Anne West (The University of Georgia); Janet Swanson; and Lindsay Lipscomb


What is Scaffolding?

The term ‘scaffolding’ comes from the works of Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976). The term ‘scaffolding’ was developed as a metaphor to describe the type of assistance offered by a teacher or peer to support learning. In the process of scaffolding, the teacher helps the student master a task or concept that the student is initially unable to grasp independently. The teacher offers assistance with only those skills that are beyond the student’s capability.

Of great importance is allowing the student to complete as much of the task as possible, unassisted. The teacher only attempts to help the student with tasks that are just beyond his current capability. Student errors are expected, but, with teacher feedback and prompting, the student is able to achieve the task or goal. When the student takes responsibility for or masters the task, the teacher begins the process of “fading”, or the gradual removal of the scaffolding, which allows the student to work independently.

“Scaffolding is actually a bridge used to build upon what students already know to arrive at something they do not know. If scaffolding is properly administered, it will act as an enabler, not as a disabler” (Benson, 1997).

Many different facilitative tools can be utilized in scaffolding student learning. Among them are: breaking the task into smaller, more manageable parts; using ‘think aloud, or verbalizing thinking processes when completing a task; cooperative learning, which promotes teamwork and dialogue among peers; concrete prompts, questioning; coaching; cue cards or modeling.

Others might include the activation of background knowledge, giving tips, strategies, cues and procedures. Teachers have to be mindful of keeping the learner in pursuit of the task while minimizing the learner’s stress level. Skills, or tasks too far out of reach can lead a student to his frustration level, and tasks that are too simple can cause much the same effect.

Each facilitative method used is chosen as an individually tailored instructional tool. Teachers have to have open dialogue with the students to determine what and how they are thinking in order to clear up misconceptions and to individualize instruction.

Crucial to successful scaffolding is an understanding of the student’s prior knowledge and abilities. The teacher must ascertain what the student already knows so that it can be “hooked”, or connected to the new knowledge and made relevant to the learner’s life, thus increasing the motivation to learn.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Inherent in scaffolded instruction is Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) idea of the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky suggests that there are two parts of a learner’s developmental level: the “actual developmental level” and the “potential developmental level”. The zone of proximal development is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) can also be described as the area between what a learner can do by himself and that which can be attained with the help of a ‘more knowledgeable other’ adult or peer. The ‘more knowledgeable other’, or MKO, shares knowledge with the student to bridge the gap between what is known and what is not known. Once the student has expanded his knowledge, the actual developmental level has been expanded and the ZPD has shifted. The ZPD is always changing as the student expands and gains knowledge, so scaffolded instruction must constantly be individualized to address the changing ZPD of each student.


It was Vygotsky’s belief that “good learning” occurs in the child’s zone of proximal development. Important to teaching in the ZPD is the determination of what the student can manage on his own and to allow the student to do as much as possible without any assistance. “Fading” is the process of gradually removing the scaffolding that was put into place for the child until it is completely gone. Eventually, the child internalizes the information and becomes a self-regulated, independent learner.

Until students can demonstrate task mastery of new or difficult tasks, they are given more assistance or support from a teacher or a more knowledgeable other (MKO). As the learner moves toward mastery, the assistance or support is gradually decreased in order to shift the responsibility for learning from the MKO to the learner (Larkin, 2002). Zhao and Orey (1999) summarize, “scaffolding is a metaphor to characterize a special type of instructional process which works in a task-sharing situation between the teacher and the learner.” The authors further delineate this basic idea into two key aspects (or rules):

  • “(a) help the learner with those aspects of the task that the learner cannot manage yet; and
  • (b) allow the learner to do as much as he or she can without help” (p. 6).

Characteristics and Critical Features of Scaffolded Instruction

Lange (2002) states that there are two major steps involved in instructional scaffolding: (1) “development of instructional plans to lead the students from what they already know to a deep understanding of new material,” and (2) “execution of the plans, wherein the instructor provides support to the students at every step of the learning process.”

