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Removing Scaffolding

As part of the Early Career Framework, it is expected that early career teachers learn that…Guides, scaffolds and worked examples can help pupils apply new ideas, but should be gradually removed as pupil expertise increases

A key concept in education for the last decade has been the idea of scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to breaking up new concepts so that they can be learned more easily. It’s a process that many teachers have used for decades but that has recently received much more attention as an instructional approach. By implementing scaffolding, teachers can improve the likeliness that students will grasp new materials and retain what they’ve learned.

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

Occasionally, teachers confuse scaffolding and differentiation. However, the two are distinct. In a report issued by the Tennessee Department of Education, differentiation was defined as a framework in which different students received different methods of learning. Scaffolding, on the other hand, was defined as breaking up learning into chunks so that students tackled increasingly more complex material. Scaffolding breaks up even differentiated lessons so that they are delivered in increasingly complex chunks. It breaks up learning new topics into stages in which old ideas are connected to new ones and students are led from guided to independent instruction. There are several ways that this can be done.

Alibali (2006) suggests that as students progress through a task, teachers can use a variety of scaffolds to accommodate students’ different levels of knowledge. More complex content might require a number of scaffolds given at different times to help students master the content. Here are some common scaffolds and ways they could be used in an instructional setting.

  • Advance organizers - Tools used to introduce new content and tasks to help students learn about the topic: Venn diagrams to compare and contrast information; flow charts to illustrate processes; organizational charts to illustrate hierarchies; outlines that represent content; mnemonics to assist recall; statements to situate the task or content; rubrics that provide task expectations.

  • Cue Cards - Prepared cards given to individual or groups of students to assist in their discussion about a particular topic or content area: Vocabulary words to prepare for exams; content-specific stem sentences to complete; formulae to associate with a problem; concepts to define.

  • Concept and mind maps - Maps that show relationships: Partially or completed maps for students to complete; students create their own maps based on their current knowledge of the task or concept.

  • Examples - Samples, specimens, illustrations, problems: Real objects; illustrative problems used to represent something.

  • Explanations - More detailed information to move students along on a task or in their thinking of a concept: Written instructions for a task; verbal explanation of how a process works.

  • Handouts - Prepared handouts that contain task- and content-related information, but with less detail and room for student note taking.

  • Hints - Suggestions and clues to move students along: “place your foot in front of the other,” “use the escape key,” “find the subject of the verb,” “add the water first and then the acid.”

  • Prompts - A physical or verbal cue to remind—to aid in recall of prior or assumed knowledge.

  • Physical: Body movements such as pointing, nodding the head, eye blinking, foot tapping.

  • Verbal: Words, statements and questions such as “Go,” “Stop,” “It’s right there,” “Tell me now,” “What toolbar menu item would you press to insert an image?”, “Tell me why the character acted that way.”

  • Question Cards - Prepared cards with content- and task-specific questions given to individuals or groups of students to ask each other pertinent questions about a particular topic or content area.

  • Question Stems - Incomplete sentences which students complete: Encourages deep thinking by using higher order “What if” questions.

  • Stories - Stories relate complex and abstract material to situations more familiar with students: Recite stories to inspire and motivate learners.

  • Visual Scaffolds - Pointing (call attention to an object); representational gestures (holding curved hands apart to illustrate roundness; moving rigid hands diagonally upward to illustrate steps or process), diagrams such as charts and graphs; methods of highlighting visual information.

Like a construction crew, you can use scaffolding in education to help support students as they learn new concepts.

Then, as your students internalize information and show signs of understanding, you gradually remove the scaffolds to enable independent learning.

The types of scaffolding you use in your classroom will look different based on your goals, lesson and students. Generally, scaffolding supports fall into three categories:

  • Sensory — Use physical and visual elements, manipulatives and visual aids together. Sensory scaffolding also includes modelling in front of the class, since images and gestures help paint a whole picture of the lesson.

  • Graphic — Mind maps, graphic organizers and anchor charts are classroom staples, but they can also help students draw relationships between abstract concepts. Guide students through how to read them for maximum effectiveness.

  • Interactive — Collaborative learning is an important part of the classroom, whether it’s between teachers and students or among students. Strategies like “think-pair-share” and jigsaw groups (where small groups are responsible for learning and teaching part of the lesson) are tried-and-true methods for effective collaboration.

