How Scaffolding Instruction Can Improve Comprehension

Scaffolding Works for all Students in all Content Areas

Scaffolding instruction for students is like moving students up a ladder of learning. GETTY: Phil Ashley

Not every student learns at the same pace as another student in a class, so teachers from every content area need to get creative in order to meet the needs of all students, some of whom may need just a little support or others who may need much more.

One way to support students is through instructional scaffolding. The origin of the word scaffold comes from Old French eschace meaning "a prop, support," and instructional scaffolding may call to mind the kinds of wooden or steel supports one might see for workmen as they work around a building. Once the building can stand on its own, the scaffolding is removed. Similarly, the props and supports in instructional scaffolding are taken away once a student is capable of working independently. 

Teachers should consider the use of instructional scaffolding when teaching new tasks or strategies with multiple steps. For example, teaching 10th-grade students in math class to solve linear equations can be broken down into three steps: reducing, combining like terms, and then undoing multiplication using division. Each step of the process can be supported by beginning with simple models or illustrations before moving to more complex linear equations.

All students can benefit from instructional scaffolding. One of the most common scaffolding techniques is to provide the vocabulary for a passage before reading. Teachers may provide a review of the words that are most likely to give students trouble by using metaphors or graphics. An example of this scaffolding in English class is the language preparation teachers may do before assigning Romeo and Juliet. They may prepare for the reading of Act I by providing the definition "to remove" so that students will understand the meaning of "doff" when Juliet speaks from her balcony, "Romeo, doff thy name; And for that name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself" (II.ii.45-52).

Another kind of scaffolding for vocabulary in the science classroom is often accomplished through a review of prefixes, suffixes, base words and their meanings. For example, science teachers can break words into their parts as in:

  • photosynthesis — photo (light), synth (make), isis (process)
  • metamorphosis — meta (large), morph (change), osis (process)

Finally, scaffolding can be applied to any academic task, from teaching multi-step processes in art class, to understanding the steps in regular verb conjugation in Spanish. Teachers can break up a concept or skill into its discrete steps while providing students the assistance necessary at each step.

Scaffolding versus differentiation:

Scaffolding shares the same goals as differentiation as a way to improve student learning and understanding. Differentiation, however, may mean a difference in materials or options in assessment. In differentiation, a teacher may use a variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations in order to instruct a diverse group of students who may have diverse learning needs in the same classroom. In a differentiated classroom, students may be offered a different text or a passage that has been leveled for their reading ability. Students may be offered a choice between writing an essay or developing a comic-book text. Differentiation may be based on specific student needs such as their interests, their ability or readiness, and their learning style. In differentiation, materials may be adapted to the learner.

Benefits/Challenges of instructional scaffolding

Instructional scaffolding increases opportunities for students to meet instructional objectives. Such scaffolding may also include peer-teaching and cooperative learning which makes the classroom a welcome and collaborative learning space. Instructional scaffolds, like the wooden structures they are named for, can be reused or repeated for other learning tasks. Instructional scaffolds can result in academic success which increases motivation and engagement. Finally, instructional scaffolding gives students practice in how to reduce complicated processes into manageable steps in order to be independent learners.  

There are challenges to instructional scaffolding as well. Developing supports for multi-step problems can be time-consuming. Teachers have to know which scaffolds are appropriate for students, especially in communicating information. .Finally, teachers have to be patient with some students who need longer periods of scaffolding as well as recognizing when to remove supports for other students. Effective instructional scaffolding requires teachers be familiar with both the task (content) and the needs of the students (performance).

Scaffolding instruction can move students up the ladder of academic success.

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Guided Practice as Instructional Scaffolding

Teachers may choose guided practice as a scaffolding technique. In this technique, a teacher offers a simplified version of a lesson, assignment, or reading. After students are proficient at this level, a teacher may gradually increase a task's complexity, difficulty, or sophistication over time. ​

The teacher may choose to break up the lesson into a series of mini-lessons that move students sequentially towards understanding. Between each mini-lesson, the teacher should check to see if students increase proficiency through practice.

This carefully planned strategy is the most common form of scaffolding. This strategy is often referred to as the "gradual release of responsibility."

The steps are simple:

  1. Demonstration by the teacher: "I do it."
  2. Prompting together (teacher and student): "We do it."
  3. Practice by​ the student: "You do it." 
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Multiple Modes of Communication as Instructional Scaffolding

Teachers may use multiple platforms that can communicate concepts visually, orally, and kinesthetically. For example, pictures, charts, videos, and all forms of audio can be scaffolding tools.  A teacher may choose to present the information over time in different modes. First, a teacher may describe a concept to students, and then follow that description with a slideshow or video. Students may then use their own visual aids to further explain the idea or to illustrate the concept. Finally, a teacher would ask students to write their understanding of the to provide in their own words.

Pictures and charts are a great visual representation of concepts for all learners, but especially for the English Language Learners (ELs). The use of graphic organizers or concept map can help all students to organize their thoughts onto paper visually.  Graphic organizers or concept chart also can be used as a guide for class discussions or for writing. 

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Modeling as Instructional Scaffolding

In this strategy, students may review an exemplar of an assignment they will be asked to complete. The teacher will share how the elements of the exemplar represent high-quality work. 

An example of this technique is to have the teacher model the writing process in front of students. Having the teacher draft a short response in front of students can provide students with an example of authentic writing that undergoes revision and editing before being complete.

Similarly, a teacher may also model a process—for example, a multi-step art project or science experiment—so that students can see how it is done before they are asked to do it themselves. (teachers may also ask a student to model a process for her classmates). This is often a strategy used in flipped classrooms.

Other instruction techniques that use models include a “think aloud” strategy where a teacher verbalizes what he or she understands or knows as a way to monitor comprehension. Thinking aloud requires talking aloud through the details, decisions, and the reasoning behind those decisions. This strategy also models how good readers use context clues to understand what they are reading.

 

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Pre-Loading Vocabulary as Instructional Scaffolding

When students are given a vocabulary lesson before they read a difficult text, they will be more interested in the content and more likely to comprehend what they have read. There are, however, different ways to prepare vocabulary other than to provide a list of words and their meanings.

One way is ​to provide a key word from the reading. Students can brainstorm other words that come to mind when they read the word. These words can be put into categories or graphic organizers by students. 

Another way is to prepare a short list of words and ask students to find each of the words in the reading. When students find the word, there can be a discussion as to what the word means in context.

Finally, a review of prefixes and suffixes and base words to determine word meanings can be particularly helpful in reading science texts.

 

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Rubric Review as Instructional Scaffolding

Starting at the end of a learning activity helps students understand the purpose of a learning activity. Teachers can provide a scoring guide or rubric that will be used to assess their work.  The strategy helps students to know the reason for the assignment and the criteria they will be graded on according to the rubric so that they will be motivated to complete the assignment.

Teachers who provide a step-by-step handout with instructions that students can reference can help eliminate students' frustrations once they understand what they are expected to do.

Another strategy to use with rubric review is to include a timeline and an opportunity for students to self-evaluate their progress.

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Personal Connections as Instructional Scaffolding

In this strategy, the teacher makes an explicit connection between a student or class of students' prior understanding and new learning.

This strategy is best used within the context of a unit where each lesson connects to a lesson the students have just completed. The teacher can take advantage of the concepts and skills students have learned in order to complete an assignment or project. This strategy is often referred to as  “building on prior knowledge”.  

A teacher may try to incorporate the personal interests and experiences of students in order to increase engagement in the learning process. For example, a social studies teacher may recall a field trip or a physical education teacher may reference a recent sports event. Incorporating personal interests and experiences can help students to connect their learning to their personal lives.