Modelling and scaffolding in the classroom

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Modelling and scaffolding are at the heart of effective pedagogy. Adam Riches offers some classroom ideas and advice for trainee and early career teachers on this crucial element of practice

We don’t always appreciate the amount of new information, new skills and new understanding that learners sometimes have to process in a day. The sheer volume is frankly astounding and making that new learning stick is imperative to their success.

Effective modelling and scaffolding reduces the extraneous load on students’ working memories and strengthens schema, making learning more efficient, more manageable, and easier for them to retrieve. Try the following approaches.


For years now, I have used the analogy of drawing an object when I conceptualise the importance of modelling and scaffolding.

Take a tree for example. If I asked you to draw a tree, with no further instruction or support, you would intuitively draw what you interpret a tree to look like. Regardless of your artistic talents, your tree would differ significantly from a tree drawn by anyone else. You may draw a palm tree, a tree with no leaves, even a money tree – the options are infinite.

Now consider how your tree would be different if I stipulated what the tree should have on it, or maybe how big the tree should be, or even what makes a good tree drawing. Consider how me drawing a tree for you as an example might help – you can see where I’m going with this.

If we give learners the correct support and guidance while they learn, we reduce the need for them to waste valuable learning time making unnecessary “errors” or going down wrong paths.

By scaffolding and modelling, we are able to ensure that whole classes are able to achieve success criteria and pre-planned targets, making their learning more meaningful and in turn significantly reducing our workload.

Model answers

Taking the time to show learners what a response should look like can be very worthwhile in the classroom. Hopefully the myth that modelling doesn’t allow them to “work it out for themselves” is something that has long since disappeared.

Showing learners what an exceptional response, or sentence or phrase looks like means that they spend less time decoding and have more time for synthesising and applying.

Seeing what the outcome should look like significantly reduces the extraneous load of a task. The advantage of relieving some of the strain on a learner’s working memory is that you can quickly increase the desirable difficulty of the stimulus or the application of the modelled content. This is simply not possible if learners are poking in the dark in an attempt to get things right without any clear idea of what the final product looks like.

Model answers can be presented in a number of forms. My personal favourite, and in my eyes the most effective, is the live model. Not only does live modelling allow learners to be a part of the process, the narrative options and questioning opportunities that live modelling affords the teacher opens the floor to a number of metacognitive strategies that give students deeper learning opportunities and an intricate understanding.

Not only does live modelling yield a final piece of work that learners can seek to emulate, it also models to learners the thought processes they can use to get to that point.

And the best thing about live modelling is that it takes little preparation. It may seem intimidating to begin with when you are standing up and formulating an answer on the spot, but it does not need to be completely spontaneous. As your subject knowledge grows and you teach repeated topics year on year, it gets easier – trust me.

Live modelling is a huge motivator for students – seeing you do what you have asked them to do is a powerful tool to win them over and boost their motivation.

One downside to live modelling is that it can take some time in the lesson to deliver. There is of course the option to pre-prepare a model for a response instead. This is still a powerful tool, but you must be sure to take the time to work with the pre-made model so students aren’t hit with the “but I can’t do that” bug. Pre-made models are great for comparison exercises and self-assessment tasks.

What a response needs

One way to meaningfully scaffold learning is to help learners see exactly what is needed to succeed in a response. This may be in the form of simple success criteria, or it may take the form of more intricate sentences offering specific vocabulary.

Breaking scaffolds up into detailed and overview categories always helps me to differentiate how and when I use this support during the course of learning.

Detailed scaffolds are used to support learners on a sentence or word level – perhaps when fine-tuning responses or ideas. A detailed scaffold may take the form of a simple word bank, some sentence starters or some phrase prompts.

It is important to remember that we must also scaffold talk tasks as well as written tasks – talk tasks are just as valuable and often teachers neglect to provide the same support for learners on the micro-level when setting oral tasks. I have written previously for SecEd on how to support effective talk in the classroom.

Overview level scaffolds take into account the full response. Unlike detailed level scaffolds, these are likely to be more intricate and longer, potentially taking forms such as writing frames, paragraph prompts or even in pictorial form such as Venn diagrams or Cornell notes sheets.

Ultimately, overview level scaffolds are useful when students are tackling the final product response and less helpful when they are fine-tuning their work.

Combining both of these approaches helps learners to see what a response needs. By supporting learners in this way, we are able to build schema that they can draw upon when we are not there to support them (such as in an exam for example!).

However, it is of paramount importance that scaffolds are sequentially removed as learning takes place to ensure that both the difficulty is desirable and that learners do not become dependent on the support.

Improving someone else’s response

Taking the time to look at something that has been produced can be a good way to test how well modelled and scaffolded content has been synthesised.

Typically, we may assume the best way is to get learners to replicate the response or task themselves (with different stimuli of course). However, critiquing the work of others can be a brilliant way to build self-efficacy and develop independent proof-reading.

Improving responses also depersonalises the learning process, removing the sense of judgement many learners feel. When it comes to mastering new skills, improving somebody else's work, or at least suggesting improvements, can be a good gateway to producing responses themselves.

Removing support

One of the toughest things to master as a teacher is when to take the support away, or at least when to reduce it. Too soon and the tower tumbles but wait too long and the foundations become rocky.

Knowing when to remove support in the form of modelling and scaffolding takes some trial and error and there is no exact formula. Ensure you frequently check for understanding and give proper time for application in terms of independent practice.

Remember, students should be challenged but not defeated. Your scaffolding and modelling can make complex concepts much more accessible when applied effectively.

Further information & resources

Supplement: ECTs – forming healthy habits

  • For more advice for trainee and early career teachers, don't miss SecEd’s recent 20-page supplement offering advice, tips and ideas to help new teachers survive and thrive at the chalkface. Themes include pedagogy, workload control, wellbeing, mentoring, professional conduct, and general advice. Download it for free here.


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