Looking to bridge the learning gaps in your classroom? Help students work through complex topics and texts with effective scaffolding strategies. Learn how to use scaffolded instruction to establish a supportive learning environment where every student has the opportunity to succeed.
I think we can all agree that students come to us with varying learning preferences and abilities. Given the limited time and resource constraints, it can feel like an uphill battle to help every student succeed, especially those who struggle to grasp new concepts.
Enter scaffolded instruction.
Having a strong understanding of scaffolding strategies, including when and how to implement them, is a vital component of success for all students, no matter their age or abilities. These must-know teaching strategies help students go from feeling overwhelmed and wanting to give up to finding the confidence to complete complex tasks successfully.
After reading this post, you’ll better understand how to bring the benefit of scaffolding into your classroom.
Much like scaffolding in construction is used to support the building of a structure, scaffolding in education supports skill building and, ultimately, academic achievement. It involves breaking down complex skills into manageable steps to provide guidance and support until students can tackle tasks independently.
This method is vital in navigating the secondary ELA landscape, where students face higher-level reading comprehension, critical thinking, literature analysis, and writing skills. It eases students into gradual progression where they can confidently approach more complex materials and apply higher-level skills.
It’s true that scaffolded learning and differentiated learning are connected, but they are not the same thing. Scaffolded learning provides temporary structured support toward gradual independence around a concept or skill. Differentiated learning focuses on modifying instruction and learning materials to meet individual needs. That said, scaffolding strategies are often employed in support of differentiated instruction.
Whether employed together or individually, these two teaching strategies help you create a more inclusive and effective learning environment for all.
There are several benefits of scaffolded instruction in secondary ELA or any classroom, including:
- Fostering a positive and supportive learning environment
- Giving students built-in “check-points” to ask for help
- Empowering teachers to provide additional support as needed
- Encouraging students to build skills gradually while increasing confidence
- Proactively minimizing student learning gaps
- Reducing student frustration, overwhelm, and confusion
- Engaging students in the learning process
- Breaking down complex concepts and tasks into manageable steps
- Laying a foundation for independence and autonomy
- Promoting information retention and a deeper understanding of the material
- Allowing teachers to adapt lessons to meet student’s needs
- Ensuring mastery of foundational skills before moving on to more advanced concepts
Now that you know the benefits, you might be wondering how to effectively incorporate scaffolded instruction into your classroom, bringing me to the part I know you’ve been waiting for.
When choosing a scaffolding strategy for your classroom, it’s important to consider the skills and concepts at hand and your student’s needs and abilities. To help you get started, here are some scaffolding strategies I’ve found particularly useful in secondary ELA.
You never want terminology to be the roadblock for student success. Therefore, it’s helpful to introduce and explain key vocabulary words before delving into new concepts or reading material. Additionally, take time to review the terms in context to deepen student understanding. By pre-teaching vocabulary, you equip students with the necessary language and knowledge needed to comprehend the material at hand.
This strategy enhances their understanding of context and enables a smoother engagement with the content. It is especially beneficial for texts with challenging or subject-specific language, ensuring students can navigate and comprehend the content more effectively.
To ease students into complex reading material, provide opportunities for them to dip their toes into the context before diving in. Previewing reading material involves providing an overview, discussing key themes, or introducing relevant background information. Therefore, students understand what to expect from a text, promoting better comprehension and stronger engagement.
For example, allow students to flip through the text to gauge the structure, language, and content, encouraging them to ask clarifying or curious questions before reading. This will help activate prior knowledge, establish context, and spark interest, making the text more accessible.
Whether you’re introducing a new genre, theme, unit, or writing style, consider starting with a shorter assignment first. Maybe that involves reading a short story or poem to familiarize students with a particular genre, writing style, or theme before reading a full-length text. It could also look like having students write a full-length essay in phases and providing feedback after each step before putting it all together.
Not only does this allow you to provide quick and targeted feedback along the way, but it also minimizes student overwhelm and procrastination with larger or longer assignments. Students will have more confidence going into the more complex material.
