Scaffolding Success

    Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Almarode explain how to fine-tune student supports to maximize their efficacy

    One of the tools teachers of multilingual learners have at their disposal to move learning forward for their students is scaffolding. The term has been around a long time, introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross in 1976. Scaffolding in teaching and learning is the intentional, deliberate, and purposeful use of supports as students learn and develop a new concept or skill. The evidence of impact on student learning is quite strong. There have been four meta-analyses on scaffolding, with an overall effect size of 0.58, which is an above-average influence and one that should accelerate student learning. However, to move from research to reality and actualize the potential for scaffolding to accelerate student learning, we must implement scaffolding in a way that offers the right level of challenge for students. For example, there is a risk of under-scaffolding, over-scaffolding, and failing to remove the scaffolds once learning has occurred. In this article, we’ll describe a model of scaffolding that is based on over 3,000 studies on the approach to scaffolding proposed by Wood and his colleagues.

    Importantly, Wood et al. did not study multilingual learners. Their investigation focused on young children, noting that learners could not benefit from scaffolding unless “one paramount condition is fulfilled” (p. 90). That condition requires that students understand that there is a viable solution to the problem or situation they have encountered. In the words of Wood et al., the learner “must be able to recognize a solution to a particular class of problems before he is himself able to produce the steps leading to it without assistance” (p. 90). Note that they say a solution to a particular class of problems, rather than the solution to a specific problem. In other words, scaffolding is not limited to students figuring out the answer to a specific task but rather encompasses learning how to think about a type of challenge that they have been given.

    In the world of deliberate practice, which has an effect size of 0.79, this is known as a mental model of expertise. Students need to have an idea of what success looks like so that they understand where they are headed in their learning. A mental model might be a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around with you. Let’s say you want to play netball, a sport popular in Australia. Without a mental model of what this game looks like, it’s hard to engage in practice, accept supports (scaffolds), or respond to feedback. When you have the concept of the game in mind, you are significantly more likely to allocate your resources to performing well.

    Mental models also allow us to set goals or agree on goals with others. And having goals for learning is an important aspect of scaffolding. The goals are what we are scaffolding toward: the mental model. Thus, we argue that without clear mental models of expertise and a worthy goal, scaffolds will fall flat. Students may complete tasks yet not learn from them when their teachers fail to recognize the value of these first two requirements of scaffolding.

    Once the prerequisites of a mental model and goals are met, teachers have essential information about where to place the scaffolds—in other words, where the specific supports are needed to move learning forward around a particular concept or skill. Teachers must carefully consider the placement of scaffolds to ensure they do not over- or under-scaffold. And we have choices (see Figure 1) in terms of the placement of scaffolds based on the tasks students are completing and the specific needs of our students.
    Front-End Scaffolds

    One option is front-end scaffolds. These occur in advance of the task and are designed to reduce the cognitive demand on the learner as they engage in the task. Preteaching vocabulary is an example of a front-end scaffold.

    The idea behind this front-end scaffold is that learners will develop proficiency with specific terms or the language associated with a particular concept or skill. Thus, when they later engage in the lesson, they will already have exposure, experience, and some level of expertise with the terms or language. Frontloading content and skills is another example of front-end scaffolding, as is showing a video to build background, reading the text to students aloud, or providing anticipation guides.

    The challenge with relying exclusively on front-end scaffolds is that they can reduce the rigor of the learning if used indiscriminately. For example, telling students what the words mean in advance might reduce the need for students to use their developing word-solving skills such as morphological analysis. Similarly, explaining the main ideas of a text to students may reduce their need to actually read the text.

    Distributed Scaffolds
    In addition to front-end scaffolds, teachers can use distributed scaffolds. This moves from just-in-case to just-in-time scaffolding. Dixon (2018) notes:
    Just-in-case scaffolds are provided to students before they attempt a challenging task.
    Just-in-time scaffolds are provided when a student’s struggle becomes unproductive or they otherwise demonstrate they need help because they are unable to move forward.

    Distributed scaffolding relies, in part, on teacher actions that guide and support student thinking during the thinking. These just-in-time scaffolds require that the teacher do or say the just-right thing so that the student does the cognitive work. As an example, when teachers question, prompt, cue, and explain, they are engaged in distributed scaffolding. Let’s look at each of these individually.
    Questions activate prior knowledge, elicit information, foster elaboration or clarification, or require students to link divergent information. Questions help the teacher to deterxmine what learning stuck and where the student is stuck in the learning process. Questions can also provide students with an opportunity to stop and think, unlocking ideas or information they had not previously considered.
    Prompts are statements or artifacts that help the student focus on the cognitive or metacognitive processes needed to complete the task. Prompts can include exemplars, templates or frames, or statements that activate background knowledge, procedures, or reflection.
    Cues are hints that focus the learner’s attention on something that might have been missed. They are more direct
    than prompts and are designed to
    divert the student’s attention to a s
    ource of information that will help them solve a problem or highlight an error or misunderstanding. The range of cues includes verbal, gestural, visual, and environmental.
    Direct explanations and modeling are used to provide students with missing information, especially if prompts and cues are insufficient. Essentially, the teacher provides students with the missing information and shows how to use it. Of course, teachers must monitor students’ understanding. As Thompson (2009) offered in terms of moving to this level of support, teachers should be “giving explanations, examples, or the answer; explaining the answer; referring to a previous discussion; posing a leading question for the student; and planning what the student should do next” (p. 427).