The Benefits of Scaffolding

There are a number of benefits to scaffolding instructional approaches in the classroom. Some of these benefits are related to the fact that they have a personal, emotional impact on students. Other benefits to scaffolding include the positive outcomes in grades. Here are just some of the ways that scaffolding can benefit students.

Scaffolding Improves Comprehension

Each student is different and learns at a different pace. Because of this, some students often fall behind. They simply don’t comprehend the material and find themselves being outpaced by their peers. Scaffolding can address this issue. Scaffolding is particularly effective when teaching about a new topic, which is when many students struggle. New materials provide unique challenges since students are asked to learn about entirely new topics with which they have little experience. Scaffolding is an approach proven to increase learning outcomes.

Scaffolding Enhances Problem Solving

Scaffolding helps teachers to connect already learned concepts with material that is part of a new lesson. This previously learned material helps set a foundation for new materials to be learned. Students also start thinking about new materials using some of the same approaches they used to tackle their previously learned materials. Connected old concepts to new ones guides students in understanding how to deal with new materials. This may involve seeing connections when discussing a new type of cell in a science class or could involve remembering how they dealt with math problems in previous lessons and using similar approaches to dealing with more complex math challenges.

Scaffolding Creates Higher Engagement

An important way that scaffolding works is by improving student engagement. There are a variety of activities that teachers can use that get students more directly involved with their class work. Plus, the close support teachers can provide during scaffolded instruction can keep students from becoming discouraged. By building on knowledge a student already knows, it keeps the student from getting lost when learning new content and keeps them involved in their lessons. Scaffolding reduces student frustration and keeps them interested in what they’re learning.

Scaffolding Creates a More Positive Classroom

Scaffolding is an approach that can help reduce frustration and anxiety in the classroom. These two factors can have a number of negative outcomes and push students away from learning. Scaffolding takes these negative factors out of the class by removing typical points at which students struggle. Traditionally, teachers teach a lesson and then students independently practice.

However, once mastery has been achieved, the scaffolds that had been put in place to support learning need to be gradually removed to encourage independence in our learners. Remember, scaffolding is a temporary structure designed to be removed. Too much scaffolding will deplete learner independence. Teachers must provide a lot of support at the start of the scaffolding process. Then, they remove their support in stages. This sequential decrease in the degree of support makes up the scaffolding process. At each step, this process gives confidence and ability to learn a new concept or skill. Each classroom has a different type of Scaffolding, depending upon the task, students’ prior knowledge and the resources available for learning.

Whilst the video below is aimed at EMS trainers in America, the concepts and theories are incredibly relevant. It is worth an hour of your time to watch it through.

Further Reading from the ECF

[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Alexander R.J. (2020) A Dialogic Teaching Companion, London: Routledge.

*Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014) What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK. Available at:

Donker, A. S., de Boer, H., Kostons, D., Dignath van Ewijk, C. C., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2014) Effectiveness of learning strategy instruction on academic performance: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 11, 1–26.

Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (2005) How students learn: Mathematics in the classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58.

Education Endowment Foundation (2016) Improving Literacy in Key Stage One Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/ [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Elleman, A. M., Lindo, E. J., Morphy, P., & Compton, D. L. (2009) The Impact of Vocabulary Instruction on Passage-Level Comprehension of School-Age Children: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1–44.

Hodgen, J., Foster, C., Marks, R. & Brown, M. (2018) Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three: Evidence Review. [Online] Accessible from summaries/evidence-reviews/improvingmathematics-in-key-stages-two-and-three/ [retrieved 22 October 2018], 149-157.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2009) Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response to Intervention for Elementary and Middle Schools. Accessible from:

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G., Stevens, A. (2017) Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Kalyuga, S. (2007) Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 509-539.

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018) From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. In International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.

Leung, K. C. (2015) Preliminary Empirical Model of Crucial Determinants of Best Practice for Peer Tutoring on Academic Achievement Preliminary Empirical Model of Crucial Determinants of Best Practice for Peer Tutoring on Academic Achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(2), 558–579. .

Muijs, D., & Reynolds, D. (2017) Effective teaching: Evidence and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pan, S. C., & Rickard, T. C. (2018) Transfer of test-enhanced learning: Meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(7), 710–756. .

*Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367. .

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B., Travers, M. C. (2018) Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20. .

Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., & Beishuizen, J. (2015) The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Instructional Science, 43(5), 615-641.

Wittwer, J., & Renkl, A. (2010) How Effective are Instructional Explanations in Example-Based Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 393–409. .

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002) Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview, Theory Into Practice. Theory Into Practice, 41(2), 64–70. .

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