What Is Scaffolding in Education and How Is It Applied?

Students discussing work using the scaffolding technique

Effective teachers understand that students learn in many ways. As a teacher, you can strive to develop practices that help students understand and interact with new information. Scaffolding is one such pedagogical tool that can help students retain and apply new knowledge.

What is scaffolding in education? It’s a technique that establishes a firm framework of foundational knowledge before gradually building upon that framework. Here, you can learn more about it and explore how to apply it in your work, whether you teach in a general classroom or if you specialize in teaching students with exceptionalities.

In This Blog:

What Is Scaffolding in Education?

Scaffolding refers to a method where teachers offer a particular kind of support to students as they learn and develop a new concept or skill. In the instructional scaffolding model, a teacher may share new information or demonstrate how to solve a problem. The teacher then gradually steps back and lets students practice on their own. It also can involve group practice.

The model of instructional scaffolding is also sometimes described as “I do. We do. You do.”1 In other words, the teacher shows how something is done, then the class practices together and, finally, students work individually.

The Holistic Benefits of Scaffolding in Education

Your education degree program will introduce you to many theories of education. Among them, the term “scaffolding” was coined in the 1970s.2 The word itself originates from construction and refers to the temporary platform that is set up for builders to stand on while they put up new walls and floors. In education, scaffolding is a way for teachers to provide support while students master new concepts and skills.

At the beginning of the scaffolding process, the teacher provides a lot of support. That support is then removed in stages. This gradual decrease in the level of support is what constitutes the scaffolding process. Step by step, this process imparts confidence and facility with the new concept or skill.

Instructional scaffolding is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who is well known for several important contributions to educational theory.3 Vygotsky coined the term, “zone of proximal development,” which is based on a student’s current developmental level and potential developmental level. To help a student learn a new task or concept, the teacher targets the student’s zone of proximal development and provides support that eventually tapers off as the student grows in knowledge and independence.

Taking a Closer Look at Scaffolding in Special Education and General Classrooms

Scaffolding in special education and in general classrooms offers important benefits for students. Whether or not you’re teaching students with exceptionalities, scaffolding enables students to develop a foundational framework of knowledge onto which they can continually add new concepts. This instructional method can offer the following benefits:4

  • Enhances information retention
  • Creates a bridge between foundational knowledge and new concepts
  • Boosts student engagement and self-agency
  • Minimizes student frustration and subsequent negative effects on self-confidence
  • Encourages communication between teachers and students

The Instructional Scaffolding Process

In order to present information to be scaffolded, a teacher must assess what students already know; then the teacher considers the learning objectives and what the students should learn. Finally, they can draw up a plan to advance the students from the current knowledge to mastering the learning goals.

The first steps in the instructional scaffolding process may include explaining the concept at the students’ current level. The teacher can model the problem-solving process or present an approach for accomplishing a task. After this, the scaffolding begins. The teacher then supports students by:

  • Breaking the directions into small chunks
  • Talking students through the task while they complete it
  • Grouping students together to talk through the task and support each other
  • Referring to models of the task where students can gather additional information
  • Giving students tips and tricks while they are working

6 Specific Instructional Scaffolding Strategies

Implementing scaffolding strategies in the classroom becomes second nature to most teachers. Your education degree program is likely to introduce you to a variety of scaffolding practices. Some of these methods of scaffolding are especially fun and engaging for students. Consider these six examples of scaffolding in education:

1. Model

Teaching students how to do something by showing them how to do it can be an effective way to scaffold learning. Try to problem-solve by walking students through the steps or by talking them through the process. You can also have some students model for their classmates.

Modeling can be used at any grade level and in any subject area. For example, an elementary school teacher might model how to solve a division problem using grouping. The teacher could draw circles on the board and talk to students as they draw checkmarks in each circle to show how one number can be divided into another.

2. Use Prior Knowledge

Students are not blank slates; they come to class with knowledge of — and experience with — many different topics. Teachers who connect new learning to prior life experiences help students integrate information more quickly. Students understand and retain new information more readily when they can connect it to something they already know.

For example, high school history teachers use prior knowledge as instructional scaffolding when they ask students to connect current events to historical events.

