Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop at the Danish Multikulterelle Skole Konference after my keynote address in Nyborg, Denmark. The session was facilitated by Helene Thise and Katja Vilien, the authors of a new Danish book on language teaching strategies, Broen Til Fagsproget or Bridge to Academic Language based on Pauline Gibbons book, Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning. Although I was a complete newcomer to Danish and the workshop was held entirely in Danish, I was thrilled when I could understand the majority of the content and participate meaningfully in the learning activities! The reasons I was able to successfully participate in this workshop fell in two main categories: teacher scaffolds and my own learning strategies. Both were essential for my success and are also essential for the success of all the language learners we work with.

Teacher Scaffolds

Helen and Katja modeled many types of scaffolds throughout the workshop, which enabled me to successfully comprehend a majority of the workshop and participate in the activities. The presenters modeled the five different types of scaffolds that Tan Huynh describes on his blog and scaffolding course: emotional, language, interactive, sensory, and graphic.

Emotional Scaffolds

At the beginning of the session, the presenters asked us to sit in teams of 4 or 5 and gave us time to introduce ourselves to our team. I felt immediately welcomed by the presenters and my team. (Thanks Katja, Helle, and Marie!) Because I had been the keynote presenter, everyone on the team already knew that I was a newcomer in Danish and introduced themselves in English. However, once we began engaging in the content, all the materials were in Danish and my team chose to speak Danish. When we worked on a cooperative activity, the team first made sure I understood the key concepts and task. Then, when it was my turn, they expected me to participate in the activity, too. This made me feel included and valued. The presenters also connected to me by name in reference to my keynote presentation. Whenever I heard my name, I was immediately reconnected to the presentation.

There are many ways we can scaffold for our students by attending to their emotional needs. Creating supportive teams and purposeful partnerships can help students feel comfortable learning in a new language. Connecting to our students’ interests, experiences, and strengths also lowers the affective filter and motivates them to engage in the challenge of learning content in a new language.

Language Scaffolds

Although the presentation and the cooperative activities were entirely in Danish, the language was scaffolded enough that I could understand at a high level. For every activity, Helene and Katja provided oral and written directions with visual support or model of what to do. In one activity, we sorted cards with phrases and short sentences. Because the language was chunked, I could more easily find cognates and link to my background knowledge. Although the content of the activity was complex, the language on the cards was reduced. In another activity, we had to listen to our partners describe the phases of the bridge model. Because I only had to listen for key words that were written on the graphic organizer, I could selectively listen for those terms and hear and understand those terms when my partner said them. When we had to ask questions, the presenters posted the question words.Their slides had limited language and lots of visual supports that enabled me to follow their oral explanations during the explanation of each slide.

Chunking language, highlighting cognates, creating selective listening activities, posting translated question words and key content words are just some of the ways we can scaffold language. These language scaffolds help all students, even newcomers, engage in grade level academic content.

Interactive Scaffolds

During the 90-minute presentation, we engaged in a structured, interactive activity five times. I relied on my team for quick translations and clarifications. Interacting with my group also gave me the chance to begin using some Danish. When it was my turn to participate in one of the activities, I read the words on my cards aloud and got feedback on pronunciation and meaning. I felt successful in categorizing key concepts, listening for key words, and evaluating my own practice against given criteria. These interactive scaffolds were absolutely essential for my experience of success as a newcomer. Without the frequent, structured cooperative activities, I think I would have left the session early. I needed the time in these group interactions provided to process the new information, ask clarifying questions, and practice the new language in a small group setting.

If we establish purposeful partnerships and provide regular structured opportunities for our students to interact with the content and each other, they, too, will experience success in learning new content in a new language.

Sensory Scaffolds

The presenters also modeled several powerful sensory scaffolds. They used colors strategically throughout the presentation. Highlighting key words in the learning target and color-coding words like red, yellow, and green for an activity helped me focus on the essential learnings and learn some social language (color words) within the context of complex content. The presenters used gestures during their explanations to show how the bridge model worked. They used visuals on every slide to show how to engage in the learning task. Every task also had manipulatives, which helped us sort and organize our thinking.

Color-coding, gestures, visuals, and manipulatives are just a few sensory scaffolds we can use in our own classrooms to support our multilingual learners.

Graphic Scaffolds

The central graphic of a teacher and student on bridge with guard rails was developed throughout the presentation. The first time they presented this graphic, Helen and Katja built on the background knowledge they had developed in the initial activity. During  direct instruction, they showed the graphic and provided key, concrete information about the stages of their model. Because they added the information to the graphic using numbers and brief bullet points, I was able to decode most of these details. Each time they returned to the graphic, they layered on new information and ideas that we had just experienced in our small groups. I built my understanding of the model through this careful build up from the most concrete concepts to the most abstract. They also provided graphic organizers for each activity including a category sort, a circle chart, and listening checklist with visuals. When we had to sort activities into categories, I learned the key terms used for each category as well as the concepts.

Graphic organizers help students organize their thinking. They present big ideas in a visual format with a reduced language demand, and they teach the language of key concepts.

