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Scaffolding (sometimes known as instructional scaffolding) was first coined by David Wood, Jerome Bruner & Gail Ross, where the researchers were exploring the dyadic relationship between a learner and a tutor in problem solving. [1] In Wood et al.'s initial formulation, scaffolding consisted of various instructional behaviors, such as[2] :

  1. Recruitment of leaner's interest and concentration 
  2. Reducing degrees of freedom in a task (the number of acts needed to reach a solution), to the level that the learner can manage, and reducing the level of instruction when the learner improves. Other reseachers have called this contigent shifting. [3]
  3. Keeping the learner's attention and motivation on the task and ultimite goal (each task may have several steps and goals which the learner gets stuck on), which is called direction maintaince.
  4. Marking critical features of a task and discrepencies between what the learner produces and what is correct.
  5. Fustration control of the learner, Wood et al. said that "problem solving should be less dangerous or stressful with a tutor than without".
  6. Demonstration or "modelling" of solutions of the task of a solution which has been partially solved by the learner. 

The level of difficulty to which an tutor should pitch their instuction as spawned various overlapping concepts such as the zone of proximal development, associated with Vygotsky's sociocultural theory of development.  

Zone of Proximal Development and related concepts

Vygtosky's zone of proximal development (ZPD)describes the difference between what a learner can do alone and with the help of a more able individual, although he did not go into as much depth into the didactic process, which scaffolding describes. Confusingly, David Wood also has a term called the "region of sensitivity to instruction", which is circularly defined as the most effective level of instruction which "required the child to do more than he is immediately capable of...[not] too much...ideally the child should be asked to add one extra operation or decision to those which he is presently performing"[4]. Critics have noted its similarity to the Vygotsky's ZPD and in later papers David Wood refers more to that.[5][6]

Wood & Middleton's also termed the concept of the "recognition-production gap", although it defined slightly differently as the difference between what a child can recognise and what a child can produce.[7] This was based on the observation that a child could often recognise a solution before producing it, and the researchers hypothesised that it was here where teaching would be most beneficial. 

For Vygotsky, the developmental process is more than about learning about basic concepts such as object permenance, but children need to acquire the "cultural tools" of a society, such as scientific or mathematical concepts, which can in turn effect behavior and cognition. These concepts are learnt from more able peers or tutors, and thus Vygotsky needed to explain how these "higher psychological processes" are taught. [8]

Effective scaffolding

The best and most effective use of instructional scaffolding helps the learner figure out the task at hand on their own. It is best to think of the use of instructional scaffolding in an effective learning environment as one would think of the importance of scaffolding in the support of the construction of a new building. Instructional scaffolding is most effective when it contributes to the learning environment. In an effective learning environment, scaffolding is gradually added, then modified, and finally removed according to the needs of the learner. Eventually, instructional scaffolding will fade away. This learning process should never be in place permanently. Eventually, the goal should be for the student to no longer need the instructional scaffolding.

Theory of scaffolding

Scaffolding theory was first introduced in the late 1950s by Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist. He used the term to describe young children's oral language acquisition. Helped by their parents when they first start learning to speak, young children are provided with instinctive structures to learn a language. Bed-time stories and read alouds are classic examples (Daniels, 1994). Scaffolding comes from Vygotsky's (1978) concept of an expert assisting a novice, or an apprentice. Wood, Bruner, and Ross's (1976) idea of scaffolding parallels the work of Vygotsky. They described scaffolding as the support given to a younger learner by an older, more experienced adult. This concept has been further developed by Jesper Hoffmeyer as 'semiotic scaffolding'. Though the term was never used by Vygotsky, interactional support and the process by which adults mediate a child’s attempts to take on new learning has come to be termed “scaffolding.” Scaffolding represents the helpful interactions between adult and child that enable the child to do something beyond his or her independent efforts. A scaffold is a temporary framework that is put up for support and access to meaning and taken away as needed when the child secures control of success with a task. Cazden (1983) defined a scaffold as “a temporary framework for construction in progress” (p. 6). For example, parents seem to know intuitively how to scaffold their children’s attempts at negotiating meaning through oral language. The construction of a scaffold occurs at a time where the child may not be able to articulate or explore learning independently. The scaffolds provided by the tutor do not change the nature or difficulty level of the task; instead, the scaffolds provided allow the student to successfully complete the task.

