Education can be seen as the act of helping students learn new content, concepts and skills over time by teaching the steps necessary to master the skills being taught. Teachers need to provide scaffolding for students to reach each skill or concept and achieve at higher levels.

In the field of education, scaffolding is both a noun and a verb. In either case, scaffolding refers to the support systems and instructional techniques teachers employ to help take students from where they are to higher levels of academic achievement.

When you consider the term scaffolding, it can be helpful to consider how scaffolding is used in construction. Two examples come to mind that are analogous to teaching and learning.

Consider a highway being built in a city. Because cities often already have a complex network of roads and highways, new highways are sometimes raised in the air to cross other highways or roads. When these elevated roadways are being built, construction begins from the ground. Construction workers lay the foundation, and build support columns little by little, using scaffolding to keep them held in place and standing. As the columns are ready to stand on their own, the scaffolding is removed.

Another scenario involves repairing the side of a tall building. If the damage or area to be repaired is higher than the reach of the worker, scaffolding is used to reach the area. Again, the worker begins from the ground up, building layer upon layer until the area that needs repair can be reached. Once the repairs are completed, the scaffolding is removed.

Scaffolding in the classroom: What does it look like?

In a classroom setting, scaffolding takes many forms. The idea is to support students to achieve greater levels of independence over time. Vygotsky referred to the zone of proximal development — what students' can do alone versus what they can accomplish with the help of a more capable peer or teacher.

Just as in the construction analogies, teachers must determine where students are and help them to reach the next step as they progress towards the goal of knowledge and skills attainment. Numerous instructional strategies can be applied as instructional scaffolds for students. A few favorites are listed here:

Pictures — Use pictures to help make abstract concepts more concrete. Pictures can be cut out of magazines or discarded books, laminated and used during instruction. Pictures can be sorted and classified, used as writing prompts or labeled with key vocabulary. Internet search engines are also a great resource for finding images relating to a particular topic or concept. Look for pictures that are interesting and spark conversation to help keep students engaged while making the content clear.

Gestures — Incorporate movement and gestures to demonstrate the meaning of words and concepts. Have students move their arms or bodies to show the meaning of a word. While this may seem more applicable to early grade levels, movement and gestures are beneficial for all students to help them remember key vocabulary, content topics or concepts.

Sketches — When pictures are not available or have not been found, use sketches to help demonstrate the vocabulary or concept. A reminder: Sketches differ from drawings. A sketch is a quick representation and not necessarily artistic or well-drawn (think stick figures). While artistic talent varies among individuals, anyone can sketch to help get a message across quickly.

Contextual definitions — Teachers can provide students with contextual definitions of words and concepts both when speaking and when reading. At times, contextual definitions are built into text already.

Consider the following sentence: Scaffolding, the careful and intentional integration of supportive techniques to help students learn, should be integrated into each lesson. The term "scaffolding" is defined in the context of the sentence itself. Teachers can both point out contextual definitions in text and embed contextual definitions in their speech as they incorporate more complex vocabulary into discussions and explanations.

Written and oral instructions — When giving students instructions, it is important to provide both written as well as oral instructions as an additional scaffold for students. Students may not have heard or understood the directions upon delivery, and having the directions written down can provide students with an additional support to refer back to. Consider adding sketches and pictures to the written directions to help make them clear.

When delivering the directions, consider their complexity and the task that students will need to complete. It is recommended that you show students an example of the finished product or products at various stages, so they are clear on what they will be doing. Another option is to deliver the first few steps, then have students complete the first few steps. When they have completed that portion, demonstrate the next few steps and have students complete them. Continue with this process until the task is complete.

Sentence frames, starters and signal words — Sentence frames serve as a strong scaffold for students to increase their level of academic language, both in oral interactions as well as writing. Sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words have been described in greater detail in the article Using sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words to improve language.