In an appropriate scaffolding process, there will be specific identifiable features that are in place to allow facilitation of assisting the learner in internalizing the knowledge until mastery occurs. Applebee and Langer (1983), as cited by Zhao and Orey (1999), identify these five features as:

  • Intentionality: The task has a clear overall purpose driving any separate activity that may contribute to the whole.
  • Appropriateness: Instructional tasks pose problems that can be solved with help but which students could not successfully complete on their own.
  • Structure: Modeling and questioning activities are structured around a model of appropriate approaches to the task and lead to a natural sequence of thought and language.
  • Collaboration:The teacher’s response to student work recasts and expands upon the students’ efforts without rejecting what they have accomplished on their own. The teacher’s primary role is collaborative rather than evaluative.
  • Internalization: External scaffolding for the activity is gradually withdrawn as the patterns are internalized by the students (p. 6).

Larkin (2002) states, “Scaffolding is one of the principles of effective instruction that enables teachers to accommodate individual student needs.”

In keeping with this theory, it can be seen that instruction must also be tailored around “contingent instruction”, which is a term identified by Reichgerlt, Shadbolt, Paskiewica, Wood, & Wood (1993) as cited by Zhao and Orey (1999).

  • The teacher or MKO realizes that the amount of instructional support given is dependent upon the outcome of the previous assistance.
  • If a learner is unable to complete a task after an intervention by the MKO, then he or she is immediately given a more specific directive.
  • Equally, if the learner is successful with an intervention, then he or she is given a less explicit directive the next time he or she needs assistance.
  • Next, the instructor or MKO must recognize that the instructional intervention must be specific to the task the learner is currently attempting to complete.
  • Finally, the teacher must keep in the forefront of the process that the student must be given ample time to apply the directive or to try a new move him/herself before additional intervention is supplied.

Six General Elements of Scaffolded Instruction

1 – Sharing a Specific Goal

It is the teacher’s responsibility to establish the shared goal. However, the learner’s interests must be recruited or enlisted through the teacher’s ability to communicate with the learner and achieve intersubjectivity (sharing intentions, perceptions, feelings and conceptions) (Zhao & Orey, 1999). The teacher must do some pre-assessment of the student and the curriculum. Achievement of curriculum objectives is planned as the teacher considers the needs of each student. The teacher must be considerate of some of the unique, unusual, and often ineffective problem-solving techniques that children use. Allowing input from the student on the shared goal will enhance intrinsic motivation.

It will also help control the frustration level of the learner as he or she will feel that their interests have been validated. It will assist the learner in establishing a desire to master the goal where success is contingent upon one’s own ability in developing new skills. In this manner, the process of learning itself is esteemed, and the attainment of mastery is seen as being directly correlated with the effort put forth.

2 -Whole Task Approach

In the Whole Task Approach, the focus is on the overall goal to be attained throughout the entire process. Consequently, the task is learned as a whole instead of a set of individual sub-skills. Each feature of the lesson is learned as it relates to the whole task. This approach lessens the amount of passive knowledge on the part of the learner and the need for transfer is not as great. It must be noted that this approach is only effective if the learner does not experience extreme difficulty with any of the component skills needed to complete the whole task. Imagine how difficult it would be to scaffold a child in telling time if they could not identify the numbers 1 through 12.

3 – Immediate Availability of Help

Frequent success is important in scaffolding, especially in helping control frustration levels of the learner. Student successes may be experienced more often if the MKO provides assistance in a timely and effective manner so as to enable the learner to proceed with the task. These successes, in turn, help to increase motivation through a positive self-efficacy and make the learner’s time and effort more productive. This procedure directly corresponds to the first rule of scaffolding as defined by Zhao & Orey (1999), which is to assist the learner with those tasks he/she is not yet able to carry out on his/her own.

4 – Intention-assisting

It is central to the scaffolding process to supply assistance to the learner’s present focus, thereby helping the learner with his/her current difficulties. In providing this immediate help with the current task at hand, a more productive learning environment is fostered because information has been related and conferred according to the learner’s focus keeping the learner in pursuit of the task.

However, it is often necessary to redirect the intentions of the learner if they do not represent an effective strategy for completing the task. The teacher or MKO must be cognizant that there are numerous ways of accomplishing a certain task. If the learner’s current path is effective, it should be accepted as it is the essence of scaffolding to help the learner proceed with the least amount of assistance as possible. If the MKO finds him/herself consistently helping a learner with low level intentions, it may be a good idea to turn to coaching as a strategy to help the learner progress. This is beneficial in that it helps the learner examine the task from a different perspective so as to encourage higher level thinking skills.

