Scaffolding is a word that we hear a lot in education. So much so, that perhaps we get it confused with some other terms, like differentiation. While differentiation and scaffolding do have some similarities, they are not the same thing. Differentiation is matching the level of material or topic to the level of the child. Scaffolding, however, applies to any lesson, regardless of level. It is about breaking learning down into smaller, more “doable” pieces.

What is Scaffolding?

Back when I was in school, I might have heard something like this, “Read chapter 7, then answer the questions at the end of the chapter. After that, write a 5 paragraph essay about what you read”. Guess what? That’s not scaffolding. In fact, that’s the opposite of scaffolding. Scaffolding is a way of providing a safety net for students until they get to the level of independent work. We’ve all heard “I do, we do, you do”. That’s scaffolding in a nutshell.

Scaffolding is very beneficial for students because it is how they learn. It is how we all learn – by watching others and having support while we try it. In a classroom that implements scaffolding effectively, there will be a great deal of modeling. In fact, in my experience, when you feel like you are modeling too much and a bit too often, that is when you are probably doing it just right. Students, especially at the primary and elementary level, need to observe the skill a lot before they “get it”.

Scaffolding Teaching Strategies to Try in Your Classroom

Preview, Pre-Read, Pre-Teach

One of the most basic and easiest ways to scaffold is by previewing any and all new concepts or materials presented to students. For a read-aloud, this may mean looking through the book together first and asking students what they observe in the pictures or to make predictions. Or, if students are going to be asked to read a passage for a comprehension activity, pre-read the passage with them for added support. Try pre-teaching the vocabulary in any subject area when new materials or concepts are introduced.

Tips for pre-teaching vocabulary: I pre-teach vocabulary words for a new ELA unit before students ever see the text from which the vocabulary is taken. I begin by creating a digital slide presentation with the vocabulary words. This always includes a kid-friendly (age-appropriate) definition of the word and a visual. I always try to find something that will really grab their attention. Then, we spend a lot of time sharing thoughts and ideas about these words. We may even use them in sentences. This way, when they hear that new vocabulary word in the upcoming story for the week, close-read, or social studies unit, they are already familiar. Not only that, but my students usually get very excited, as they think it is pure coincidence that we have come across the same word that we just learned.

Model Writing

Regardless of the type of writing you are doing – creative, expository, personal narrative, opinion, persuasive, low-stakes, etc. – the key to success for students is a lot of modeling. This is the area in which it is especially true that if you feel like you are doing it too much, you are probably right on track. When introducing a new type of writing, I will let students watch me write it, and talk through it (thinking out loud), several days in a row before going any further. Then, I have them help me write for a few days. After that, they will be ready to give it a try on their own, with support as needed.

Of course, the amount of time spent in each stage may need to be adjusted depending on the grade level of your students or how quickly they learn the new writing technique, but this type of scaffolding can and should be used throughout grade levels. Students of any age benefit from watching an expert writer work through the process. That expert writer is you!

Graphic Organizers

Another great scaffolding technique can be implemented with graphic organizers. A graphic organizer is a way to get our ideas on paper. Graphic organizers can be used in a few different ways. First of all, you can fill the graphic organizer out and students can fill in their own copy with the information you are providing. You can also ask students for contributions to the graphic organizer and use their ideas to fill it in. Lastly, you can give students a blank graphic organizer and let them get their own thoughts down on paper first. Even better, have them work with a partner or a group to fill it out.

Talk Time

I know! We all think our rooms are supposed to be silent if there is really something productive happening. FALSE! Students learn best by talking and sharing ideas. Students can support each other with ideas and thoughts as they work.

Math Scaffolding

This is an area in which I feel scaffolding is the most obvious, makes the most sense, and is most beneficial for students. When learning a new math process, regardless of what it may be, do the “I do, we do, you do” steps every day. So first, they are going to watch you walk through and explain the math process several times. When students are ready, they will help you work through that process. That may mean students tell you the steps you should take as you take them or it may mean a student comes up to the board to provide the instruction. Then, students will be ready to try it on their own. It takes a lot of practice for those processes to become natural, so the next day, do the same thing. They will need to see the steps many times, in some cases, to finally “get it”.