Instructional Scaffolding: A Definitive Guide

Post by Open Colleges on March 20th, 2013

Definition of Scaffolding

Educational (or Instructional) Scaffolding is a teaching method that enables a student to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal through a gradual shedding of outside assistance. It was first coined by researchers David Wood (Nottingham), Jerome S. Bruner (Oxford), and Gail Ross (Harvard) in their 1976 report, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.”

According to its original definition, scaffolding enlists the instructor as an “activator” whose role is to facilitate the student’s incremental mastery of a concept. “Fading” is the process of gradually removing the scaffolding that was put into place for the student until he internalizes the information and becomes a self-regulated, independent learner.

Two years after their initial report, in 1978, the researchers revisited the work of famed psychologist Lev Vygotsky and found reason to revise their definition. Vygotsky writes in “Mind and Society” (Harvard University Press) that there are two levels of learning that need to be recognized as distinct: 1) the actual developmental level, “that is, the level of development of a child’s mental functions that has been established as a result of certain already completed developmental cycles”; and 2) the potential development level “as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” The difference between these two levels is called the student’s “proximal zone of development.”

Since 1978, scholars have come to agree that, in order for educational scaffolding to succeed, instructors needed to target each student’s proximal zone of development. And, because a student’s proximal zone of development continually changes as she gains knowledge, educational scaffolding must continue to be individualized accordingly.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, University of Albany-SUNY professors Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer expanded the theoretical practice of scaffolding to include the following five features:  

  • Intentionality: The learning task is fueled by a clear overall purpose; any auxiliary activities contribute to this purpose.
  • Appropriateness: The learning tasks pose problems that require outside assistance but can eventually be mastered by the student alone.  
  • Structure: Modeling and questioning activities engage a natural sequence of thought and language.  
  • Collaboration: The instructor’s response to student work recasts and expands upon the student’s efforts without rejecting what she has accomplished on her own. The instructor’s primary role remains collaborative rather than evaluative.
  • Internalization: External scaffolding for the learning task is gradually withdrawn as the student internalizes conceptual patterns.

Applebee and Langer took the theory formed by Wood et al. and Vygotsky and embedded it in a general framework of language-learning. Reading and writing, they claim in “Reading and Writing Instruction: Toward a Theory of Teaching and Learning,” are extensions and reformulations of earlier language-learning processes: “One does not simply learn to read and write: one learns to read and write about particular things in particular ways.” In comparing the language-learning scenario between an adult and a child to the task-learning scenario between an instructor and a student, Applebee and Langer make a case for discourse acquisition as a vital part of educational scaffolding, and vice versa.

The 1990s

With the next decade came a tighter focus on application theory. Five methods of Educational Scaffolding based on the work of Hogan and Presley (1997) were presented as follows:

  • modeling of desired behaviors
  • offering explanations
  • inviting students to participate
  • verifying and clarifying student understandings
  • inviting students to contribute clues

In 1999, Zhao and Orey argued that educational scaffolding could be analyzed for application through six general elements:

  • sharing a specific goal
  • whole task approach
  • immediate availability of help
  • intention assisting
  • optimal level of help
  • conveying an expert model

Sharing a Specific Goal

Although it is the instructor’s responsibility to establish a shared goal, the learner’s interests should be considered and catered to as much as possible throughout the lesson. Zhao and Orey suggest achieving this through intersubjectivity, or the sharing of intentions, perceptions, feelings and conceptions; assessing the goal in terms of the student’s prior knowledge; being aware of some of the unique, unusual, and often ineffective problem-solving techniques that students use; and allowing input from the student in order to enhance intrinsic motivation.  

Whole Task Approach

The Whole Task Approach spotlights the overall goal to be attained through the learning task. The task is conceptualized as a whole instead of defined by the elements that make it up. This does not mean that the elements are ignored or rendered irrelevant; rather, each feature of the lesson is presented as it relates to the whole. This approach demands less cognitive effort than its alternative, since the overall concept is reinforced with every feature instead of grasped as a final conclusion. The approach is not effective, however, if the material strays too far beyond the student’s proximal zone of development.

Immediate Availability of Help

If a student is unable to carry out a task on her own, how is she supposed to remain motivated or interested if she doesn’t receive assistance in an efficient manner? Students experience far less discouragement and frustration if someone is there to help them proceed with the learning process. Any success of an instructor is a success of a student, and enhances her drive to learn more (and more independently).


Inherent in the scaffolding process is the act of understanding a student’s present focus (another way to view their zone of proximal development). In order to provide an optimally productive learning environment, educators must relate and confer information according to the student’s own current intentions.

Sometimes it becomes necessary to redirect the intentions of the learner if she does not have an effective strategy for completing the task. If her current strategy is effective, however, the instructor should not try to change it. It is the essence of scaffolding to help the learner proceed with the least amount of assistance possible.

