Scaffolding: Five Ways to Temporarily Support Students to Independence

For Christmas this year, we sent our little granddaughter  a walker. Wrenley will  turn a year old shortly and is almost walking. She’s not quite ready to let go of the coffee tables, the couch, the dog’s back, etc. and take those first wobbly steps on her own. She needs temporary help to get to independence, that’s what scaffolding is. It is a temporary support that allows the student to reach independence with a cognitive task, thinking, that is of appropriate challenge. And by the way, here’s my beautiful granddaughter, Wrenley. Of course I’m going to find a way to sneak a picture of my darling girl in!


I’ve been thinking about scaffolding lately for a number of reasons. First off, because I think making the decision about what scaffolding is and how to use it is tricky. It’s easy to confuse changing the task, or the cognition involved with the task, with scaffolding. Scaffolding should allow access to the task, like real scaffolding allows temporary access to the building. Here’s an easy way to think about it. When we scaffold, we’re not changing the task itself, we’re helping a student find a path to success. We’re bridging the barrier that is keeping the student from being successful independently. Let’s use Wrenley’s walker as an example. We didn’t keep her from walking, we gave her temporary help with balance, the barrier that was keeping her from walking.

So what does scaffolding in the classroom look like? Here are five ways that we can think about scaffolding student learning when a task is new or especially challenging.

1. Model 

It’s easy to forget that modeling is in fact scaffolding. Thinking aloud and showing students what the cognitive process looks like is the most important scaffolding we can provide. Don’t confuse showing students a finished work sample with modeling. While students benefit from seeing anchor works, it’s not the same as seeing the thinking. They need to see what goes on inside the proficient reader/writer’s brain in order to build the same, or similar habits of thinking.


Here’s middle school teacher,  Gabe Herbison, modeling his thinking about characters in front of his students. He’s teaching students how to look for patterns that reveal feelings and traits that allow the reader to draw inferences about characters.

2. Use a Less Complex Text 

When the task is new and especially challenging, it’s ok to use a less complex text. Often times we forget that the text itself provides a cognitive challenge. So if students are struggling to make meaning of the text, and at the same time we’re asking them to think in a new and challenging way about the text, the text itself can act as a barrier to the student becoming independent with the task. A good rule of thumb is to use less complex text when the task is new and especially challenging. Then later, practice the task again with more challenging text. Remember, scaffolds are temporary bridges to success.


Picture books can often serve as appropriate text when teaching a new and challenging task. The right picture book can provide engaging,  big ideas to talk about with students. Eve Bunting is one of my favorite authors for this kind of work. Don’t forget short stories as well.  Reading and talking about the text more than once before teaching the task can be another effective scaffold. Then students are familiar with the text before being asked to think in a new and challenging way.

3. Provide Language Banks 

Charting language that students might use when engaging in the task can be a highly effective scaffold as well. Many times our students lack the language required to be successful at the task. A good example of this is being able to analyze and describe characters. Standard three in the Common Core  State Standards calls for sixth grade students to be able to describe in depth how characters change and develop over time.  What we’ve noticed is that students can do this kind of thinking, when and if, they have the language to do so. So a temporary scaffold is to provide a chart with describing words as a bank for them reference in their talk and writing. Providing language banks is a critical scaffold for ESL students and also important for general education students who may or may not, have the language necessary to be successful with the task.


Here’s a chart we used in Gabe’s room when he taught the lesson on analyzing characters in order to draw inferences about them based on text evidence.

4. Collaborative Talk 

When learning is new, talking with another learner can be a powerful scaffold. Just talking about one’s thinking provides oral rehearsal that can be a bridge to independence. When students have the opportunity to try out their thinking and organize their thoughts orally before committing to paper, they are more likely to be successful and confident when they are asked to write. Talking also provides the opportunity to grow new thinking or possibly revise thinking if the student finds that he/she is off track or misunderstanding something. Talk also helps to build language and vocabulary that will improve the quality of the student’s writing. When teachers express concerns that allowing students to talk  isn’t preparing them for high stakes testing or college, where they won’t be allowed to talk, my answer is that talk in the classroom now is teaching the habits of mind I want for students later. Carefully and intentionally group students and give them stems or prompts to guide their talk as a scaffold to success with the task.

5. Provide Language Frames for Writing 

When students are asked to write as a part of the task they often struggle with getting started. Temporarily providing a language frame can be the scaffold that acts as a bridge to the “getting started” barrier. Later, when students are ready, take away the frame and let them form their own language.  I’ve seen teachers, that with good intentions, keep the frames or stems too long or require students to always use them when talking or writing. Unfortunately, then the focus becomes more about the frame and less about the task. Remember, scaffolds are temporary and only useful if really needed. I wouldn’t expect Wrenley to use her walker when she is gleefully running about the house on her own, except maybe to chase the dog with the added glitz of blinking lights and music!


This is a great example of a language frame template that Gabe Herbison used with his middle school readers to help them get started with writing about the inferences they were making about characters. Notice how Gabe skillfully layered the task, beginning with identifying a character to study, landing on key details that revealed something important about the character (text evidence), using those details to find patterns, and finally, drawing an inference about the character.


Remember, scaffolding should be a temporary bridge to independence with a rigorous grade level task. Scaffolding does not mean changing the task nor lowering expectations. Scaffolding provides a way for students to be successful and gain independence over time and with practice.


I know, it was cheap to slip another pic in, but I couldn’t resist! She’s so darn cute!