    Back-End Scaffolds
    A third option is to employ back-end scaffolds, which are used after the learning tasks have been completed. Sometimes, back-end scaffolds are used to correct misconceptions or errors that occur during the learning. They can also be used to solidify students’ understanding following the lesson.
    As an example, graphic organizers can help students organize information and remember that information. Similarly, study skills are a useful back-end scaffold that allows students to move from acquiring concepts and skills to consolidating those concepts and skills. In addition, feedback is an effective back-end scaffold when it is more than corrective (right/wrong) information that students can use to take action. As Vrabie (2021) noted, feedback comes in at least three forms:
    Appreciation: Recognizing and rewarding someone for great work. Appreciation connects and motivates people, and it’s vital since intrinsic motivation is one of the critical factors for high performance. However, appreciation is only effective if the appreciation is directed toward something over which learners have control.
    Coaching: Helping someone expand their knowledge, skills, and capabilities based on evidence gathered during the learning experience. Coaching is also an opportunity to address feelings, which helps balance and strengthen relationships.
    Evaluation: Assessing someone against a set of standards, aligning expectations and informing decision making. 

    Note that each of these can occur after the learning event and serve to push learning even further in subsequent learning experiences. The ultimate benefit of back-end scaffolding comes from the learner integrating the graphic organizers, study skills, and feedback into where they go next in their learning.

    Peer Scaffolds
    A fourth option teachers have is to use peer scaffolding, which is especially useful when it comes to emotional scaffolding. Meyer and Turner (2007) state that emotional scaffolding includes “temporary but reliable teacher-initiated interactions that support students’ positive emotional experiences to achieve a variety of classroom goals” (p. 243). When teachers create conditions for students to support one another, learning is enhanced because peers make the learning environment safe for making mistakes and using those mistakes as learning opportunities.

    Peer tutoring and peer learning have a positive impact on learning, with an effect size of 0.55 ( There are a lot more peers than there are teachers, and we can leverage peer-to-peer interactions to support all learners. Imagine the possibilities when students learn to scaffold for their peers. And it’s free. Establishing within-class, across-class, or grade-level tutoring programs formalizes the peer support that should be occurring in every classroom.

    Returning to our model of scaffolding (figure 1), we are left with fading the scaffolds. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is a risk of failing to remove scaffolds once learning has occurred. Scaffolds are supposed to be temporary. But how do we know when scaffolds should be removed? One way to test the need to fade scaffolds is wait time. When teachers provide students with sufficient wait time, they can observe students’ responses and decide if additional scaffolds are necessary.

    Of course, if the only scaffolds offered to learners are front-end scaffolds, we may find it hard to use this approach to notice when to fade, as the right level of challenge may have been removed from the student (i.e., over-scaffolding). If the only scaffolds offered to learners are back-end scaffolds, we may also find it hard to use this approach due to the frustration of the learners (i.e., under-scaffolding). Thus, a variety of scaffolds generates more evidence to use in determining when to fade a particular scaffold.

    In addition, teachers must decide if they are going to use a least-to-most or a most-to-least model when it comes to planning and fading scaffolds. The question is, based on what students are learning, should we start off with the least intensive scaffolds and add them as needed? Or should we begin with the most intensive and back off as students demonstrate success? There is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer to the least-to-most or most-to-least approach.

    What works with one set of concepts and skills may not with another set. What works with learners now may not work with learners later. But the wrong answer is to forget to fade the scaffolds and unintentionally create learned helplessness or not provide scaffolding at all and create unproductive failure in the classroom. After all, we want students who own their learning and can apply what they have learned in a variety of settings. Scaffolds are a path to get there, but they are not the destination.

    Dixon, J. (2018). “Providing Scaffolding Just in Case.” DNA Math.
    Meyer, D. K., and Turner, J. C. (2007). “Scaffolding Emotions in Classrooms.” In P. A. Schutz and R. Pekrun (Eds.), Emotion in Education (pp. 243–258). Elsevier Academic Press. 
    Thompson, I. (2009). “Scaffolding in the Writing Center: A microanalysis of an experienced tutor’s verbal and nonverbal tutoring strategies.” Written Communication, 26(4), 417–453.
    Vrabie, D. (2021). “The Three Forms of Feedback: Appreciation, coaching and evaluation. CTO Craft.”
    Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., and Ross, G. (1976). “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

    Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High. They are the co-authors of Confronting the Crisis of Engagement: Creating Focus and Resilience for Students, Staff, and Communities (Corwin Press, 2022).

    John Almarode is a professor of Education in the College of Education at James Madison University. At James Madison University, he works with pre‑service teachers and graduate students in multiple programs.  He also works with schools, classrooms, and teachers on the translation and application of the science of learning to school and classroom environments, focusing on what works best in teaching and learning.