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6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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What's the opposite of scaffolding a lesson? It would be saying to students something like, "Read this nine-page science article, write a detailed essay on the topic it explores, and turn it in by Wednesday." Yikes -- no safety net, no parachute, no scaffolding -- just left blowing in the wind.

Let's start by agreeing that scaffolding a lesson and differentiating instruction are two different things. Scaffolding is breaking up the learning into chunks and then providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. When scaffolding reading, for example, you might preview the text and discuss key vocabulary, or chunk the text and read and discuss as you go. With differentiation, you may give a child an entirely different piece of text to read, you might shorten the text or alter it, and you may modify the writing assignment that follows.

Simply put, scaffolding is what you do first with kids, then for those students who are still struggling, you may need to differentiate by modifying an assignment and/or making accommodations for a student (for example, choose more accessible text and/or assign an alternative project).

Scaffolding and differentiation do have something in common though. In order to meet students where they are and appropriately scaffold a lesson, or differentiate instruction, you have to know the individual and collective zone of proximal development (ZPD) of your learners. (As education researcher Eileen Raymond states, "[T]he ZPD is the distance between what children can do by themselves and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance.")

So let's get to some scaffolding strategies you may or may not have tried yet, or perhaps you've not used them in sometime and just need a gentle reminder on how awesome and helpful they can be when it comes to student learning:

1. Show and Tell

How many of us say that we learn best by seeing something rather than hearing about it? Modeling for students is a cornerstone of scaffolding in my experience. Have you ever interrupted someone with "just show me!" while they were in the middle of explaining to you how to do something? Every chance you have, show or demonstrate to students exactly what they are expected to do.

  • Try the fish bowl activity, where a small group in the center are circled by the class as the group in the middle, or fishbowl, engage in an activity, modeling how it's done for the larger group.
  • Always show students the outcome or product before they do it. If a teacher assigns a persuasive essay or inquiry-based science project, a model should be presented side-by-side with a criteria chart or rubric. You can guide students through each step of the process, model in-hand of the finished product.
  • Use think alouds, which will allow you to model your thought process as you: read a text, solve a problem, or design a project. Remember that children's cognitive abilities are still in development so opportunities for them to see developed, critical thinking are essential.

2. Tap into Prior Knowledge

Ask students to share their own experiences, hunches, and ideas about the content or concept of study and have them relate and connect it to their own lives. Sometimes you may have to offer hints and suggestions, leading them to the connections a bit, but once they get there, they will grasp it as their own.

Launching the learning in your classroom from the prior knowledge of your students, and using this as a framework for future lessons is not only a scaffolding technique, many would agree it's just plain good teaching.

3. Give Time to Talk

All learners need time to process new ideas and information. They also need time to verbally make sense of and articulate their learning with the community of learners who are also engaged in the same experience and journey. As we all know, structured discussions really work best with children regardless of their level of maturation. If you aren't weaving in think-pair-share, turn-and-talk, triad teams or some other structured talking time throughout the lesson, you should begin including this crucial strategy on a regular basis.

4. Pre-Teach Vocabulary

Sometimes referred to as frontloading vocabulary, this is a strategy that we teachers don't use enough. Many of us, myself included, are guilty of sending students all alone down the bumpy, muddy path known as Challenging Text -- a road booby trapped with difficult vocabulary. We send them ill-prepared and then we are often shocked when they: a) lose interest b) create a ruckus c) fall asleep.

Pre-teaching vocabulary doesn't mean pulling a dozen words from the chapter and having kids look up definitions and write them out (we all know how this will go. Again, see above a, b, and c). Instead, introduce the words to kids in photos, and in context to things they know and are interested in. Use analogies, metaphors and invite students to create a symbol or drawing for each word and give time for discussion of the words (small and whole groups). Not until they've done all this should the dictionaries come out. And the dictionaries will be used only to compare with those definitions they've already discovered on their own.

With the dozen or so words "frontloaded," students are ready, you as their guide, to tackle that challenging text.

5. Use Visual Aids

Graphic organizers, pictures, and charts can all serve as scaffolding tools. Graphic organizers are very specific in that they help kids visually represent their ideas, organize information, and grasp concepts such as sequencing and cause and effect.

A graphic organizer shouldn't be The Product, but rather it's a scaffolding tool that helps guide and shape the student's thinking so that they can apply it. Some students can dive right into the discussion, or writing an essay, or synthesizing several different hypotheses without using a graphic organizer of some sort, but many of our students benefit from using them with a difficult reading or challenging new information. Think of graphic organizers as training wheels; they are temporary and meant to be removed.

6. Pause, Ask Questions, Pause, Review

This is a wonderful way to check for understanding while students read a chunk of difficult text or learn a new concept or content. Here's how this strategy works: a new idea from discussion or the reading is shared, then pause (providing think time), then ask a strategic question, pausing again. By strategic, you need to design them ahead of time, make sure they are specific, guiding and open-ended questions. (Great questions fail without giving think time for responses so hold out during that Uncomfortable Silence.) Keep kids engaged as active listeners by calling on someone to "give the gist" of what was just discussed / discovered / questioned. If the class seems stuck by the questions, provide an opportunity for students to discuss it with a neighbor.

Trying Something New

With all the diverse learners in our classrooms, there is a strong need for teachers to learn and experiment with new scaffolding strategies. I often say to teachers I support, you have slow down in order to go quickly. Scaffolding a lesson may, in fact, take longer to teach, but the end product is of far greater quality and the experience much more rewarding for all involved.

Please share with us scaffolding strategies that work well for your students.

