Diapers, training wheels, arm floaties. All three were a part of my childhood. The same is likely true for you and most kids growing up. They helped us navigate the world with some freedom while our bodies grew enough to manage without them. The same is true for instructional scaffolding as kids learn to read.
Scaffolding is one of those teaching buzzwords we hear a lot but seldom talk about. To put it simply: scaffolds are temporary supports we all need as our skills grow. Once our bodies and brains mature, we remove those supports and shift the focus of responsibility. It allows us to use skills we’re not quite ready for as we move toward independence. The goal of scaffolding is twofold: to increase learning and to foster students’ ownership.
Here are five proven instructional scaffolding techniques you can use in your classroom today.
1. Prior Knowledge
Accessing prior knowledge helps our students make connections between what they already know and what they’re learning. A recent study of scaffolding strategies shows successful teachers using cognates to help their bilingual students as they came across new words. Other examples might be as simple as walking through the text together, highlighting text features, and asking students questions about what they see. The beauty of accessing prior knowledge is that it’s an exercise everyone can participate in, regardless of their abilities.
2. Preteaching Vocabulary
Preteaching vocabulary is a scaffolding strategy mentioned a lot throughout educational research. Experts talk about the importance of being thoughtful when we select words. Choose words that are useful, connect with other topics you’ve been talking about, and bring more meaning to what you’re teaching. This gives your students a better chance to understand what they’re reading as they learn the content.
3. Visual Aids
As reading becomes more sophisticated, we can support thinking with diagrams, pictures, and graphs. As a scaffolding tool, visual aids are less about the destination and more about the journey. They serve as the bridge between what students think and what they may want to say or write. Visual aids are the vehicle that drives intangible thoughts to reality.
Think of modeling as a supercharged show-and-tell, in that you show your students how to do something the right way. Processes, behaviors, language—you can use modeling for anything! But the key to effective modeling needs to include the telling part. It’s important to show as well as explain exactly what is being done when you model for your students. Another tip is to give your students time to demonstrate in various scenarios. I guarantee you’ll earn back the time you spend on this step.
5. Student Oral Expression
A final scaffolding strategy is to give students time to talk about and write about what they’re learning. In separate studies, both Dr. Beth Maloch and Dr. Wendy Cumming-Potvin said we need to intentionally allow students to take more ownership of discussions during literature circles.
- Normalize wait time so everyone has an opportunity to process new ideas and formulate their responses.
- Give students a chance to talk about what they do and don’t understand in the text.
Final Thoughts about Instructional Scaffolding
We want students to be independent readers who have ownership over their own learning. Instructional scaffolding supports student agency and, over time, helps our students learn to apply their skills with little to no teacher support. Ultimately, this is the goal: to create readers who use problem-solving strategies to better comprehend complex texts.