A construct that is critical for scaffolding instruction is Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Zone of proximal development is that field between what a learner can do by himself (expert stage) and what can be achieved with the support of a knowledgeable peer or instructor (pedagogical stage) (Ellis, Larkin, Worthington, 2002). Vygotsky was convinced that a child could be taught any subject efficiently using scaffolding practices by implementing the scaffolds at the Zone of proximal development. Students are escorted and monitored through learning activities that function as interactive conduits to get them to the next stage. Thus the learner obtains or raises new understandings by presenting on their prior knowledge through the support delivered by more capable individuals (Raymond, 2000). Several peer reviewed studies have shown that when there is a deficiency in guided learning experiences and social interaction, learning and development are obstructed (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000).

In writing instruction, typically support is presented in verbal form (discourse). The writing tutor engages the learner’s attention, calibrates the task, motivates the student, identifies relevant task features, controls for frustration, and demonstrates as needed (Rodgers, 2004). Through joint activities, the teacher scaffolds conversation to maximize the development of a child’s intrapsychological functioning. In this process, the adult controls the elements of the task that are beyond the child’s ability all the while increasing the expectations of what the child is able to do. Speech, a critical tool to scaffold thinking and responding, plays a crucial role in the development of higher psychological processes (Luria, 1979) because it enables thinking to be more abstract, flexible, and independent (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). From a Vygotskian perspective, talk and action work together with the sociocultural fabric of the writing event to shape a child’s construction of awareness and performance (Dorn, 1996). Dialogue may range from casual talk to deliberate explanations about features of written language. The talk embedded in the actions of the literacy event shapes the child’s learning as the tutor regulates her language to conform to the child’s degrees of understanding. Clay (2005) shows that what may seem like casual conversational exchanges between tutor and student actually offer many opportunities for fostering cognitive development, language learning, story composition for writing, and reading comprehension. Conversations facilitate generative, constructive, experimental, and developmental speech and writing in the development of new ideas (Smagorinsky, 2007).

Children use oral language as a vehicle for discovering and negotiating emergent written language and understandings for getting meaning on paper (Cox, 1994; Dyson, 1983, 1991). Writing and speech as tools can lead to discovery of new thinking. The teacher offers levels of verbal and non-verbal demonstrations and directions as the child observes, mimics, or shares the writing task. With increased understanding and control, the child needs less assistance. The teacher’s level and type of support change over time from direction, to suggestion, to encouragement, to observation. Optimum scaffolds adapt to the child’s tempo, moving from other-regulation to self-regulation. The child eventually provides self-scaffolding through internal thought (Wertsch, 1985). Within these scaffolding events, teaching and learning - both inseparable components - emphasize both the child’s personal construction of literacy and the adult’s contributions to the child’s developing understandings of print. The child contributes what she can and the adult contributes so as to sustain the task (Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

Using a Vygotskian theoretical framework, Wertsch and Stone (1984) examine scaffolded instruction in a one-to-one remedial clinic setting with a learning-disabled child. The researchers show how adult language directs the child to strategically monitor actions. Analysis of communicative patterns shows a transition and progression in the source of strategic responsibility from teacher or other-regulated to child or self-regulated behaviors. In Vygotsky’s words, “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 211).

Some ingredients of scaffolding are predictability, playfulness, focus on meaning, role reversal, modeling, and nomenclature.[9]

Levels and types of scaffolding in the educational setting

According to Saye and Brush, there are two levels of scaffolding: soft and hard (2002).

Soft scaffolding

An example of soft scaffolding in the classroom would be when a teacher circulates the room and converses with his or her students (Simon and Klein, 2007). The teacher may question their approach to a difficult problem and provide constructive feedback. According to Van Lier, this type of scaffolding can also be referred to as contingent scaffolding. The type and amount of support needed is dependent on the needs of the students during the time of instruction (Van Lier, 1996). Unfortunately, applying scaffolding correctly and consistently can be difficult when the classroom is large and students have various needs (Gallagher, 1997). Scaffolding can be applied to a majority of the students, but the teacher is left with the responsibility to identify additional scaffolding.