5 – Optimal Level of Help

What the learner is able to do should be matched with the level of assistance provided. The learner should be given just enough help to overcome the current obstacle, but the level of assistance should not hinder the learner from contributing and participating in the learning process of that particular task. In other words, the assistance should only attend to the areas of the task that he/she cannot accomplish on his/her own. No intervention should be made if the current task is within the learner’s capabilities. However, if the learner lacks the necessary skills, a demonstration is needed.

6 – Conveying an Expert Model

An expert model can provide an explicit example of the task as the expert way of accomplishing the task. The techniques for accomplishing the task are clearly expressed. In an implicit demonstration, the information is outlined around the expert model.

Methods of Instructional Scaffolding

Lange (2002) states that based on the work of Hogan and Pressley (1997) there are five different methods in instructional scaffolding: modeling of desired behaviors, offering explanations, inviting students to participate, verifying and clarifying student understandings, and inviting students to contribute clues. These techniques are used to direct students toward self-regulation and independence.

The first step in instructional scaffolding is usually modeling. Lange (2002) cites Hogan and Pressley (1997) as defining modeling as, “teaching behavior that shows how one should feel, think or act within a given situation.” There are three types of modeling. Think-aloud modeling gives auditory substance to the thought processes associated with a task. For example, a teacher might verbalize her thought processes for breaking an unfamiliar word down into its parts so that it can be read.

Talk-aloud modeling involves verbalizing the thought process or problem-solving strategy while demonstrating the task. An example would be a teacher verbally describing her thought processes as she demonstrates the correct way to subtract two-digit numbers on the board. Lastly, there is performance modeling. Performance modeling requires no verbal instruction. For example, a baseball coach might show one of his players how to get under a ball to catch it (Lange, 2002).

As well as modeling, the instructor needs to offer explanations. These explanations should openly address the learner’s comprehension about what is being learned, why and when it is used, and how it is used (Lange, 2002). At the beginning, explanations are detailed and comprehensive and repeated often. As the learner progresses in his knowledge, explanations may consist of only key words and prompts to help the learner remember important information.

For example, when teaching children how to identify adjectives in a sentence, the teacher will need to lead the children through learning the detailed definition of an adjective in the beginning. The instructor may have to repeat or rephrase this thorough explanation many times during guided practice. As the students gain experience, the teacher might just prompt the students with words like “what kind”, “which one” and “how many.”

Lange (2002) next addresses inviting student participation, especially in the early stages of scaffolding. This technique will heighten student engagement and ownership in the learning process. It will also provide the instructor with an opportunity to emphasize or correct understandings of the task. This leads us to verifying and clarifying student understandings. As students become familiar with new material, it is key for the teacher to evaluate student understanding and provide positive and corrective feedback.

Points to Consider When Implementing Instructional Scaffolding:

Larkin (2002) suggests that teachers can follow a few effective techniques of scaffolding:

Begin by boosting confidence. Introduce students first to tasks they can perform with little or no assistance. This will improve self-efficacy. Provide enough assistance to allow students to achieve success quickly. This will help lower frustration levels and ensure that students remain motivated to advance to the next step.

This will also help guard against students giving up due to repeated failures. Help students “fit in.” Students may actually work harder if they feel as if they resemble their peers. Avoid boredom. Once a skill is learned, don’t overwork it. Look for clues that the learner is mastering the task.

  • The scaffolding should be removed gradually and then removed completely when mastery of the task is demonstrated.

Applications of Scaffolding

Scaffolding is used in a very wide range of situations. Mothers naturally employ this approach as they teach their children how to live in and enjoy their world. Teachers, from Pre-K to Adult Education appreciate the necessity and increased learning afforded by the use of these techniques.

Non-traditional educational settings, such as business training scenarios and athletic teams, also use these methods to assure the success of their employees and/or members. Teachers and trainers can even use the techniques and strategies of scaffolding without even knowing the name of this useful method. It is a very natural approach to ensure the learning of the student.

Pre – School (Toddlers)

Morelock, Brown and Morrissey (2003) noted in their study that mothers adapt their scaffolding to the perceived abilities of their children. The mothers scaffold interactions at play by modeling or prompting behaviors which they see demonstrated by their child or just beyond the level demonstrated. For instance, the very young child is playing with blocks by stacking them on top of each other.

