“Scaffolding” is one of those education terms that’s often heard but seldom explained. To put it simply, scaffolding strategies are instructional methods that teachers use to temporarily support students as they progress toward stronger skills, greater comprehension, and deeper understanding of content and concepts. As students move closer to where they need to be, educators remove supports and shift the focus of responsibility from themselves to students. The goal of scaffolding is twofold: to increase students’ learning and to foster their ownership of their learning.
When it comes to reading, scaffolding techniques can be used with all students—including students who struggle with reading grade-level texts. In Reading Scaffolds: Instructional Tools for Our Focus toward Grade-Level Reading, I offer a deeper explanation of scaffolding and share research on its effectiveness in reading instruction in particular. This excerpt from the paper describes five proven scaffolding techniques that can be implemented in any classroom.
Modeling refers to the strategy of teachers using themselves as models of appropriate behaviors, language, and processing. Modeling as a scaffolding strategy can be analogous to show-and-tell, in that the teacher shows the students how a particular process is done. However, the key to effective modeling includes the telling: It is valuable to explicitly explain, using appropriate language, exactly what is being done and accomplished as a teacher models for students. This serves as the example for students, allowing them to take more control as they engage in learning tasks themselves. In the 2002 article Scaffolding Student Talk: One Teacher's Role in Literature Discussion Groups, Dr. Beth Maloch noted that in the third grade literature discussion group she observed, teachers needed to identify, model, and explain various conversational techniques for students who were unaccustomed to student-led discussions.
Accessing prior knowledge allows students to make connections between what they already know and a lesson’s content. In Dr. Laura Schall-Leckrone’s study of history teachers scaffolding strategies with bilingual students, she noted that several study participants identified cognates (i.e., similar words in two languages) from the text, believing that this would enable students to apply background knowledge independently when encountering new words. Other examples of accessing prior knowledge can be as simple as conducting a preview of the text, highlighting text features (e.g., images or headings), and asking students questions about what they see. The beauty of accessing prior knowledge is that it validates all learners because all students can participate.
Pre-teaching vocabulary is highly recommended as a scaffolding strategy throughout educational research. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, the authors state that thoughtful selection of words that are useful, have relevance to and relationships with other words, and bring more meaning to texts, gives students of all instructional needs more opportunities to access texts and understand their meaning. Pre-teaching vocabulary also heightens student engagement with and insight into text situations, such as encountering idiomatic language or Tier 2 or 3 vocabulary.
As texts become more sophisticated, visual aids such as graphic organizers, diagrams, pictures, charts, and graphs offer additional support for student thinking. As a scaffolding tool, visual aids are not the product. Rather, they serve as the conduit to understanding by supporting students’ thought processes. When students are challenged to express themselves because they lack experience with academic language, the graphic organizer is the bridge between what they are thinking and what they may want to say or write. The visual aid is the vehicle that delivers their intangible thoughts to reality.
Student Oral Expression
A final scaffolding strategy referenced in the literature and suggested in many research sources is the need to give students time to talk and express themselves orally and in writing, in relation to the content of the text that is being tackled. Dr. Beth Maloch and Dr. Wendy Cumming-Potvin both noted in separate studies that teachers had to intentionally allow students to take more ownership of discussions in literature circles. Providing wait time allows all learners an opportunity to process new ideas and formulate responses. It also gives learners time to delineate what they do and do not understand about a text. This process of making sense of content and responding to it is something that all students can do.
Educators want students to be independent readers who have ownership over their own learning. Scaffolding promotes student agency and, over time, leads to students learning to incorporate modeled strategies with little to no teacher support. Ultimately, this is the goal: To create readers who employ problem-solving strategies to better comprehend complex texts.
Interested in learning more about scaffolding? Download Reading Scaffolds: Instructional Tools for Our Focus toward Grade-Level Reading from the Curriculum Associates website.Dive Deeper into Scaffolding for Reading
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