=Hard scaffolding

In contrast with contingent or soft scaffolding, embedded or hard scaffolding is planned in advance to help students with a learning task that is known in advance to be difficult (Saye and Brush, 2002). For example, when students are discovering the formula for the Pythagorean Theorem in math class, the teacher may identify hints or cues to help the student reach an even higher level of thinking. In both situations, the idea of "expert scaffolding" is being implemented (Holton and Clarke, 2006): the teacher in the classroom is considered the expert and is responsible for providing scaffolding for the students.

Other types include:

Distributed scaffolding

Main article: Distributed scaffolding

Distributed scaffolding is a concept developed by Puntambekar and Kolodner (1998) that describes an ongoing system of student support through multiple tools, activities, technologies and environments that increase student learning and performance.

Originally introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976), the learning tool of scaffolding is rooted in individualized support and tutoring. Through scaffolded or tutored instruction, a teacher was able to guide the student through a complex set of building block tasks in order to achieve a final pyramid product that the child may not have been able to complete without this active support. The term was conceptualized presuming instruction by an adult expert with a single student, however, the reality of classrooms with 20 or more students do not necessarily lend themselves to this specific structure. With many students and multiple different levels of skill or Zones of Proximal Development , there is a need to create many support structures that can properly address each student’s developmental level (Tabak, 2004; Puntambekar and Hübscher, 2005).

Reciprocal scaffolding

Reciprocal scaffolding, a method first coined by Holton and Thomas, is a method that involves a group of two or more collaboratively working together. In this situation, the group can learn from each other's experiences and knowledge. The scaffolding is shared by each member and changes constantly as the group works on a task (Holton and Clarke, 2006). According to Vygotsky, students develop higher-level thinking skills when scaffolding occurs with an adult expert or with a peer of higher capabilities (Stone, 1998). Conversely, Piaget believes that students discard their ideas when paired with an adult or student of more expertise (Piaget, 1928). Instead, students should be paired with others who have different perspectives. Conflicts would then take place between students allowing them to think constructively at a higher level.

Technical scaffolding

Technical scaffolding is a newer approach in which computers replace the teachers as the experts or guides, and students can be guided with web links, online tutorials, or help pages (Yelland and Masters, 2007). Educational software can help students follow a clear structure and allows students to plan properly (Lai and Law, 2006).

Scaffolding and problem-based learning in the educational setting

Scaffolding is often used in order to support problem-based learning (PBL). When using PBL, learners in the classroom become researchers and often work in small groups to analyze problems, determine solutions, and evaluate solutions (Hoffman and Ritchie, 1997). In one study, medical students using PBL were shown to develop a deeper understanding, improve retention of material, and increase overall attitude, compared to other students who did not use PBL (Albanese and Mitchell, 1993). Many educators incorporate PBL in their classrooms in order to engage students and help them become better problem solvers. Scaffolding may help the success of PBL in the classroom. Teachers must identify the content that needs scaffolding (support), choose the appropriate time to implement the support, decide the right method to follow, and determine when the scaffold can be removed (Lajoie, 2005).

Empirical Research on Scaffolding and its efficacy

As predicted from scaffolding theorists, tasks which children can initially only do with assistance, later require much less assistance from teachers.[1] 

Efficacy of Instructional Scaffolding

David Wood and colleagues produced the first empirical studies of scaffolding. Mother's levels of contingent shifting and the percentage of their interventions in the "region of sensitivity" (see above for both definitions) correlates highly with task performance, even when the overall number of interventions by mothers is controlled for. [10] The quality, not quantity of interventions by mothers predicts better performance by children. However, in this study, possible mediating factors such as social class or the childs intelligence are not controlled for. Other research has compared different teaching strategies and controlled for pre-tutoring ability, and this research has shown that contigent shifting produces greater increases in ability compared to giving the same level of help regardless of the ability of the learner. [11]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wood, D., Bruner, J. & Ross, G. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.
  2. Wood, D., Bruner, J. & Ross, G. The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 17, 89-100. 
  3. Pratt, M.W. & Savoy-Levine, K.M. (1998) Contigent Tutoring of Long-division Skills in Fourth and Fifth Graders: Experimental Tests of Some Hypotheses about Scaffolding. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 2, 287-304.
  4. Wood, D. & Middleton, D. (1975) A study of assisted problem-solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66,2, p.182
  5. Wood, D. & Wood, H. (1996) Vygotsky, Tutoring and Learning. Oxford Review of Education, 22, 1, 5-16
  6. Meins, E. (1997) Security of attachment and maternal tutoring strategies: Interaction within the zone of proximal development. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 15, 129-144.
  7. Wood, D. & Middleton, D. (1975) A study of assisted problem-solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66,2, 181-191.
  8. Vygotsky, L.S, (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  9. Daniels, H. (1994). Literature Circles: Voice and choice in the student-centered classroom. Markham: Pembroke Publishers Ltd.
  10. Wood,D. & Middleton, D. (1975) A study of Assisted Problem-Solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 181-191.
  11. Pratt, M.W. & Savoy-Levine, K.M. (1998) Contigent Tutoring of Long-division Skills in Fourth and Fifth Graders: Experimental Tests of Some Hypotheses about Scaffolding. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19, 2, 287-304.

