Teaching Tuesday: Scaffolding Instruction for Students With Exceptionalities

By Dr. Tracy Vasquez, Danielly Remy and Dusty Sanchez

Teacher using scaffolding instruction strategies with a young student

General education classes typically include students with a wide range of learning abilities. When students with exceptionalities are part of the general education classroom, we must be aware of their individual needs and how to further the learning process by utilizing scaffolding to meet their needs.

Strategies for Scaffolding

When we support students with exceptionalities by using scaffolding strategies, they often look like the strategies we use for all students in a generalized class setting; however, scaffolding for this population of students requires additional time. When we plan for a lesson, it is essential to consider the various needs of students, including receptive and expressive language, processing speed and memory. To support these needs, we consider how our lesson could present our content information in smaller chunks, provide opportunities for additional guided practice and utilize repetition.

For example, when teaching a math lesson about finding the missing side length of a rectangle from a given perimeter, we can portion the material to reviewing properties of a rectangle on one day, identifying side lengths the next day, calculating perimeter the third day and finding missing side length from a given perimeter on the last day. When presenting information this way, we can support and engage students with varying learning styles with scaffolding and guided practice.

Using the same lesson, we could have students build rectangles using manipulatives, match number cards to side lengths based on color coding or play a game with a partner to fill in missing information on the rectangle. During each of these activities, you can provide formative feedback and evaluate students’ understanding of the concepts. To maintain student engagement, have students complete the activities as stations, which supports the practice of chunking information into smaller tasks as well as providing opportunities for repetition.

During this example lesson, you could instruct students for about 15 minutes, then ask the students to complete three 10-minute rotations all covering the same concept. These strategies follow the same scaffolding process as those used with a general education population, with extended time for students to master concepts and gain independence.

Using Accommodations

When scaffolding assignments for students with exceptionalities, we consider what types of support the students need to be successful. We can find suggestions for supportive practices for students with exceptionalities in their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) under accommodations and modifications.

Accommodating a student means that the teacher changes the approach to a topic or how a student accesses the materials when teaching. These can include providing visuals and manipulatives, utilizing audiobooks or allowing for additional time on an activity. To incorporate accommodations when scaffolding, we can start by modeling completion of an activity with the use of an aid. As a student becomes more comfortable with the tool, use can be generalized across different topics and a student can practice using the tool independently.

For example, a student who has difficulties with writing may have an accommodation to complete all work electronically. For this accommodation, we can introduce an app that allows the student to take pictures of a worksheet and type directly on the page. Prior to implementation, we should model using the app and provide guided practice opportunities for the student. As the student practices use of the app, we can phase out support until the student is able to complete an activity independently using the app. Then, the student can begin to use the same app and process in other classes. 

Using Modifications

Sometimes, while working with a student with exceptionalities, we need to move beyond accommodations to modifications. If a student needs additional support through modifications to the curriculum, this means as teachers we are making a change to what a student is learning, including instructional inputs and student outputs. Modifications can include using only single digit numbers or providing lower-level text.

When we scaffold with modifications like this, the students’ progress should be monitored closely. As a student demonstrates mastery at the modified level, we can begin to introduce higher level concepts building on the content. For example, in a class learning about writing a five-paragraph argumentative essay, a student may still be working on writing single paragraphs. We can modify the assignment so that the student only focuses on one argumentative point rather than a three-part thesis. As a student continues to practice this writing format and demonstrates mastery, we would increase the difficulty level by requiring two argumentative points. It’s important for us as teachers to understand the different purposes of each modification and how they can support scaffolding.

Holistic Benefits of Scaffolding

Scaffolding instruction provides many benefits for students in the learning environment. It helps students make connections between previous knowledge and new knowledge, engaging students of all levels in higher thinking and dialogue. Scaffolded instruction also creates a supportive learning environment in which students build their self-efficacy with concepts as they continuously learn increasing skills. This helps students to become more independent during the learning process as they build upon their skills in meaningful ways.

For students with exceptionalities, scaffolding allows them to start at their current ability level and grow in their understanding through various activities. For example, scaffolding in reading is a natural instructional experience as we start with teaching basic phonics and help students develop letter sounds that become words and eventually sentences. Scaffolding in all content areas, with this strategy in mind, enables us to help students with exceptionalities, and general education students, with extending their knowledge to reach more challenging concepts to enrich their learning experience.

With scaffolding instruction, we are provided with a better picture of students’ levels of understanding. Scaffolding allows us to deliver the content in a gradual and supportive manner that assists students with building their comprehension at their speed of understanding. This provides learning for students in a foundational way that allows them to build upon their knowledge step by step.

Appropriate scaffolding considers students’ needs and can include both accommodations and modifications for learning as we design instruction to build upon students’ prior knowledge by breaking down new knowledge into manageable pieces. This increases student motivation and engagement in learning as they build confidence in their abilities. Naturally, the scaffolding of learning helps teachers assess student progress in smaller steps and provide interventions at key points in the learning process for relevant learning experiences.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.