What Should Educators and Parents Know About Instructional Scaffolds?

What are instructional scaffolds?

Instructional scaffolds are temporary tools that help students move from what they already know to what they cannot yet do on their own. Think of them as you would training wheels. A child may be able to ride a tricycle, but just doesn’t have the balance yet to ride a bicycle. Training wheels are a tool that helps the child bridge the gap between the two types of cycles.

What are some examples of these types of tools?

Some of our favorites are:

Auditory Feedback Phones: We find this device particularly helpful for students who cannot yet read silently. Whisper reading into the phone helps them drown out ambient noise and focus on their own reading.

Scaffolds are also important to help develop phonemic awareness. Some students don’t realize that words are made up of individual sounds. For example, they are unable to recognize that the sounds /k/ and /E/, when blended, make the word, key. We like to incorporate pictures as a scaffold.

One way to do this is through games like My Little Monster or Bingo. The bingo board that has a picture of a key, helps the student make the connection that /k/…/E/ can be blended to form the word, ‘key’. The students must say the name of a picture that is on their board. This scaffold narrows down the student’s word choices. With more practice, students begin to understand that the word they say MUST contain those same individual sounds. Eventually, this helps students generalize that individual sounds are blended into words.

Phonological Awareness Games
Games helps students build phonological awareness skills.

Decodable books are an example of a scaffold for students who learning to apply their knowledge of phonics elements to connected text. These types of books are a non-negotiable for beginning and struggling readers. For more information about the benefits of decodable books, check out our blog post.

Decodable books help students apply phonetic patterns and develop automaticity.
These decodable readers are available in our TPT Store. Simply click on the image.

When developing fluency, sometimes full texts can be overwhelming for students. Both our fluency grids and wordlists and sentences are scaffolds that help students build automaticity at the word and sentence level.

Word level fluency grids help develop automatic recognition of words following the closed syllable pattern.

Graphic organizers are a type of scaffold that assists students with building comprehension by structuring their thinking into manageable chunks. A word of caution when using graphic organizers: limit the selection of graphic organizers because offering too many choices can be confusing and overwhelming.

How do I know when to implement an instructional scaffold?

There is no hard a fast rule for when to implement a scaffold. It’s important to observe your students. If 80% of your class is grasping a concept, but 20% just doesn’t seem to be able to understand what is being taught – that’s a sign that those students may need additional support. Universal screenings in kindergarten, first and second grade can help teachers determine who amongst their students may need instructional scaffolds.

Referring back to training wheels. If all but a few neighborhood kids are riding bicycles, those few may need training wheels to get them over the hump and gain their balance. So, if all but a few of your kindergarten students are able to orally blend sounds into words, it’s time to break out instructional scaffolds for those students who haven’t yet caught on.

It’s about the data. Be sure to use the data to inform your instruction. It’s also about kid watching. It’s vitally important for you to watch and listen to your students to determine whether or not they need a boost.

How do I know when to take instructional scaffolds away?

Scaffolds are not meant to be used forever. We cannot stress this enough. Instructional scaffolds are a temporary tool that provide a helping hand to those who need it – until they don’t. Think about building independence.

Here’s another example. When your toddler is first learning to drink from a cup rather than a bottle, you’ll probably want to start with a sippy cup that has a lid. But, after your child develops enough skill to drink from a cup without a lid, you take away that sippy cup. After all, you don’t want your preteen still drinking from a sippy cup.

The same holds true for educational scaffolds. Once your students can complete the task without the scaffold – take it away. It may be trial and error at first, but that’s ok. Watch and listen and make adjustments as needed.

I’ll share a recent experience I had with one of my students who was working on building her phonemic awareness skills. Her job was to say a word, then say the word again with a different ending sound. For instance, “Say him. Now change the /m/ to /t/. What word?” Response, “hit”. Except that she would change the beginning sound and say something along the lines of “Tim”.

I watched and listened and realized that I had to add a visual cue for her so that she could ‘see’ where the sound had to change. We used the scaffold of Elkonin boxes and chips. We practiced using 5-10 words during small group time. After a week or so, I decided to try taking away the visual cue and she did just fine.

What would I have done if she still needed support? I would have gone back to Elkonin boxes or implemented a different type of method such as a hand movement.

The point is. You are the expert. You know when your kids need more or when they’ve got it. Trust yourself to make these types of instructional decisions.

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