Scaffolding 101 -- The teaching method your students will love!


Scaffolding 101

Scaffolding is a method of teaching that works for virtually any subject. Teachers may choose to use scaffolding for all, or only some, of their lessons. Scaffolding is starting kids out in the shallow end of the pool rather than throwing them into the deep end with no life preserver; regardless of their ability to swim.

Scaffolding can best be described as the technique of:  ‘I do, We do, You do.’

  • I do: The teacher models the concept.
  • We do: The student does it with help.
  • You do: The student does it on their own.

Lev Vygotsky is the father of this concept and he coined the term ‘ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development.’ He said that kids are moved to the next level of knowledge or ability by support from those that know, or are capable of, more. We often see visuals of a ladder depicting this; lifting us up a bit beyond what we can reach on our own.

So, why is scaffolding important?

Think about the student’s perspective in the classroom. If you are given an assignment with no examples, no modeling, and no practice, how do you feel? Very likely anxious and frustrated. If each step is clearly explained and laid out for you and you get plenty of practice with support, you will feel much calmer. When we feel anxious our brains are less receptive to learning (a concept referred to as the ‘affective filter.’) Keeping the affective filter low makes it so that students are calm and receptive to learning. Scaffolding is a key strategy for keeping the affective filter low.

Another reason scaffolding is so important is that it is engaging. Lessons that utilize scaffolding are intrinsically more interesting than those that do not. They build on what students already know and encourages them to learn more.

Practical strategies to use with students:

  • Prior Knowledge: Before modeling for students it is important to tap into students’ prior knowledge. First, brainstorm or use a KWL chart to figure out what students already know. You can also use pre-assessments to accomplish this. Once you know their prior knowledge, you can plan instruction. Activating prior knowledge has the added benefit of engaging students in what they are learning.
  • Modeling: This is the first stage of scaffolding. The teacher explains and shows the new concept. Modeling doesn’t just fall on the teacher though, students can model for each other as well. During the modeling stage, teachers should show their final expectations. For example, if a teacher is assigning a science project they can show several examples of projects, as well as the grading rubric. During the modeling phase, teachers utilize ‘think aloud’ to show students how to think their way through what they are doing. Finally, during modeling teachers can also give non-examples. These can be just as helpful as good examples.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Don’t underestimate the importance of the practice (we do) stage. For complex topics, it is important to slowly withdraw support. For example, you may do a few examples as a whole class. Then have students work in small groups. Next, have them work with a partner. Finally, before having them work completely independently have students check each other’s work. An important part of this process is giving students time to talk through their process with peers in small groups and partnerships. This is the time for students to make mistakes, analyze, and learn from them.
  • Reading: When assigning reading, it can be tempting to just assign some reading and, especially for fluent readers, just allow them to read. However, there are some strategies to use that can optimize student comprehension.

Pre Teach Vocabulary: read and find problematic vocabulary words and discuss them before student reading.

Picture Walk: For younger students, walk through the book looking only at the pictures to ‘tell’ the story based on the pictures.

Predictions: Based on the title/cover children make predictions. They also stop at points along the way and tell what will happen next.

Strategize: Teach strategies that students can use to self-monitor their comprehension or to use when they are stuck on a word.


      • Visuals are valuable in giving students support. We can explain a new vocabulary word or concept, but sometimes a picture or realia is far more effective.
    • Graphic Organizers are another example of visuals that help students. When students have graphic organizers they help give students the structure they need to complete activities and to understand complex concepts.
  • Chunking: Another valuable scaffolding technique is chunking. Chunking is breaking up something big into smaller parts to make it easier to understand. You can use chunking with words, sentences, longer pieces of text, math problems, etc.

Scaffolding is a vital part of teaching that should be woven inextricably throughout your instruction. Try a few of these scaffolding strategies and watch your students’ abilities take off.

Think about scaffolding in your next lesson plan!

By: Amy Curletto

Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.

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