In the classroom: Getting scaffolding right

Written by: Annabel Daniels | Published:
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Great article, I am currently preparing for my dissertation, like yourself, investigating the use ...

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Scaffolding is an essential part of teaching, but has its real meaning become lost? Annabel Daniels says we must focus on scaffolding strategies rather than tools. With a focus on English study, she offers some practical reflections

What comes to mind when you think of scaffolding? Writing frames? Sentence starters? Differentiated worksheets? Often, we think of scaffolding as breaking down the task. However, just because we have broken down a task into steps, does this mean that students know how to complete each step?

There are two common perceptions of scaffolding:

  1. Going step-by-step and building up layers.
  2. Focusing on the function of scaffolding and continually adapting activities that support the student to achieve the task.

So what is the function? The theory behind scaffolding (Wood et al, 1976; Vygotsky, 1978; Gallimore et al, 1990; Stone, 1993) suggests that key features of the process are:

  • Learning happens in a social context – the teacher pushes the student just beyond their current level of ability by engaging in collaborative activity (dialogic interaction).
  • The student’s ability continually changes and as it does the teacher”s collaborative input continually changes. Therefore the process is dynamic and responsive.
  • The teacher and student develop a continually evolving mutual perspective and shared situational definitions about how to complete the task. As a result, the process is unique to each set of teacher/student.

However, as a result of performative culture in the UK, schools have broadened the term “scaffolding” to include any tool that aids teaching. This is inaccurate.

We must consider the differences between a scaffolding “tool” and a scaffolding “strategy”. While a strategy incorporates the features identified above, a tool is static; it is fixed, passive, and two-dimensional (often paper resources).

I am an English teacher, so let’s take writing frames – such as PEE (point, evidence, explanation), structure strips, sentence starters – for analytical paragraphs as an example. These would be considered a static tool because they:

  • Don’t scaffold students’ thinking – without this vital step in the process, students don’t have good ideas to put into the frame.
  • Give students instructions, but don’t support them to know how to complete each step effectively. Writing frames only support students to rearrange the knowledge they already have.
  • Are passive and fixed – they don’t change or develop according to the student’s developing ability (within and across lessons) and don’t provide effective challenge.
  • Are designed for isolated tasks – they don’t develop learning strategies that can be applied in other contexts.
  • Encourage application of knowledge (e.g identification of a simile), not development of a skill.
  • Result in students being preoccupied with “decoding” the text to find the “correct” interpretation.
  • Result in “empty” phrases (such as “the writer uses words and phrases”) because the student is concerned with identifying a device (as they are instructed to on the frame).
  • Encourage fragmented comments – students (ironically) often miss out on development of their point because they are concerned with completing the next instruction on the frame.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t hate PEE or structure strips. Indeed, structures can be very useful.

Lots of teachers take issue with PEE (and other acronyms) because they are seen as restrictive. However, the problem is not with the structure, it is with the fact that students don’t know what to put into the structure.

Instead of using tools, we should focus on scaffolding strategies. Some of these include:

  • Modelling focus on meaning – the teacher should model the process of in-depth exploration of meanings and interpretation in the text. However, it is important that students contribute and are active agents in this process; developing shared inferences is key.
    Engaging in lengthy, whole-class discussions – encourage a reciprocal, collaborative, cumulative exchange (not question and answer). Allow what seems like miscellaneous talk (such as when a student digresses into a personal anecdote) because students need to build on their personal experiences to make meanings.
    Drip-feeding context – when students respond emotionally, they start with meanings. Their analysis of language then becomes more perceptive because they justify and evaluate their opinions. Never start analysing a text by annotating for techniques. When students do this, they are applying knowledge (e.g knowledge of what a simile is), but they don’t have anything to say about it, meaning that their analysis is superficial.
    Feeding back – so that the process is responsive, the students should continuously receive feedback. Remember that the reactive element must be explicitly incorporated (i.e students must actively work on the feedback they have just received, and a continuous feedback loop should ensue). Feedback without the reactive feature just becomes static, isolated information.

Primarily, we should understand that substantial dialogue is fundamental. In English, we are aiming for perceptive analysis. To do this, students have to make their own meanings. When they do, analysis becomes broader and richer. The role of the teacher is key – by working from meanings as the starting point, the teacher can then guide the student towards precise language analysis.

