transition the support from students’ internalized scaffolds to more sophisticated language, while continually developing their English proficiency. As students expand their language repertoire, they can choose when to use external resources and when to draw upon their inner bank of language knowledge to express what they know.

Written by: Elizabeth Macias, Senior Director and Scott Townsend, Associate – Secondary Lead


Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (Eds.). (2006). Synthesizing research on language learning and teaching. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.