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“Scaffolding”: The Poetic Metaphor of Learning

By Mariana Acosta

I was blessed to come across the world of British and American literature during my BA in ELT, many years ago. Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and George Elliot’s “The Mill on the Floss” left a never-ending impression on my young, romantic teacher trainee’s mind! However, one work of literature that really moved me was “Scaffolding” the poem by the great Seamus Heaney (1939 -2013).

If you are not familiar with it, or if you want to revisit it again, it goes like this:
“Masons, when they start upon a building,
 Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints. And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone. So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
 Old bridges breaking between you and me Never fear. We may let scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.”

I must confess that I’ve always cherished this poem in the romantic sense.

However, as the years have passed and I’ve become an older and wiser woman/teacher, I can see how “scaffolding” has accompanied all my teaching life.

“Scaffolding” is what we do, throughout all our teaching. We provide the solid structure, in which via constant interaction, students can build their wall of knowledge. Once, the foundations are solid, learners will have their solid wall and so other structures/levels of learning will form part of their new “scaffolding”. True, we might only be part of a learner’s scaffolding, and this will depend on who and what we teach, but scaffolding students is never-ending and what an amazing task that is!

Foley (1994, p.101) revisits Applebee and Langer’s (1983) notion of instructional scaffolding and highlights how a learner’s gradual language learning is assisted, encouraged and supported by “a more skilled language user who models the language task to be used”. Indeed, masons (teachers) at work, make sure the planks and joints are secure, provide and facilitate the endless co-construction of knowledge between teacher-learners.

Although Seamus Heaney and his truly inspired “Scaffolding” poem, never intended to give TESOL teachers a metaphor for learning, he certainly did! Scaffolding not only plays an important role in romantic relationships, but also in educative ones. It is by the shared and mutual trust of co-constructing knowledge in the teaching-learning process, that teachers can facilitate and learners can learn!
It is when knowledge has built a solid wall, that scaffolds may fall!

I would like to pay special attention to the last part of the poem, where it reads:

“So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let scaffolds fall
 Confident that we have built our wall.”

As my job mainly involves EAP teaching on intensive, short courses, I have, so to speak, limited time to scaffold my students. My journey with them is rather short. I am under pressure to scaffold their learning as effectively as possible in a short, fixed amount of time. However, after the intensive, hard-working weeks shared together, I get to see the finished wall and the scaffolds fall.

Those students, who shyly ventured a few words on the first days, have acquired a new sense of independence and speaking self-confidence. Those, who struggled with essay writing, can present a more polished version for summative exams in the end.

The examples are endless, as are the amount of new faces that I meet every year.
Can we ever be sure, our scaffolding is the best it can be? Is achieving targets at the end of the course, proof enough? I like to think that receiving that warm smile, or even embrace, at the end of course, shows that learners enjoyed the course and by the same token, learned something new. They are certainly different people after completing the course.

They have a new understanding about language, they have different, enhanced tools to use new language that was not there before. Their knowledge wall is now solid, and new knowledge (their respective career subjects) must take over, with again new scaffolding from a different teacher and expert.
Let’s hope, as TESOL teachers, our scaffolding can only get better so it can benefit even more learners in the future!


Foley, J. 1994. Key concepts in ELT: Scaffolding. ELT Journal. 48(1), 101-102.
Heaney, S. (1939-201) “Scaffolding” poem.

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