The supports we use to help students access material or engage in a learning activity are called “scaffolds” or "scaffolding." Scaffolding is the support we provide a student who isn't quite ready to accomplish a task independently. Like the supports that construction workers use on buildings, scaffolding is intended to be temporary. As students develop competence, the scaffolding is gradually reduced until the student can use their skills independently.

Scaffolding as a teaching strategy originates in Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and his concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is the area between what a learner can do independently and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance. The activities provided with scaffolding are just beyond the level of what the learner can do alone.

In Vygotsky’s view, the learner does not learn in isolation. Instead learning is strongly influenced by social interactions with more knowledgeable or capable others in a meaningful context. The communication that occurs in this setting helps the learner construct an understanding of the concept and to rehearse new tasks within the safety of a supportive environment.

According to McKenzie scaffolding:

  1. Provides clear direction and reduces students’ confusion – Educators anticipate problems that students might encounter and then develop step by step instructions, which explain what a student must do to meet expectations.
  2. Clarifies purpose – Scaffolding helps students understand why they are doing the work and why it is important.
  3. Keeps students on task – By providing structure, the scaffolded lesson provides pathways for the learners. The student can make decisions about which path to choose or what things to explore along the path but they cannot wander off of the path, which is the designated task.
  4. Clarifies expectations and incorporates assessment and feedback – Expectations are clear from the beginning of the activity.
  5. Points students to worthy sources – Educators provide sources to reduce confusion, frustration, and time. The students may then decide which of these sources to use.
  6. Reduces uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment – Educators review their lessons to determine possible problem areas and then make adjustments to provide the needed scaffolding.

There are five different instructional scaffolding techniques: modeling of desired behaviors, offering explanations, inviting student participation, verifying and clarifying student understandings, and inviting students to contribute clues (Hogan and Pressley, 1997, pp. 17-36).

In the educational setting, instructional scaffolds may include models, cues, prompts, hints, partial solutions, think-aloud modeling and direct instruction (Hartman, 2002). They may also be tools that help learners categorize information, focus on one aspect of learning with having to pay attention to too many things at once, or organize their own thinking.

Some examples of scaffolds include:

  • Graphic organizers (charts, diagrams, graphs)
  • Guides (listening guides, viewing guides)
  • Templates (writing templates, storyboards)
  • Prompts (sentence starters)
  • Supports (modeling, questions that activate student knowledge, translations, glossaries, calculators, explanations and clarifications)

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, and Experience & School. Washington , DC : National Academy Press.

Hartman, H. (2002). Scaffolding & Cooperative Learning. Human Learning and Instruction (pp. 23-69). New York : City College of City University of New York .

Hogan, K., & Pressley, M. (1997). Scaffolding Student Learning: Instructional

Approaches & Issues . Brookline Books, Inc.: Cambridge , M.A.

McKenzie, J. (2000). Scaffolding for Success. [Electronic version] Beyond Technology, Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School Community . Retrieved October 12, 2002 , from ffold.html