Teacher Questions as Scaffolded Assistance in an ESL Classroom

Dawn E. McCormick, Richard Donato


Teacher Questions as Scaffolded Assistance in an ESL Classroom


Scaffolding is the process teachers use achieve classroom goals.  There are six levels to scaffolding. The researchers used teacher interviews and videotapes of the lessons throughout the length of a course to determine the use of scaffolding and questioning.


  1. R- Recruitment- bringing the students’ attention to the task
  • These R questions were used only 3 times during the study.  Most of the time the teacher gave directives to recruitment students to the task.


  1. RDF- Reduction in degrees of freedom – reducing the demands of the task
  • When students could not answer a DM question, the teacher modified the task until the students could participate.  These include asking a more specific question or a forced-choice question, changing vocabulary in the question or focusing only on the subpart of the question.
  • RDF questions help achieve the goal of comprehension and make questions easier which allows more students to participate


  1. DM – Direction maintenance – maintaining student progress and motivation toward the goals.  These types of questions can be divided into Comprehension Checks DM-CC (e.g. Is Everything clear?) and Clarification Requests DM-CR (e.g. Could you explain what you said in another way?)
  • Both DM-CC and DM-CR occurred throughout the semester and across texts and skill areas.   
  • DM questions assisted in assessing student understanding and achieving the goal of comprehension building and goals.  They encourage more students to participate.
  • DM-CC were used as the students worked on tasks as the teacher monitored student understanding and maintain student involvement.  DM-CC questions constituted 30% of the total questions.
  • DM-CR questions accounted for 16% of the total questions and were used to encourage students to clarify, expand, elaborate or reiterate.  


  1. MCF – Marking critical features – bringing the students’ attention to specific aspects of the task
  • Allow the teacher to mark specific aspects of the task by calling attention to text information, vocabulary, errors, and semantic and linguistic features
  • MCF questions were used throughout the course to achieve the goal of comprehension.  When language breakdowns occurred, MCR and RDF questions scaffolded the overcoming of the breakdown.


  1. FC – Frustration Control – lowering student stress
  • FC questions only occurred 4 times during the semester, when the teacher asked if a student needed help or to repeat something.


  1. D – Demonstration – teacher modeling the process of achieving the goals
  • D questions only occurred 8 times during the semester


Teacher questioning expanded student learning during difficulties with text comprehension and allowed students to complete a task that they would not be able to do alone.  RDF and MCF questions provided assistance with complex tasks. DM questions maintained student focus and guided students through text comprehension. When students struggled with expressing themselves the teacher questions had them clarify, expand, and elaborate thereby increasing the comprehensibility of their responses.   When breakdowns occurred, MCF and RDF helped to fix them. DM questions were frequently used to keep classroom discussions going. The scaffolding matched the planned tasks and goals for the course. Teachers must consciously determine instructional goals to ensure the proper questioning and tasks are employed to achieve them.  





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