Scaffolding is an instructional approach that involves providing support to students until they reach competence with a task.
The scaffolding approach is based on Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) concept, but the term itself was coined by Jerome Bruner.
The idea is that you should always create lessons that are challenging but achievable for students. The role for teachers is to provide that support (or ‘scaffolding’) until the student can complete the task without help.
While professors like myself teach the theory of scaffolding a lesson in universities, we don’t provide enough examples of how the theory might be used in practice (e.g. scaffolding strategies).
So below are some scaffolding techniques and tools that you can use in your classroom today.
Instructional Scaffolding Techniques and Strategies
1. Visual Aids
Visual aids can be any object around the classroom that helps students to think more deeply about an issue and keep them on track.
Visual aids in the classroom can include:
- Flash cards a student can have on their desk,
- Posters on the walls,
- Graphic organizers and charts.
- Checklists to ensure tasks are completed.
The visual aids should not tell the student answers, but it should help the student to think through the task themselves.
For example, if a student is completing a math task, they might benefit from using a table to input their information so they can see it on paper, not just in their heads.
Another example is to provide a checklist for students. They can return to their checklist to see if they followed all the steps and completed all the tasks in a lesson to ensure they’re staying within the guidelines.
2. Breaking up the Learning into Chunks
If a task seems intimidating to a student, sometimes it’s possible to give them the task in small steps (or ‘chunks’).
- A roadmap outlining a step-by-step path to completion.
- Covering up the parts of the task that don’t need to be focused on yet.
- Learning stations where students do one small part of the bigger task at each learning station.
- Checkpoints where the teacher asks students to check-in after each ‘chunk’ of learning is completed.
This is perhaps best achieved in phonics instruction, where teachers place their finger over the second half of a word. This means the student has only half of the word to sound out at a time.
Similarly, creating a list of ‘steps’ in a task can help a learner to think through the process required to get from point A to point B. The task then becomes less intimidating and the student knows the next thing they need to do in order to get closer to their goal.
Modeling allows the teacher to demonstrate how to complete a task while students observe.
The main critique of modeling is that it creates passive learners. To offset this, encourage students to ask questions and ask the students questions yourself while you model the task.
- Fishbowl activities. A fishbowl activity is a task where a whole group of students stand or sit in a circle and watch a small group in the middle of the circle complete the task. It’s an activity that promotes active listening and close observation of a task.
- Filming. The teacher films themselves completing the task, allowing the students to re-watch how the task was done as they attempt to copy it themselves.
4. Thinking Aloud
Thinking aloud helps students to process their thoughts. It involves having students verbally brainstorm half-formed ideas.
Vygotsky highlighted the importance of speech when thinking through tasks. You can leverage this in the classroom by asking them to talk to you about what they’re doing during each step of their learning.
- Students recording themselves talking about their thoughts on a topic.
- Teacher encouraging speaking during an activity.
- Questioning students of what they’re doing at each step.
- Encouraging students to ask their own questions to deepen their knowledge.
A good start is to have your students explain to you what they’re doing. Sit with the student and tell them what they’re thinking. Ask questions like: “What are you doing at this step?”, “Why did you just make that decision?”, or “How did what you just did help you to complete the task?”
Encourage full sentence responses and comments when using this strategy.
When students develop greater competence and do not need to consciously walk through each step, they can start using inner speech rather than talk aloud to complete the task.
5. Using Prior Knowledge
When scaffolding a lesson, the teacher can help students by asking them to reflect on past knowledge and use it to solve a current problem.
Embracing prior knowledge may include:
- Using a strategy the student knows and applying it to this new task.
- Using analogy to make the new knowledge relevant (and make sense) to the student’s life.
- Relate the idea to the student’s interests in sports, gaming or literature.
These strategies can help students have ‘lightbulb moments’ where they move through the difficulties and come to understand difficult ideas in new light.
6. Gradual Release of Responsibility
The gradual release of responsibility model starts with modeled instruction and ends with students’ independent practice of a task.
This is one of the most practical scaffolding techniques a teacher has in their pedagogical toolkit.
The four steps in the gradual release of responsibility model are:
- Modeling – The teacher demonstrates how to do the task in front of the students.
- Co-Construction – The students instruct the teacher on how to do the task.
- Facilitation – The teacher supports the student as they complete the task.
- Independent Practice – The students complete the task with out teacher guidance.
At each stage in this model, the teacher needs to assess student knowledge to determine whether to move on to the next step, re-do the current step, or regress to the previous step.
We also call this the ‘I do, we do, you do’ method:
7. Open-Ended Questioning
Questioning is one of the most important scaffolding tools we have.
However, a teacher needs to learn how to ask the right types of questions at the right point in time.
Primarily, a teacher needs to make sure a student answers any question with a detailed explanation. To do this ensure:
- Questions are open-ended meaning they cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
- Questions encourage reflection so students can think deeper about why they did what they did (and if they could do differently to achieve a better outcome next time).
- Questions direct students toward the important and pivotal aspects of the task, and away from trivial or distracting elements.
Don’t forget that children need to be explicitly taught how to ask meaningful questions as well. Jeanine from Think Grow Giggle has this great tip:
Before expecting students to question on their own, practice together using a class size t-chart to model questioning.
Often, I have new teachers forget that students need to learn how to learn. We need to give our students plenty of examples of good questions so they can have a model to start with and build upon.
There is also the need to balance the over- and under- use of questioning. Sometimes students need silence to think through things in peace.
8. Pre-Teaching Vocabulary
Pre-teaching vocabulary involves learning the new words and phrases before moving on to engaging with texts that have that vocabulary in it.
A task that has a lot of new vocabulary is made difficult because the student has to wade through the vocabulary and the concepts. We have this problem a lot at universities when we ask students to read difficult journal articles, only for them to lose interest because of the verbose language.
For example, a teacher could set for homework a vocabulary list that students need to learn the week before using those term in texts for a future unit of work.
9. Formative and Summative Assessment
Teachers need to conduct ongoing assessments of students’ knowledge so they know how much scaffolding to apply and when to withdraw it.
Assessment is baked into scaffolding theory: without it, we do not know when to or how to apply appropriate support for students.
Don’t get me wrong – scaffolding and assessment are different things. But assessment is a scaffolding tool required to help teachers to teach appropriately.
Conduct formative assessment (which is ongoing assessment while students are learning) to identify how well students can complete tasks alone. For students who are struggling, you can implement differentiated instruction, in which you provide different supports for different students.
Scaffolding requires teachers to create lessons that are at the perfect difficulty level. Too hard, and the students won’t be able to achieve anything. Too easy, and the students won’t learn at all!
We call this the Goldilocks principle.
Using the above scaffolding strategies, teachers can help students to learn more effectively. These strategies can be:
- Weaved into lesson plans to show your head teacher what exactly you plan to do to help scaffold learning
- Used to differentiate instruction where you can implement different scaffolds for students of varying learning abilities.
Overall, when implementing social constructivist and scaffolding theory, you need to use specific scaffolding techniques like the ones outlined above so you don’t just show knowledge of the theory, but also knowledge of how to apply the theory to your pedagogical practice.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.