Before diving into a new concept, tap into your students’ prior knowledge. Calling upon what they already know helps establish a sense of connection to and relevance of the material, helping to build confidence and intrinsic motivation. It also sets the stage for a deeper understanding of what they are about to learn.
Try kicking off your lesson with a brief discussion, relevant questions, a KWL chart, or a quick review of previously learned material.
Graphic organizers are powerful learning tools that provide visual and structured guidance for students as they learn. These visual note-taking tools help them process information, follow steps, and organize their thoughts before, during, or after learning. It can help students organize their thoughts and grasp the relationship between information, guiding them through anything from text analysis to essay planning.
For example, help students organize their thoughts with Venn diagrams, mind maps, plot diagrams, or flow charts. They can work through the resources in groups, as a class, or independently, allowing you to employ them for various purposes.
While graphic organizers help students process and organize information in a visually structured fashion, it’s not the only way we can support students with visual aids. Charts, video clips, images, and diagrams provide visual cues to help students process and comprehend new information and concepts.
They are also a great tool to ensure you are supporting various learning styles while helping students make connections between visual representations and the content you are teaching. This is a particularly effective scaffolding strategy for struggling students and English language learners.
While some scaffolding strategies require planning, this strategy can be implemented on the fly as needed (#convenient). The “Think, pair, share” approach encourages students to activate critical thinking. It involves students individually considering a question or prompt, discussing their thoughts with a partner, and then sharing their ideas with the whole class. Similarly, you can encourage students to engage in a quick “turn and talk” where they share their ideas with their neighbors.
Either way, it promotes collaboration and active participation while enhancing both comprehension and communication skills. This strategy gives them time to work through their thoughts in stages, learn from one another, and minimize the fear of sharing one’s thoughts with the class.
We often tell our students to “show, not tell” in descriptive writing. We can take our own advice when it comes to scaffolding. Sometimes, students need more than verbal explanations, needing to see a concept or skill in action. Modeling is a powerful scaffolding strategy that involves demonstrating a skill or concept before expecting students to try it themselves. Pair modeling with thinking out loud as you walk students through the process to target both auditory and visual learners.
Whether analyzing a poem, annotating a passage, or writing a strong thesis statement, a well-executed model can help students understand the steps they can implement independently.
Information overload is very much a thing. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for some students to struggle to identify essential information or organize their thoughts. This is especially true for middle-grade learners transitioning away from text-dependent questions and working on developing higher-level thinking and inferential analysis skills.
Posing open-ended questions will help stimulate critical thinking and guide students through the thought process while teaching them what kinds of questions they can ask themselves in future scenarios. Rather than giving students the answers, these guiding questions prompt students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information independently.
When introducing new and complex concepts to your students, consider breaking them down into smaller, more focused lessons. Each mini-lesson should include instruction, modeling, and guided practice that target specific learning outcomes.
This structure will give students the opportunity to concentrate on one element at a time, making complex concepts more manageable. Meanwhile, you will have opportunities to assess student understanding along the way, providing additional instruction or support as needed before moving on.
For some students, the biggest roadblock is figuring out how to articulate their thoughts. They have an idea of what they want to say but need help figuring out how to say it. Providing students with thinking stems in a simple yet effective scaffolding strategy that offers a starting point during discussions or written responses.
Thinking stems serve as a scaffold for students to articulate their thoughts more effectively, helping them overcome the challenge of initiating responses by providing a structured starting point. This strategy promotes critical thinking and communication skills, encouraging students to express their ideas with greater clarity and coherence.
Here’s the bottom line: breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks makes learning more accessible for all students. Whether closely analyzing a text or preparing for a challenging writing assignment, breaking things down and providing guidance along the way helps prevent information overload and supports student understanding.
While it may take a little more time and planning, the results are worth it—trust me. Scaffolding will lead to student confidence, independence, and, ultimately, success. I mean, come on—what more could we ask for?
What scaffolding strategies have you used in your classroom? Share them in a comment below!