3. Talk About It

Students need time to reflect on their learning, so it can be beneficial to give them opportunities to absorb what they have just seen before they apply the knowledge to their independent work. Sometimes this kind of reflection is facilitated by putting students in pairs or small groups to talk to each other.

Think-Pair-Share is a popular instructional scaffolding technique that can be used in all classrooms. As the name implies, students first think about the topic, then they pair up with a classmate and discuss the topic and, finally, the pair shares key details of their conversation with the class.5

Socratic seminars are another scaffolding tool that work well with older students. In a Socratic seminar, students do a close read of a text and are given time to prepare their ideas about what they have read. They then respond to open-ended questions about the text. The purpose is not to debate the text, but to understand more deeply what the ideas in it represent.

4. Share Important Vocabulary

One area where students may need extra instructional scaffolding is reading. Before approaching a particularly complex text, a teacher can share specific vocabulary words or phrases that may pose challenges.

A common practice in vocabulary instruction is to assign tiers to the vocabulary.6 Tier One words are basic words that most students pick up in everyday life, such as “baby” or “clock.” These words usually do not need to be a part of instruction.

Tier Two words involve the most impactful vocabulary instruction, and this is where scaffolding can take place. These are words that appear across subject areas, but are likely not used on a daily basis. Knowledge of Tier Two words like “coincidence” or “interpret” can add to students’ understanding of texts and question prompts.7 Tier Three words are domain-specific; that is, they are usually taught in a specific subject area and are often defined within a text, such as “isthmus” or “parabola.”

5. Show What You Mean

Graphic organizers can be extremely important in instructional scaffolding. These tools help students organize their thinking about complex or interrelated pieces of information using visual aids. Graphic organizers can also guide students through a new process or task and translate abstract ideas into concrete ways of thinking.

As part of the instructional scaffolding process, teachers can use graphic organizers to support learning in all three stages — I do, we do and you do. When presenting information, teachers should introduce the graphic organizer and explain how it will be used, what will go in each section and how it can support learning. Then, the teacher models how to fill out the graphic organizer.

For example, if the learning objective is to compare and contrast two events in history, the teacher may display a Venn diagram and fill out one common attribute and one contrasting attribute. The teacher may then ask students to look through their texts and find two more examples to share with everyone. Once students feel confident in both the assignment and with the topic, they can complete their own graphic organizers that can later be used to create a presentation or write an essay.

6. Use Technology

Technology can be a wonderful tool to help simplify the scaffolding process for educators. Teachers can make playlists of lecture videos for students to watch before the class lesson, allowing students to preview the material and be ready to engage with the content in class. They can also provide links to websites that have different ways to engage with the content, such as videos, games, articles or demonstrations.

Many online curriculum programs are adaptive, meaning they can assess what a student knows and what information they need next, allowing them to follow a personalized learning path toward meeting learning objectives.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Education is pleased to offer a variety of education degrees to suit your career goals, including undergraduate degrees such as the Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education and the Bachelor of Science in Educational Studies, along with master’s-level degrees such as the Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction. Complete the form on this page to learn more about your options at GCU today.


1 Encyclopedia.com. (n.d.). Hunter, Madeline Cheek (1916-1994). Retrieved on August 31, 2023.

2 Mcleod, S., PhD. (2023, June 14). Jerome Bruner’s theory of learning and cognitive development. Simply Psychology. Retrieved July 18, 2023.

3 McIsaac, J. (2019, August 6). What is ‘scaffolding’ in teaching?: a simple explanation. Exceptional Lives. Retrieved July 18, 2023.

4 Professional and Continuing Education. (n.d.). 7 scaffolding learning strategies for the classroom. University of San Diego. Retrieved July 18, 2023.

5 Lyman, F. T. (1981). The Responsive Classroom Discussion: The Inclusion of All Students. In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest (pp. 109-113). College Park: University of Maryland Press.

6 Rigolosi, Dr. Laura. (2022, January 27). Tiered Vocabulary: Narrowing Your Instructional Focus. Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET). Retrieved on August 31, 2023.

7 Beck, I., McKeown, M., and Kucan, L. (n.d.). Choosing words to teach. Reading Rockets. Retrieved July 18, 2023.


Approved by the dean of the College of Education on Aug. 30, 2023.

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.