What is Scaffolding?

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

By Lisa Carey
November 1, 2017


As a frequent participant in IEP meetings, professional development sessions, and collaborative planning groups, I hear the term scaffolding a lot.  What can we add to student’s instructional program to help them keep up? Scaffolding.  How can we help our class understand a difficult concept? Use scaffolding! Each of these examples illustrates a misconception about the term scaffolding. For example, scaffolding is not the same as an accommodation, nor is it a technique for whole group instruction.  So what exactly is scaffolding?

From ZPD to Tutoring to Scaffolding

Lev Vygotsky created a theory known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD).  This theory is used to describe a range in which the skill being developed is neither too easy for the learner (meaning they can complete the task with independence), nor too difficult for the learner (meaning they will be unable to complete the task, even with assistance)(1).  The ZPD is the point at which a learner can become competent in a new skill, given that they are assisted by a “more competent other.”(2)  Vygotsky posited that learners gain the most from having activities positioned within their ZPD.  Notice how individualized this concept is.  Due to variability of skills and knowledge, each student in a classroom would have a different, although most likely overlapping, ZPD.  Notice also, that this theory requires the assistance of a “more competent other,” meaning a tutor who was already more competent at the skill than the learner.  This tutor can be an adult or a more advanced peer, but Vygotsky’s work suggests that learners require human assistance to guide them through the ZPD.

In 1976, Wood, Burner and Ross(3) set out to research how young children develop problem solving skills.  Through their research, they developed the term scaffolding to describe the specific type of tutoring required to assist a learner with an activity that fell within their ZPD.  Scaffolding was a term used to describe the multiple functions, or roles, a tutor must play in order to aid the learner: recruiting interest, demonstration, reducing options to guide toward correct steps, highlighting critical features, and providing externalized frustration control.  According to Wood, Burner, and Ross, scaffolding is the essential ingredients of guiding a learner through a task they cannot complete with independence(3).  

Accommodations v. Scaffolding

There is a common confusion between academic and testing accommodation and scaffolding.  According to the US Office of Special Education (OSEP), An accommodation is defined as an adjustment or addition to instructional or testing design that “allows a student to complete the same assignment or test as other students, but with a change in the timing, formatting, setting, scheduling, response and/or presentation.” Notice that accommodations focus on providing a student with increased independence.  Scaffolding, on the other hand, is dependent upon an individual with more advanced skills, which is the opposite of functioning with independence.

While scaffolding might be used to assist students who are struggling due to an educational disability, it is not the same, nor does it replace, academic and testing accommodations.  It is important that a student’s educational program balance learning activities guided by a more competent other and times for practicing and demonstrating independence.

Scaffolding v. Gradual Release of Responsibility

In addition to confusing scaffolding with accommodations, many times when educators talk about “scaffolding instruction,” they are actually referring to a system of gradually released responsibility for students.  This great instructional strategy is intended for whole group instruction and is commonly referred to the process of “I do, We do, You do.” (4)This means that first the instructor demonstrates the skill, then the class practices the skill together with guidance, next the students practice the skill with independence or within smaller groups.  While gradual release shares common elements with scaffolding (demonstration, highlighting critical features, and guidance toward correct steps) it does not include the necessity of determining the students’ ZPD and it does not provide individual guidance.  That is not to say that there is anything wrong with this model! It works very well.  But, we should be clear that it is not synonymous with scaffolding.

Scaffolding in a Large Classroom

At this point, you may be wondering how on earth you can use scaffolding within a large, modern classroom.   After all, if scaffolding is dependent on a student being guided by a more competent other, how will you find an individual tutor for each student?  Remember that we want to find balance in instructional activities by including time for developing and practicing student independence. Therefore, limited amounts of time need to be spent on truly scaffolded activities.  Below are some tips for using scaffolding in the classroom.

  • Determine which students may need scaffolded instruction for which skills. Not every student will need a tutor to work through every skill or concept introduced in your classroom.  You might elect to save scaffolding for particularly difficult concepts, or for students who are struggling to grasp a concept.  This does not mean only use scaffolding for remediation! Students may wish to extend beyond the current learning goal and explore challenging materials with which they would benefit from scaffolding.
  • Think beyond adults.  Vygotsky discussed “more competent others” rather than “an adult” on purpose.  Students can and should function as peer tutors.  This may require explicit directions to the class as to what constitutes acceptable peer tutoring assistance.
  • Consider small group instructional methods that borrow from the concept of scaffolding.  For example, reciprocal teaching is an evidence-based practice for reading instruction that uses many of the same elements as scaffolding to work directly with small groups of students and move them toward peer tutoring.
  • Consider technology.  Attempting to find ways for software to play the role of the “more competent other” isn’t new, but there have been many recent advances toward this aim.  Stay tuned for future posts about using technology for scaffolding.

Hopefully this little dive into scaffolding has offered some clarity to instructional strategies.  Whether we are collaborating as an IEP team or a grade-level instructional team, ensuring common understanding around instructional terms can be hugely beneficial. Noting the differences between accommodations, gradual release, and scaffolding, can help teams of educators and related service provider determine the best strategies for moving students forward.


  1. Vygotsky LS. Mind in society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1978.
  2. Shabani K, Khatib M, Tabataba ’i Uinversity A, Ebadi S. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers’ Professional Development. English Lang Teach [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2017 Oct 27];3(4). Available from: www.ccsenet.org/elt
  3. Wood D, Bruner JS, Ross G. the Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1976;17(2):89–100.
  4. Clark S. Avoiding the Blank Stare: Teacher Training with the Gradual Release of Responsibility in Mind. [cited 2017 Oct 27]; Available from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1035726.pdf

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