“My students can’t do that”

February 20, 2023


Have you ever thought: "I don't think my students can do that"? I think students might often just surprise you. In this post I share what you can do to help students achieve more than they (or you) think they can.

Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

During a training session last week, I heard a teacher use the phrase ‘my students can’t do that’.

This surprised me, as we had been talking about scaffolding and how supporting the students can help them learn new things. 

Even when they were not able to do so themselves before.

I asked the teacher what he meant, and he said that the level of difficulty was too high for his students.

Fair enough. If the content level is too high, that could be a challenge.

But still, I would turn the question around and ask: How can I help students to understand this?

Obviously, you don’t start with “Chapter 10” stuff if you just start out. 

But immediately going: I am not going to try this, seems a bit too easy for me.

Content, Language and Procedure

Whenever I notice something that students might find hard, I think about what makes the task complex: the language, the content or the procedure (based on the three sliders from “Putting CLIL into practice”).

And the immediate next step is: if I do want to do this, what can be done to scaffold both the language and the learning to get students to do the task?

This might sound overly complex, so allow me to share an example:

Last week I discussed the tangent, sine and cosine in my lessons (if you don’t remember what that is, don’t worry, it’s just an example ;)).

My students had to learn how to find missing angles and sides in right-angled triangles.

Which is both language-demanding (sine? Cosine? Hypotenuse?) and very abstract for them.

So, before we started calculating, I first introduced a few important concepts like the hypotenuse (which should have been prior knowledge but wasn’t quite the case) and the tangent.

After that, we would discuss the step-by-step plan to solve a problem.

All the while paying attention to the language used and making sure everyone could rephrase the steps in their own words.

Only after that, I would ask them to start solving problems.

Bloom's taxonomy & scaffolding

Notice how I implemented not just Bloom’s taxonomy to introduce this (going through the Lower Order Thinking Skills), but also provided a step-by-step plan to follow.

This was the scaffold students needed to be able to continue.

There was much more I did, both as preparation and follow-up, but I think you get the idea.

My point is: if you think students can’t do something, think about whether it is something they might need. And if that is the case, how can you support their learning to make sure they can do it?

Students might just surprise you

I know I have been surprised by students before, I often underestimate what they can do if given some freedom and allow for some creativity.

Going back to the conversation of last week, I sat down with the teacher and came up with a few activities his students could certainly do.

It turned out the content was tricky indeed and the teacher thought the language of the task and the complexity of the CLIL activities would make it impossible for his students to complete the task.

So, we scaffolded the language and simplified the procedure. 

Allowing the students to focus on the content. 

Avoiding overwhelm in the process.


What do you find difficult?

What about you?

Do you recognise that some CLIL activities might seem to complex for your students?

Or maybe you don’t know how to scaffold the language?

I want to help you out with that, and I have something that I think might be quite worth your time ;).

With an online course, specifically designed to help you out with these challenges.

I will share more information on this during the next couple of weeks, but for now, I have one question for you:

If you had to choose one thing you would want to learn about CLIL, what would it be?

Let me know in the comments below!

Looking forward to your answers :).

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