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How to Create Scaffolded Learning Progressions for Student Success


Image Credit: / Compare Fibre/Amvia on Unsplash

By Rebecca Blouwolff

In my recent workshop Show Me What You Can Do: Developing Contextualized Language Performances, I shared examples of scaffolded learning progressions that prepare students for success on interpersonal and presentational writing performance assessments. Part of the backward planning process for this work involves identifying key vocabulary and structures that students will need for these assessments. To create this list (and it takes time, often with several iterations), I make sure that I provide functional chunks that will help students build sentences that address the relevant Can Do statements for that unit. 

Here’s an example:

Can Do StatementFunctional chunks
I can describe a trip by destination, duration and mode of transportWhere are you going?
I go to…How long do you stay?I stay for… (days/weeks/months)How do you travel?I travel by (car/bike/plane/train)


Notice that I do not include the full conjugation of the verb to go, nor the interrogatives (where, how long, how) in isolation. By providing students with functional chunks, I give them the tools they need for substantive communication on Day 1 of the unit. This approach also removes extraneous grammar structures that could slow down or overwhelm Novice learners (such as having to conjugate all six forms of to go or build their own questions “from scratch”). 

I have found it helpful to group vocabulary into three categories, as suggested by Thomas Sauer at MaFLA’s Proficiency Academy in 2016:

  • Language I need to be able to produce in order to complete a task
  • Language I need to be able to understand in order to complete a task
  • Other language that might be interesting to know and use

See here for a full example, with highlights shown here:

Another important part of my students’ journey from Novice to Intermediate is learning to add details to their language with personalized vocabulary. Per the ACTFL Performance Descriptors, Intermediate students are able to produce “vocabulary on a variety of everyday topics, topics of personal interest, and topics that have been studied.” As students reach Novice High, I begin to coach them up toward Intermediate performances in a variety of ways.

I encourage them to cull interesting words (from authentic resources, classwork, and even on occasion) and add them to their vocabulary list in the third section, “Other language that might be interesting to know and use.” A student who plays the oboe or does rhythmic gymnastics will need that word frequently when we talk about free time activities, while their classmates will not. 

To allow students to become more familiar with productive vocabulary at the top of the list, I provide them with a variety of study options. I find it useful to chunk the list into groups of 8-10 related words/phrases, which I assign for nightly homework. It is important that students don’t start this work “cold,” but rather that they have already seen these phrases in a meaningful context in class. This prepares them to work with the words more independently.

Here are the nine options that I provide for students to choose from when working with new vocabulary:


I encourage students to sample a variety of options at the start of the year, in order to broaden their range of strategies. Many of my students are learning a second language for the first time, so I want to be sure to encourage them to experiment and see what’s effective for them. 

As students become more familiar with the unit’s key expressions and truly acquire them, then they are ready to branch out and use negations, provide information about others using the third person, and/or form original questions that riff on my original models. When they get to the final assessment, where they have to write a social media post that describes a character’s recent trip, they are highly familiar with all needed vocabulary and structures:

They may choose to “level up” their performance by adding in passive vocabulary from the second part of the vocabulary list, and personalized expressions (“Other language that might be interesting to know and use.”). This co-constructed approach fosters students’ independence while ensuring that all learners share a common base of knowledge that is easily shared with Year 2-5 teachers and other stakeholders. 

Watch Rebecca’s webinar, Show Me What You Can Do: Developing Contextualized Language Performances on Vista Higher Learning’s PD Webinar Archive:

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