The mother attracts the child’s attention and models how to “build” a wall or bridge by stacking them in a different way and using a toy person or truck to climb the wall or ride over the bridge. She then watches and assists as needed until the child appropriates the skill or loses interest and moves on to something else. She will try again the next time the child is playing with the blocks or try another construction which she feels will be more attractive to the child.

The study further suggested that the mother will adapt her scaffolding behavior to the needs of her child. If she sees that the child is imaginative and creative, she will then scaffold beyond the apparent skill level exhibited. Conversely, if she perceives that the child is less attentive or exhibits behaviors which are not easy to decipher, she will then demonstrate new skills instead of extensions to the skills already present. The authors suggest that this could be a possible early indicator of giftedness.

Pre-K through Grade 5 (Elementary School)

An elementary math teacher is introducing the addition of two-digit numbers. She first solicits the students’ interest by using a “hook” such as an interesting story or situation. Then she reduces the number of steps for initial success by modeling, verbally talking through the steps as she works and allowing the students to work with her on the sample problems.

An overhead projector is a great tool for this activity because the teacher is able to face the class while she works the problems. She can then pick up non-verbal cues from the class as she works. The students’ interest is held by asking them to supply two-digit numbers for addition, playing “Stump the Teacher”. She takes this opportunity for further modeling of the skills and verbally presenting the process as she works through these problems.

The students are then allowed to work several problems independently as the teacher watches and provides assistance where needed. The success rate is increased by providing these incremental opportunities for success. Some students may require manipulatives to solve the problems and some may require further “talking through” the procedures. These strategies may be applied individually or in small groups.

More challenging problems can then be added to the lesson. Further explicit modeling and verbalization will be required. Some students will be able to work independently while some will require more assistance and scaffolding. She will begin to fade the scaffolding as soon as she is sure that the students can effectively function alone.

Upper Grades (6-12)

Banaszynski (2000) provides another example of instructional scaffolding in his article about a project in which a group of eighth-grade history students in Wisconsin examined the Revolutionary War from two points of view—American and British. He began by guiding his students as they undertook a sequential series of activities in order to thoroughly investigate the opposing reactions to causes of the war. Then students contributed to a class timeline which detailed causes, actions and reactions. Banaszynski describes how work continued:

“After the timeline was completed, the students were arranged in groups, and each group did a critical analysis of primary-source material, focusing on the efforts each side made to avoid the war. This started students thinking about what the issues were and how each side handled them. The next step was to ask a question: Did the colonists have legitimate reasons for going to war against Great Britain? [I] asked each group to choose either the Patriot or Loyalist position and spend a day searching the Internet for primary sources and other materials to support their positions.”

The instructor continued scaffolding by interviewing the groups to probe for misconceptions, need for redirection, or re-teaching. Students later compared research and wrote essays that were analyzed and evaluated by fellow students using rubrics; groups then composed essays that included the strongest arguments from the individual works.

The project, Banaszynski says, was an enormous success; students began the unit working as individuals reliant upon him for instruction. As work proceeded, the feedback framework was altered so that students were guiding each other and, in turn, themselves. Banaszynski’s role in guiding the research and leading the reporting activities faded as the project continued and requirements became more complicated. As a result, students were able to appreciate their mastery of both materials and skills.

Challenges and Benefits of Scaffolding

As with any other learning theory or strategy, there are challenges and benefits to scaffolding. Understanding and comparing both will assist the educational, professional or trainer in their assessment of the usefulness of the strategies and techniques as well as allow for comprehensive planning before implementation. The challenges are real but can be overcome with careful planning and preparation.


  • Very time consuming
  • Lack of sufficient personnel
  • Potential for misjudging the zone of proximal development; success hinges on identifying the area that is just beyond but not too far beyond the students’ abilities
  • Inadequately modeling the desired behaviors, strategies or activities because the teacher has not fully considered the individual student’s needs, predilections, interests, and abilities (such as not showing a student how to “double click” on an icon when using a computer)
  • Full benefits not seen unless the instructors are properly trained
  • Requires the teacher to give up control as fading occurs
  • Lack of specific examples and tips in teacher’s editions of textbooks

When assessing the benefits of scaffolding, it is necessary to consider the context in which you wish to implement the strategies and techniques. Additionally, you must know the learners and evaluate their particular needs first.