Optimal Level of Help

The learner should be given just enough guidance to overcome her current obstacle; the level of assistance should not deter the learner from contributing and participating in the learning process. In other words, the instructor should only offer guidance through the areas of a task that the student cannot accomplish on her own. No intervention should be made if the current task is within the learner’s grasp.

Conveying an Expert Model

A task can be demonstrated with an expert model, either explicitly or implicitly. In an explicit demonstration, the expert model clearly conveys how to accomplish the task. In an implicit demonstration, the information is outlined around (or implied by) the expert model.

The 2000s

Several methods of educational scaffolding were introduced in the 2000s.

Based on the work of Hogan and Presley, educational strategist Verna Leigh Lange stated in her 2002 article on Instructional Scaffolding that there are two major steps involved in the process: (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.”

Larkin (2002) suggested that teachers could employ the following effective techniques in scaffolding:

First, boost your students’ confidence. To improve self-efficacy, begin by introducing students to tasks they can perform with little or no assistance. 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.

Second, 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. Scaffolding should be removed gradually and then removed completely when mastery of the task is demonstrated.



Facilitative tools:

  • Break the task into smaller more, manageable parts.
  • Use ‘think alouds’, or verbalizing thinking processes, when completing a task.
  • Use cooperative learning, which promotes teamwork and dialogue among peers.
  • Use concrete prompts, questioning, coaching, cue cards, or modeling.
  • Other tools might include activating background knowledge and offering tips, strategies, cues, and procedures.

(The following example scenarios have been adapted from “Scaffolding” by Lipscomb, Swanson, and West of the University of Georgia.)


Morelock, Brown, and Morrissey (2003) noted in their study that mothers adapt their instruction to the perceived abilities of their children. By modeling or prompting the typical behaviors of their children (or behaviors slightly more mature than typical), mothers “scaffold” their guidance in an effort to engage them.

For instance, a 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 suggests 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 for giftedness.


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. The teacher will begin to fade the scaffolding as soon as she is sure that the students can effectively function alone.


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, and 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.

Adult and Higher Education

Kao, Lehman, & Cennamo (1996) postulated that scaffolds could be embedded in hypermedia or multimedia software to provide students with support while using the software. They realized that soft scaffolds are dynamic, situation-specific aids provided by a teacher or peer while hard scaffolds are static and specific. Thus, hard scaffolds can be anticipated and planned based on typical student difficulties with a task. With these two aspects in mind, they developed a piece of software called “Decision Point” and tested it with a group of students.

They embedded three types of hard scaffolds: conceptual scaffolds, specific strategic scaffolds, and procedural scaffolds. The conceptual scaffolds assisted the students in organizing their ideas and connecting them to related information. The specific strategic scaffolds were included to help the students ask more specific questions and the procedural scaffolds were useful to clarify specific tasks such as presentations. Examples of these types of embedded scaffolds include: interactive essays, recommended documents, student guides, student journal, and storyboard templates.

This type of software would be very useful in higher education and adult learning because it is portable, could be used asynchronously, and allows the learners more independence. One or two initial face-to-face sessions would be required to teach the basics, establish learning communities and relate the class expectations and timeline. The students could then proceed at their pace while working within the framework of their group and the class expectations. The instructor would provide feedback to groups and individuals, be available for assistance and scaffold specific students at their point of need.

If software with built in scaffolds is not available, then the instructor could provide a similar environment by having an open classroom in which the students are provided with the expectations and a timeline at the onset. They may then choose to attend face-to-face classes, work independently, or work in groups. The more knowledgeable students, as well as the instructor, could then provide scaffolding in and out of the classroom. The hard scaffolds could be provided with textbooks and references and links on the class website. The instructor would still provide feedback on assignments and class work, be available for assistance, and scaffold specific individuals or groups at their point of need.

Appropriately, more responsibility is placed on the adult learner. Motivation comes from within and is based on the learner’s goals and objectives such as advanced degrees, career opportunities, and increased pay. Ultimately, the learner assumes a dual role in that they are students and peer instructors as they scaffold their classmates.

Challenges and Benefits

As with any other learning theory or strategy, there are challenges and benefits to educational 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 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


Applebee, A.N., & Langer, J. (1983). Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities. Language Arts, 60(2), 168-175.

Banaszynski, J. (2000). Teaching the American Revolution: Scaffolding to success. retrieved February 10, 2004, from Education World: The Educator’s Best Friend Web site:

Benson, B. (1997). Scaffolding (Coming to Terms). English Journal, 86(7), 126-127.

Hogan, K., & Pressley, M. (Eds.). (1997). Scaffolding student learning: Instructional approaches and issues. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.

Lange, V. L. (2002). Instructional scaffolding. Retrieved on September 25, 2007 from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry. 17.

Zhao, R., & Orey, M. (1999). The scaffolding process: Concepts, features, and empirical studies. Unpublished manuscript. University of Georgia.

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