Learning Strategies

While the supports and scaffolds the presenters implemented were essential for my ability to comprehend and participate in the workshop, my use of learning strategies also helped me succeed. According to Rebecca Oxford and others, learning strategies are specific behaviors or thought processes that students use to enhance their own language learning. In their seminal work, The CALLA Handbook, Anna Uhl Chamot and Michael O’Malley group these learning strategies into three categories: metacognitive, cognitive, and social/emotional. Certainly, as a language teacher and provider or professional learning, I had a variety of learning strategies in each category to draw on. Some of the specific strategies I used to support my learning included translanguaging (metacognitive), drawing on my background knowledge (cognitive), and asking for support (social/emotional). All of our students come to the classroom with assets of their own, and they can also be taught specific learning strategies to help themselves learn in a new language.

Translanguaging (Metacognitive)

Because Danish is a Germanic language and I am literate in English and German, I could find cognates easily. I also spent two hours with Duolingo in Danish before I traveled, so I knew a few very basic words (ikke- not; jeg –I, tale- speak). I purposefully looked for the few Danish words I knew and cognates with German and English in the written words on the slides and texts. Although I had difficulty hearing the cognates during the oral presentation, the presenters almost always had the key words posted and pointed to these words as they spoke, so I could see the cognates and selectively listen for words I knew. I was also able to draw on my understanding of linguistics to grasp prepositional phrases, negatives, and transitional phrases. My table partners helped me by translating a few key words before each activity to make sure I understood the task. Drawing on all my languages enabled me to relatively quickly make sense of the key concepts and some of the details of the presentation.

Multilingual learners also arrive in our classes with varying backgrounds in different languages. They all speak at least one home language and many newcomers speak several other languages already. This rich language background is an asset for our students, especially if they know how to use this asset effectively. We should not only allow our multilingual learners to use their other languages to make sense of new content in a new language, but also explicitly teach them to do so. Patricia Mertin, Joris Van Den Bosch, and Peter Daignault authors of Translanguaging in the Secondary School offer concrete suggestions for explicitly teaching students to translanguage and draw on their full linguistic repertoire. Some simple translanguaging activities such as asking students to write the translations of key content words, encouraging students to notice how their other languages are structured in comparison to English grammar, and purposefully partnering language learners with another bilingual or multilingual partner all help students to actively draw on the resource of their other languages. If our multilingual learners are not yet literate in their other languages or if they are literate in a non-Roman system, we need to provide direct instruction in foundational literacy as well. If we explicitly teach students how to draw on their other languages as an asset to acquiring English, they will become more independent language learners.

Background Knowledge (Cognitive)

Before participating in the workshop, I had significant background knowledge on helping language learners acquire academic language. Of course, this supported my comprehension of the presentation. I could make connections between the visuals on the slides and the information in the graphic organizers with my own background knowledge. I was able to make inferences and draw conclusions about the learning model presented. During the cooperative learning activities, the other group members asked for and respected my input, despite my limited language skills.

Multilingual learners also have life experiences and formal and informal education to draw on. If we can help them make connections between their own background knowledge and the new content, they will also be able to more quickly comprehend new information. For example, they may not yet have learned the water cycle, but they do have experiences with various forms of precipitation. They may not know about Martin Luther King, but they probably know at least one important person or activist from their own country. If the content is something completely new, providing hands-on experiences, experiments, visuals, realia, or video clips with some key information about the topic will help all students gain the background information necessary for increased comprehension.

Asking for Support (Social/Emotional)

The presenters provided regular time for teams to discuss the topics and process the content, and I felt comfortable asking my team questions about a word or concept.  My team translated key words and main ideas when I asked. At one point, the presenters posted the question words, so I could start my questions with the correct word in Danish and then finish the question in English. My team members did not translate everything or translate during the presentation, but rather waited for structured interactions and my particular questions. This allowed me to follow in Danish as much as I could and challenged me to understand the new learning in Danish, rather than waiting for a full translation.

Teaching our students how to ask questions is as important as teaching them to answer questions. I suggest teachers post translated question words on the wall and encourage students use the appropriate interrogative to start a question. Teachers can also give newcomers a list of basic questions with visuals and translations, so they can get their basic needs met, engage with other students, and ask for help. International School EAL teacher, Miriam Munneke, created this question-chart to give students the language they need to ask basic and critical thinking questions. Miriam’s EAL Supports to Share provides a wealth of suggestions for teaching questioning and other strategies.

I brought many learning strategies to the presentation, and so do all of our students. We can also explicitly teach learning strategies like translanguaging, connecting to background knowledge, and asking for support. When multilingual learners strategically apply learning strategies, they become more independent language learners and find more success in content classes.


Chamot, Anna Uhl. The CALLA Handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach. Pearson/Longman, 2009.

Gibbons, Pauline. Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom. Heinemann, 2015.

Huynh, Tan. “Welcome: ELL Strategies.” Empowering ELLs, Publisher Name Empowering ELLs Publisher Logo, 5 June 2018,

Mertin, Patricia, et al. Translanguaging in the Secondary School. John Catt Educational Ltd, 2018.

Munneke, Miriam. “EAL Supports to Share.”

Oxford, Rebecca L. Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies: Self-Regulation in Context. Routledge, Taylor Et Francis Group, 2017.

Thise, Helene, and Katja Vilien. Broen Til Fagsproget: 32 idéer Til at Styrke Sproget i Alle Fag. Samfundslitteratur, 2019.


Beth Skelton

Author Beth Skelton

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