Further reading

  • Belland, Brian., Glazewski, Krista D., and Richardson, Jennifer C. (2008). A scaffolding framework to support the construction of evidence-based arguments among middle school students. Education Tech Research Dev., 56, 401-422.
  • Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1998). Scaffolding emergent writing in the zone of proximal development. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 1-18.
  • Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, and Experience & School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Cazden, C. B. (1983). Adult assistance to language development: Scaffolds, models, and direct instruction. In R. P. Parker & F. A. Davis (Eds.), Developing literacy:Young children's use of language (pp. 3–17). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  • Clay, M. M. (2005). Literacy lessons designed for individuals: Teaching procedures. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Cox, B. E. (1994). Young children’s regulatory talk: Evidence of emerging metacognitive control over literary products and processes. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and process of reading (pp. 733–756). Newark, DE: IRA.
  • Dorn, L. (1996). A Vygotskian perspective on literacy acquisition: Talk and action in the child's construction of literate awareness. Literacy Teaching and Learning: An International Journal of Early Reading and Writing, 2(2), 15-40.
  • Dyson, A. H. (1983). The role of oral language in early writing process. Research in the Teaching of English, 17(1), 1-30.
  • Dyson, A. H. (1991). Viewpoints: The word and the world - reconceptualizing written language development or do rainbows mean a lot to little girls? Research in the Teaching of English, 25, 97-123.
  • Hoffman, B., & Ritchie, D. (1997). The problems with problem based learning. Instructional Science 25(2) 97-115.
  • Holton, Derek, and Clark, David (2006). Scaffolding and metacognition. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 37, 127-143.
  • Lai, Ming and Law, Nancy (2006). Peer scaffolding of knowledge building through collaborative groups with differential learning experiences. J. Educational Computing Research, 35, 123-144.
  • Lajoie, Sussane (2005). Extending the scaffolding metaphor. Instructional Science, 33, 541-557.
  • Luria, A. R. (1983). The development of writing in the child. In M. Martlew (Ed.), The psychology of written language: Developmental and educational perspectives (pp. 237–277). New York: Wiley.
  • Raymond, E. (2000). Cognitive Characteristics. Learners with Mild Disabilities (pp. 169-201). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, A Pearson Education Company.
  • Rodgers, E. M. (2004). Interactions that scaffold reading performance. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(4), 501-532.
  • Sawyer, R. Keith. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York:

Cambridge University Press.

  • Simons, Krista D., and Klein, James D. (2007). The impact of scaffolding and student achievement levels in a problem-based learning environment. Instructional Science, 35, 41-72.
  • Smagorinsky, P. (2007). Vygotsky and the social dynamic of classrooms. English Journal, 97(2), 61-66.
  • Teale, W. H. & Sulzby, E. (Eds.). (1986). Emergent literacy: Writing and reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In L. S. Vygotsky, Collected works (vol. 1, pp. 39–285) (R. Rieber & A. Carton, Eds; N. Minick, Trans.). New York: Plenum. (Original works published in 1934, 1960).
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wertsch, J. V. & Stone, C. (1984). A social interactional analysis of learning disabilities remediation. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 17(4), 194-199.
  • Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.
  • Yelland, Nicola, and Masters, Jennifer (2007). Rethinking scaffolding in the information age. Computers and Education, 48, 362-382.

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