The gradual release of responsibility

The gradual release of responsibility indicates that instruction should move from teacher-led (I do it), to guided practice with students (we do it), to independent student practice (you do it). The model is powerful and should be employed consistently in instruction.

At times, teachers move from the first part of the model, of discussing or demonstrating a technique, then immediately move to having students practice independently. This leaves out the critical step of students practicing with guidance from their teachers or peers.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their recent publication "Better Learning Through Structured Teaching" recommend adding an often overlooked additional step of having students practice the skill collaboratively. They describe how to have students move from getting instruction from the teacher, to practicing with guidance from the teacher, to working collaboratively with peers and finally moving to independent practice. The power of student collaboration and practice of skills to gain mastery cannot be underscored.

The Goldilocks principle

In the classroom, the Goldilocks principle should be applied when using scaffolding: not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.

If we provide too much scaffolding for students, we risk having them stagnate and not move towards independence of skills. If we do not provide enough scaffolding for students, we risk leaving them behind or having them give up on the lesson and not putting the effort into moving forward with the skills and concepts they are learning about.

When just the right amount of scaffolding is presented to students, it gives them the opportunity to receive the support they need to learn, while at the same time moving them toward independence and mastery of the content topics, concepts and skills being taught.

This is easier said than done, as each student has unique background knowledge, content knowledge and skills, vocabulary knowledge, and language proficiency levels. These factors influence how much scaffolding will be required for each student. As we learn more about our students, it will help us determine where to begin.

Getting started: How much is enough, but not too much?

Starting off with the right amount of scaffolding can be tricky. Some of the following information can help you get started:

Background experiences: Connect learning to the neurological pathways in the brain by linking what is being learned to students’ prior experiences. Through analogy and storytelling, you can share how content relates to your own life and experiences. Consider common life experiences your students may have had. Give them prompts to discuss their own experiences.

Content knowledge and skills: Assess what students already know about a topic. This can be done in a variety of ways including discussion and questioning, anticipation guides, review and quizzes on previously taught concepts and skills, or having students sketch a picture that represents a topic. This information can help you determine gaps in student learning that need to be filled in, or what may be reviewed quickly as students already have a working knowledge of the topic.

Vocabulary knowledge: Students’ knowledge of key vocabulary for the lesson plays a huge part in how well they will comprehend and recall the academic concepts. Assess students' word knowledge by reviewing past concepts and the related language, have students do a word card sort where they physically match words and definitions, or refer back to a word wall where previously learned words are posted.

Language proficiency levels: Knowing the English proficiency levels of your English learners is critical in terms of knowing how much scaffolding students will need as you introduce new concepts. If students have been identified as English learners in your school or district, assessment data will be available from the district or school assessment coordinator or English language development specialist.

When to begin to remove the scaffolds

As you see that students are experiencing success, the scaffolds you have put in place can begin to be removed. Challenge students with gentle nudges, by beginning to remove scaffolds relatively slowly, as opposed to shoving them forward toward independence when they are not ready. Utilize the gradual release of responsibility until the scaffolding is removed all together.

Consider the following scenario: When someone is injured in an accident and is unable to walk, she may be given a wheelchair to assist her in getting around. If the injuries are not permanent, after receiving physical therapy, the person may be given crutches once she is able to begin walking again. When she is able, a cane may suffice, until she is able to walk again without an aid.

Doctors carefully monitor the person’s progress and give the person the support she needs in order to be able to walk on her own again. They are careful, however, to not have the person continue to use a tool when she is able to continue without it; once a person can begin to walk, the wheelchair is taken away and crutches are used.

This idea is similar to scaffolding in the classroom. We should provide students the support only for as long as they need it.

Monitor and adjust

The old adage still stands true for teachers: monitor and adjust. Keep a careful eye on students and their progress through formative assessment, observation and discussion with students and colleagues. Beware of learned helplessness: where we provide so much scaffolding and support that students begin to unnecessarily rely on it.

To help our students reach academic excellence, we must build in just the right amount of scaffolding; not too much and not too little.