How to Best Scaffold Academic Work

By on April 28, 2014

I have been thinking a lot lately about scaffolds and how they are used in classrooms to support students as they develop academic reading, speaking, and writing skills. I have talked with thousands of educators over the years, read dozens of books, and taught for more than a decade in public schools. Through these experiences, I have discovered that educators talk about scaffolding in slightly different ways. We all use the same word but it could mean a number of things from class to class. The purpose of this post, therefore, is to clarify what scaffolding means to us at LiteracyTA and to offer some effective ways to use scaffolds for all students.

To begin, we need a working definition for the word "scaffold." In my classroom, I like to ask my students, "How can we say this in a simple way? How can we flip this word into easier English." When I think about scaffolds, I think about support. And when I hear "scaffold," I visualize a series of platforms or metal structures that can be climbed in order to get to the next level. If we can agree that "scaffolds" as a metaphoric term has something to do with structures that help students succeed, then we can also agree that scaffolds can be used strategically to move students up.

The purpose of these supports (or scaffolds) is to give students access to rigorous course work and complex texts. But giving access is not enough. Our scaffolds should help all students successfully engage in the challenging academic work. The scaffolds should shift the cognitive work back on the students so that they are the ones learning and growing. 

Scaffolds are not always used the same way and for the same purposes. In my experience, I have observed teachers "scaffold up" and "scaffold down." Here is a table to help explain the difference between scaffolding up and scaffolding down.

Scaffold Up Scaffold Down
  • Chunk lengthier texts into more manageable parts. Students read the entire text but over a longer period of time. (Teacher Do)
  • Strategically group students so that groups have a mix of talents in each group that can help move all students up. (Teacher Do)
  • Students work collaboratively and talk about how they are using a reading or writing skill to help them comprehend the ideas in a text says. (Students Do)
  • Students refer to language starters on the screen as they speak in large groups or with the whole class about the information in a text. (Students Do)
  • Bring in easier texts for students to read. (Teacher Do)
  • Remove parts of a text, making the overall length shorter. (Teacher Do)
  • Group students by ability level and expect different outcomes from each group based on their skills. (Teacher Do)
  • Teacher explains what a text says in order to increase students' comprehension. (Teacher Do)

What do you notice about these two lists? Both seem to list sound teaching practices that help students learn. But when we look closer, we can see that students seem to be doing more of the work in the "Scaffold Up" column. They are responsible for making meaning. The supports are in place to help them reach the goals and objectives for the lesson. In the "Scaffolding Down" column, students are supported but the expectations are lower and the teacher seems to be responsible for doing the work.

I have been playing with this concept of scaffolding up and scaffolding down for a few years now. I think it is an interesting conversation to have as a staff, in a department, and with your PLCs. Many teachers have asked me, "When do you remove scaffolds?" My first instinct is to say, "Never." Here is my rationale: If I am constantly challenging my students and setting high expectations, then they need support to reach my learning targets. If my purpose of my supports is to scaffold down, then maybe I would need to remove the scaffolds and gradually release responsibility to the students. Here is a simple questions to consider.

  • Do I use supports to lift students to where they need to be or do I support students by giving them something they can do today?

To answer this type of question, we must be willing to reflect on our own practices and evaluate our instructional decisions. We might also need to change our paradigm of how we see struggling students, English language learners, and low readers. When I taught ESL, for instance, I didn't use their limited English language proficiency to create barriers nor did I use it as evidence to prove they couldn't complete a specific task. I explained to my ESL students that they would have to learn to read and write like their native English speaking peers. I told them that I would set high expectations and that I would be there to support them along the way. Although we spent more time on each text we read, I asked my ESL students to do exactly what I wanted my English speaking students to do. And not surprisingly, my native speakers of English needed scaffolds, too.

All students need some form of support. Scaffolds may look different from class to class, but all students need support if they are being pushed and encouraged to think critically. I believe we win when we scaffold up. Want to learn more? Click on the links to continue learning about these related topics:

Pre-determined scaffolds
Promoting Interaction
Collaborative Work
Critical Thinking

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