Scaffolding theory: High challenge, high support in Academic Language and Learning (ALL) contexts

  • Kate Wilson
  • Linda Devereux
Keywords: scaffolding, tertiary learning, academic literacy, ZPD


Scaffolding is a term frequently used by tertiary educators and especially in the field of Academic Language and Learning (ALL), but it is often not clearly understood or adequately theorised. It originates from Vygotsky’s (1978) theories of social learning: the view that learning takes place in social environments through interaction with peers and more knowledgeable others. Although the term was introduced by Woods, Bruner and Ross (1976), it has since been refined by a number of theorists including Mariani (1997) who defines scaffolding as “high challenge: high support”. Based on this definition, we argue that scaffolding in ALL contexts entails a very specific kind of support which works with students’ “zones of proximal development” (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978) enabling them to achieve far beyond what they could accomplish individually. Using Hammond and Gibbons’ (2005) work, which identifies two aspects of scaffolding, “designed-in” and “contingent”, we examine how the theory of scaffolding can be applied in ALL work with particular reference to in-discipline contexts. “Designed-in” scaffolding involves carefully sequenced and structured sub-tasks leading to the completion of the major task, while “contingent” scaffolding occurs in the moment-to-moment interaction between teacher and student. Using examples from the literature, we discuss how both types of scaffolding can be invoked in the in-discipline work of ALL practitioners to enable students to make leaps forward in their ability to think critically and to participate in the discourse communities which they aspire to join.
How to Cite
Wilson, K., & Devereux, L. (2014). Scaffolding theory: High challenge, high support in Academic Language and Learning (ALL) contexts. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 8(3), A91-A100. Retrieved from