Questions to support dialogic scaffolding

Link the ideas in the text to students’ own lives and experiences (before presenting them with the text).

  • When analysing Scrooge, for example, you could ask “have you ever felt lonely?”:
    • What other emotions did you have at that time?
    • How did you behave?
    • How do you think others responded to you? Why?
    • How did that experience affect you?
  • Have you ever tried to persuade someone to do something?”
    • What did you say to them?
    • What made the most impact?
    • How did you feel when you were doing it?
    • What would you do differently next time?

Link the ideas in the text to previous learning (again, this can be before presenting them with the new text).

  • What other texts have we read that present (idea/theme)?
    • What did that text suggest about (idea/theme)?
    • How did it present this?
  • What other characters have we come across that…?
    • Why did he feel/behave this way?
    • How did the audience respond? Why?

When they are presented with any new text (prose, non-fiction, poetry) students must engage in substantial discussion of content:

  • What are the main ideas in this text?
  • What are the writer’s opinions?
  • Why was this text written?
  • What is the writer trying to do?
  • Who is the writer? How is he feeling when he’s writing this?
  • Who are the audience?
    • Age? Life experience? Gender? Occupation? Social group? (choose as relevant).
    • Where are they when they’re reading this?
    • What are they feeling before they start reading this?
    • What are they feeling when they finish reading this?
  • How does the writer want the audience to respond?
  • What is being represented in this text?
  • When was this text written? Why is this important?

Then, guide them into language analysis:

  • Which words or phrases have the biggest impact on you?
    • Why?
    • Do you think they would have the same impact on all the different potential audiences of this text? How might someone else respond? Why?
    • How do our experiences, knowledge, perspective, morals affect the way we view this text?
  • What are some other effects of those words or phrases? Is the word having multiple effects at once?
  • How does the writer present (theme)?
    • What are the writer’s attitudes towards/ideas about (theme)? How do we know? Which words/phrases show us this?
    • How does the language give us an insight into his life and experiences?
    • How does the language give us ideas about what he wants the audience to do/think/feel? Which words/phrases achieve this?
  • Why has the writer used (word/device)?
    • What impact does he want to create? How do we know?
    • Does this fit with our response to (other words and phrases) or is it different? Why?
  • What ideas are presented in the text? How does the structure reflect this?
  • What does it sound like when we read this text aloud?
    • Which words do we emphasise? Why?
    • Where do we pause? Why?
    • How quickly do we read this? What affects our pace? How has the writer created this pace? Why has he created it this way?
  • Which words or phrases stick in your mind once we have finished reading?
  • What words does the text start/end with? Why is this important?

It is really important that the discussion is structured in this order; we should never start with annotating or identifying language devices. I often start with 15 minutes of “circle time” when presenting students with a new text (sitting in one big circle and verbally working through these questions, with no writing or annotating).

It can also be useful to show students a short, relevant clip from a famous film or a song and present these questions before dealing with the main text.

For example, if you’re starting to study persuasive writing, spend time discussing the language used in a popular song they know in which the singer is trying to persuade the intended listener to do something.

Students will be engaged and confident in the task and will then be able to apply this analytical framework to more challenging texts.

Please do share your thoughts and experiences with me. I’m only one person and my research scale was limited. I’d love to collaborate with you and build on these reflections. I am currently working on developing strategies for other subjects in the curriculum.

  • Annabel Daniels is second in English in a secondary school. She is passionate about uniting academic research with practical classroom pedagogy, and dedicated to collaborating with other education professionals to develop excellent teaching practices. See further research and classroom strategies on her blog at or connect on Twitter at @MissDanielsEng.


  • Teaching mind in society: Teaching, schooling, and literate discourse, Gallimore & Tharp in Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology, Cambridge University Press (1990).
  • What is missing in the metaphor of scaffolding? Stone in Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children’s development, Oxford University Press (1993).
  • Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, Vygotsky, Harvard University Press (1978).
  • The role of tutoring in problem solving, Wood, Bruner & Ross (1976) in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (17:1, pp89-100).

Great article, I am currently preparing for my dissertation, like yourself, investigating the use of scaffolding strategies, so thanks for clarifying the difference between scaffolding tools and strategies. Great article.
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