Scaffolding Instruction Strategies

The technique helps give students a solid foundation of various skills

Teacher looking at kids drawing in schoolclass
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Scaffolding refers to the educational technique of delivering content gradually to support high-quality and organic learning. A teacher that scaffolds their instruction unfolds new material slowly and builds numerous supports into their teaching, moving on only when every student has reached comprehension.

The Purpose of Scaffolded Instruction

The goal of scaffolding is to meet students at their ability level and guide them to grow one step at a time. This learning follows logical patterns of progression and keeps supports in place until students are able to demonstrate proficiency without them.

Scaffolding should not be reserved for students with disabilities and English language learners—this practice is fundamental to all effective and equitable teaching. By layering new knowledge onto existing knowledge, students have stronger and broader foundations of understanding. Scaffolding provides more opportunities for accommodating students' individual needs along the way than more traditional teaching methods.

Strategies for Scaffolding

Scaffolding your teaching requires the use of many different strategies, all of which aim to make learning more meaningful and therefore more prosperous for students. Use these techniques to design supportive instruction.

Activate Prior Knowledge

Take advantage of what your students already know. Scaffold your instruction by reminding your students what they have learned and helping them fit new information into their brains by finding out what they already know about concepts you haven't taught yet.

Prior knowledge also includes a student's personal experiences and areas of expertise. Rather than ignoring differences between your students in an effort to level the playing field, draw on each set of unique knowledge to teach the whole class. Encourage students to connect learning to their own lives and share these connections with others.

Break It Down

Break new material down into bite-sized pieces and check in with students often. Scaffolded instruction should resemble a staircase where every new concept has its own stair. Rather than delivering complicated content all at once and testing for understanding at the end, give challenging concepts their own room to breathe and assess student progress as it is happening. Ask questions to make sure all students understand before taking another step together.

Teach Students to Learn (and Practice)

One of the defining features of scaffolded instruction is student-directed learning. Scaffolding emphasizes the importance of equipping students with tools that allow them to guide their own learning and giving them plenty of space to practice using them. Scaffolding makes the journey just as important as the destination

Give your students strategies rather than answers. Encourage them to practice asking their own questions, making predictions, and drawing conclusions and teach them that it's okay when they are wrong. Scaffolding allows students to take charge so that they are prepared to approach any problem, not just the one right in front of them.

Model

Always show desired outcomes before students complete a task. "Show, don't tell," is one of many mantras that teachers who practice scaffolding follow. Help your students to see exactly what success looks like, whether that is a line of questioning they should follow or an example of a finished product, so that they have something to reference when it is time for them to independently demonstrate proficiency. Practice modeling thought processes, activities, and skills every time you teach new information.

Provide Context

Motivate your students and make information easier to understanding by providing its context. Front-load new topics with all the details necessary for understanding them. Students are too often asked to learn new material in a vacuum and then expected to apply it correctly but the best learning happens when teachers help students make connections and give big pictures and themes instead of seemingly unrelated pieces.

Some examples of helpful context include:

  • Timelines for historical events—teaching when things happened as well as what happened. This makes it easier to understand how events fit together.
  • Teaching key vocabulary terms before reading a text to boost comprehension.
  • Explaining the reasons for applying a mathematical strategy before showing students how to use it so they can practice applying it as intended.

Use Cues and Supports

Scaffolding is not possible without supports—take advantage of several. Visual and verbal aids and cues make information easier to understand, remember, and apply. Use organizational tools such as graphic organizers, visuals such as charts and photographs, and verbal cues such as mnemonic devices and chants as training wheels as students learn until they fully understand and no longer need these scaffolds. Good teaching is about making information stick, not drilling it and hoping that it does on its own.