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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.


Comments (39)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Karla Valenti's picture
Karla Valenti
Empowering parents to empower their children (www.totthoughts.com)

This is a wonderfully insightful piece, thank you. As a parent, I find myself using "scaffolding" techniques quite often throughout the day and I think they are very effective to construct a solid knowledge-base. Moreover, I think the scaffolding approach is a very powerful cross-disciplinary technique for the structure that is set up to support one area of study can easily support and be used to acquire knowledge in other areas.

One additional strategy that I turn to often is a kind of deconstructive approach. Basically, we try to understand why something is the way it is by "taking it apart." It usually originates with a "Why?" or "How?" question and rather than working through an answer, we respond with "what do you think?" and "why do you think that?"

This latter question forces one to break down a structure into its basic components (at any level of comprehension) and try to understand how they come together and function as a system. I have found this to be a very effective learning strategy.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

Thank you so much for the reminder on how to scaffold instruction. The best way for scaffolding routines - like peer editing - is using the fishbowl technique combined with a think aloud. It makes much more sense to show the students how to do it. This is easier than talking about what to do.

Another way to scaffold lessons is through using short video clips. I have found this really helps out my ELL students.


lmarsuaga's picture

This is a great piece on scaffolding. I am currently an education student and this piece gives such important information that teachers can use in the classroom. By breaking it up into steps, you make it so easy for anyone to follow. The success of our students is our goal and scaffolding greatly contributes to their learning. Thank you for your post.

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!

shanequa.york's picture

I agree with the previous people who previously responded to this informative post. As a beginning teacher,I can admit that at times i get tangled up that I lose sight of the process that it takes to reach a desired skill. I believe if I infuse several of the 6 tips given it will strengthen learning to all students.

Angelyn's picture

I agree that scaffolding is a critical beginning to the learning process. By implementing this strategy, teachers are creating a learning environment which allows students to be successful. I especially like to use graphic organizers and think-alouds to scaffold reading strategies (predict/infer, questioning, summarizing) and new vocabulary. I use the Smartboard to display the organizers which makes a powerful impact.

Melissa Young's picture

I especially like your discussion about the difference between differentiation and scaffolding. I think that many people do get them confused. The strategies included in the blog and the comments are helpful. I try to reflect on my lessons often to see if I am scaffolding enough for my students. I think it is hard at time to think about where they are and what they may or may not know in order to scaffold enough for them to be successful.

Nicole's picture
Third grade teacher from South Carolina

The six strategies are great. We have been using these ideas within my school for quite some time. The students really benefit from them. Strategy number six, "pause, ask questions, pause, review" is wonderful to use. By having those pauses, students who are slower to process information have the opportunity to think about their response before someone else can give a correct answer or influence their thinking. It allows each child the opportunity to reflect on what was taught and it allows teachers to see who truly understood what was done during the lesson..

Amy's picture
Elementary Teacher

We always use graphic organizers in our school to teach writing as well as other subjects. I have found that graphic organizers are essential in teaching writing to my students. It really provides them a "roadmap" in which to follow to organize their ideas. Based on the students' needs, I will scaffold part of the writing either on paper or on the Activboard. Initially, I scaffold more and then over time, for most students, it becomes less.

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