  • Possible early identifier of giftedness
  • Provides individualized instruction
  • Greater assurance of the learner acquiring the desired skill, knowledge or ability
  • Provides differentiated instruction
  • Delivers efficiency – Since the work is structured, focused, and glitches have been reduced or eliminated prior to initiation, time on task is increased and efficiency in completing the activity is increased.
  • Creates momentum – Through the structure provided by scaffolding, students spend less time searching and more time on learning and discovering resulting in quicker learning
  • Engages the learner
  • Motivates the learner to learn
  • Minimizes the level of frustration for the learner

 Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

As a general instructional strategy, scaffolding shares many similarities with differentiation, which refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Because scaffolding and differentiation techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable.

That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading.

Alternatively, when teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation).

The following examples will serve to illustrate a few common scaffolding strategies:

  • The teacher gives students a simplified version of a lesson, assignment, or reading, and then gradually increases the complexity, difficulty, or sophistication over time.To achieve the goals of a particular lesson, the teacher may break up the lesson into a series of mini-lessons that progressively move students toward stronger understanding.For example, a challenging algebra problem may be broken up into several parts that are taught successively. Between each mini-lesson, the teacher checks to see if students have understood the concept, gives them time to practice the equations, and explains how the math skills they are learning will help them solve the more challenging problem (questioning students to check for understanding and giving them time to practice are two common scaffolding strategies). In some cases, the term guided practice may be used to describe this general technique.
  • The teacher describes or illustrates a concept, problem, or process in multiple ways to ensure understanding. A teacher may orally describe a concept to students, use a slideshow with visual aids such as images and graphics to further explain the idea, ask several students to illustrate the concept on the blackboard, and then provide the students with a reading and writing task that asks them articulate the concept in their own words. This strategy addresses the multiple ways in which students learn—e.g., visually, orally, kinesthetically, etc.—and increases the likelihood that students will understand the concept being taught.
  • Students are given an exemplar or model of an assignment they will be asked to complete. The teacher describes the exemplar assignment’s features and why the specific elements represent high-quality work. The model provides students with a concrete example of the learning goals they are expected to achieve or the product they are expected to produce.Similarly, a teacher may also model a process—for example, a multistep science experiment—so that students can see how it is done before they are asked to do it themselves (teachers may also ask a student to model a process for her classmates).
  • Students are given a vocabulary lesson before they read a difficult text. The teacher reviews the words most likely to give students trouble, using metaphors, analogies, word-image associations, and other strategies to help students understand the meaning of the most difficult words they will encounter in the text. When the students then read the assignment, they will have greater confidence in their reading ability, be more interested in the content, and be more likely to comprehend and remember what they have read.
  • The teacher clearly describes the purpose of a learning activity, the directions students need to follow, and the learning goals they are expected to achieve. The teacher may give students a handout with step-by-step instructions they should follow, or provide the scoring guide or rubric that will be used to evaluate and grade their work. When students know the reason why they are being asked to complete an assignment, and what they will specifically be graded on, they are more likely to understand its importance and be motivated to achieve the learning goals of the assignment. Similarly, if students clearly understand the process they need to follow, they are less likely to experience frustration or give up because they haven’t fully understood what they are expected to do.
  • The teacher explicitly describes how the new lesson builds on the knowledge and skills students were taught in a previous lesson. By connecting a new lesson to a lesson the students previously completed, the teacher shows students how the concepts and skills they already learned will help them with the new assignment or project (teachers may describe this general strategy as “building on prior knowledge” or “connecting to prior knowledge”). Similarly, the teacher may also make explicit connections between the lesson and the personal interests and experiences of the students as a way to increase understanding or engagement in the learning process. For example, a history teacher may reference a field trip to a museum during which students learned about a particular artifact related to the lesson at hand. For a more detailed discussion, see the relevance.   (Scaffolding, 2015)


Lipscomb, A. Swanson, J. & West, A.(2010) Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching, and Technology, Global Text, Michael Orey. Chapter 21. Retrieved from  (CC BY)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Ch. 11 Scaffolding Copyright © 2017 by Anne West (The University of Georgia); Janet Swanson; and Lindsay Lipscomb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book