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Mountain Wizzbess's picture
Mountain Wizzbess
English Learner Coordinator

Also, consider not only scaffolding academic vocabulary, but academic language. Students are challenged by the discipline related text types, paragraph, sentence, and phrase structures affiliated with complex text, even when they know many of the words.

margosmathandmore's picture

I am a big believer in scaffolding. The results are marvelous! Even though your article refers to reading and language arts, scaffolding "does the job" in math as well. Remember the "developmental" way of teaching math that was so popular years ago?
Lessons were implemented in this format: concrete (usually the use of manipulatives)>pictorial(a representation in pictures/graphics)> abstract(by this time, the concept was usually understood or the proficiency of skill achieved by the student, so the "scaffolds" of manipulatives and/or pictorial information was no longer necessary. At margosmathandmore, all products contain scaffolding or are scaffolds in themselves. For instance, our Color Coded Multiplication program uses color cues, whole/part/whole, and chunking as scaffolds.Many other types of scaffolds are used within the 28+ activities offered in this unique product. www.margosmathandmore.com
You can go to www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Margo-Gentile where you will find prime scaffolded products for math and language as well.

Ragavi Roy's picture

Nice tips. The points you have made are intersting and informative and I loved reading your blog. Thank you for sharing.

Ragavi Roy

Mr. Smallen's picture

Totally agree with this! Do you think that there are certain scaffolding strategies that work best with certain age groups? Do you have favorite strategies that you use for specific grade levels?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Hi, Mr. Smallen,

Thank you for your response and questions. I do, indeed, think there are those that work better with certain grade levels/ages. These I've listed are both my favorites and those I find highly effective when working with secondary students, grades 6-12.

Rebecca Alber

zube's picture

Hallo Rebeca
I am Ika Zube,
I am math teacher for grade K-12. thank you for the article. it's interesting and i know better about scaffolding. But, how do we know that our scaffold is effective? because sometimes, when i implement it , it becomes more blunders and takes longer than when using conventional techniques.

can you give me more examples question?
thank you

Jaime0019's picture

Thank you for the wonderful article. I love how you broke down the differences between scaffolding and differentiation.

Mountain Wizzbess's picture
Mountain Wizzbess
English Learner Coordinator

Also, consider not only scaffolding academic vocabulary, but academic language. Students are challenged by the discipline related text types, paragraph, sentence, and phrase structures affiliated with complex text, even when they know many of the words.

Leann Garrison's picture

Rebecca, thanks so much for your organized list of scaffolding techniques as well as your clear distinction between scaffolding and differentiation. I have been a K-8 teacher as well as a teacher/tutor at the college level. I would like to share a scaffolding technique that I use with college students to help them improve their comprehension of the paragraphs and sections of their textbooks. Start by teaching them how to identify the subject or topic of the paragraph. Next teach them that the main idea must include the topic and what the author has to say about the topic. [Obviously this would take a bit of practice before you work on the next section.] Then teach them the basic types of writing organization for most textbooks. These include cause-effect, compare-contrast, defining terms, hierarchical listing, and sequencing (by time order, by process, or a procedure). Then share the clue words for each type of organization. Make sure the students have an organized chart they can follow to practice finding this type of organization. As you begin to practice with your students, they first identify the topic or subject of the paragraph. Then they identify what the paragraph is saying about the topic or subject--this will then be the main idea of the paragrap. Next they identify the sentence that contains the main idea. Then they look for clue words to determine which type of organization the paragraph has. Use the techniques of modeling at first until the students get the hang of it. Then identify the most important details of the paragraph based on the organization. For example, if the paragraph is a cause-effect, what is (are) the cause(s) and the effect(s). Make sure to do this with the students and then write an outline of this on a large screen for your class. Finally move to creating their own graphic organizer to match the organization of the paragraph. It is amazing how student's comprehension can improve through this technique, but it takes many lessons to teach.

Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL's picture
Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL
PBL and Inclusion thought partner in Berkeley CA

I admire the clear distinction, and yet interrelationship, between scaffolding strategies and differentiation. The strategies listed work well for both pedagogy and andragogy.

John Walkup (@jwalkup)'s picture
John Walkup (@jwalkup)
Education Researcher, Consultant, and Grant Writer

I think you forgot to mention an important point about scaffolding: these techniques involve a support structure for which their is a plan to remove slowly. I love that you mention the think-aloud, one of my favorite techniques. But it is only a scaffolding technique if the teacher has a plan for students, sometime down the road, to demonstrate proficiency without it.

Dorothy Chambers's picture

This article is very good. It made the understanding of the Scaffolding teaching strategy very clear and interesting. I will be using it far more in my lessons. Establishing the difference between scaffolding and differentiation was an "eye opener" for me.

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

Scaffolding - YES!

All of these suggestions are great. I especially agree with number 3 - time to talk. Students are given so much information throughout the day, both new and old, it's crucial (like you say) to allow time for processing. Another activity that goes hand in hand with this is guided reflection. This may not be "scaffolding" because it's more of a post-lesson activity. However, students need time to reflect on what they have learned in order to generate additional insight and empower new ideas. Guided reflection is simply providing the students with the tools to reflect on information in a productive way. Talking with other students, writing some notes or additional questions, and think alouds are all great ways to provide a comfortable space for productive reflection!

Jeanie Robinson's picture

Many of us get stuck in the rut of using three or four tried and true strategies and forget about some of the other effective ones. I haven't used think-pair-share or turn and talk in awhile. Thanks for the reminder.

I also wanted to add a strategy I learned many years ago that help me with wait time. I was taught to sing baa baa black sheep to myself ... this gives you just enough wait time. Whenever I feel I may be going to fast, I use this to slow myself down...its amazing how great it works!


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