MET:Components of Cognitive Apprenticeship: Scaffolding

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This page was originally authored by Susan Wilson (2008).

"The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion-these are the most valuable coins of the thinker at work. But in most schools guessing is heavily penalized and is associated somehow with laziness." Jerome Seymour Bruner


Construction Scaffold

In the world of construction scaffoldingis a temporary support system built beside the structure being erected. The scaffold aids and supports the construction as needed and is removed when the building is able to stand independently.

In the world of education, instructional scaffolding is a process of temporary support that aids learners as they construct understanding and progress from being unable to do something, to being able to perform the task with assistance, to being able to do it autonomously.

In keeping with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximinal Development (ZPD), scaffolding enables the learner to move tasks from their ZPD into their Zone of Actual Development (ZAD).


Vygotsky and Scaffolding Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976, as cited by Rollins Burch, 2007) first used the term scaffolding to describe the way parents facilitated language learning in their children. Scaffolding was described as a support system that helps children achieve success on tasks that are too difficult for them to achieve on their own.

Bruner's theory builds on the work by Vygotsky. A learner's level of actual development is scaffolded to the level of their potential development. Scaffolding is a specific type of teacher (or more knowledgeable other, MKO) support that helps the learner achieve a task that they would not be able to achieve without assistance; assistance provided just at the time of need, that is designed to help the learner work with increasing independence.

Scaffolding Instruction

Teachers have the responsibility of identifying tasks that are within a student's ZPD; tasks that are beyond a students present ability level. Teachers, peer tutors or other facilitators (collectively MKO's or More Knowledgeable Others) provide help and support to students only with tasks that students are unable to complete autonomously and only at the specific time of need. As students are able to do more and more on their own, the support is lessened until the students are able to do the task unassisted. The learning objective is now part of the students ZAD and a new objective is undertaken.

Based on work by Luciano Mariani

An important aspect of scaffolding is that you want the learner to feel success. Choosing a task that the learner has already mastered (one within their ZAD) does not provide any new learning or feeling of accomplishment. Requiring students to perform tasks that are within their ZAD will lead to a decrease in motivation to learn; choosing a task that is too difficult for a student, even with assistance, will lead to frustration, insecurity and anxiety. It is important that students are able to complete challenging tasks with assistance. (Moriani, 1997)

The greatest probability of student success is achieved when challenging tasks are matched with a high level of support. Student confidence and feeling of success should be important considerations as the goal is to have them complete the tasks autonomously; even to become the MKO for another.

Extending Student Understanding

The quality and nature of the support provided by the MKO is paramount to the success of the scaffolding process. Teachers sequence activities, provide individualized support and guidance, and allow students the necessary time to process and benefit from the support. It is through these interactions that students are taken past their current knowledge base; from a point of needing assistance to a point of autonomy.

Temporary Support

Instructional scaffolds must be designed in a way that they will cease to be needed. Correctly implemented, scaffolds will decrease in level and intensity as students construct their own connections and understandings. This level of adjustment in scaffolds must be based on the individual progression of the students. The ultimate goal is to produce independent learners.


The tasks must satisfy curriculum (macro focus) requirements but they must also be designed to meet the needs (micro focus) of a variety of learners at different levels. The micro level tasks must all be part of the larger picture. Micro level student-teacher interactions in support of sequenced tasks must align with macro-level system goals and planning.

Effective Scaffolding

Applebee (1986, as cited in Foley) identifies five criteria for effective scaffolding.

1. Intentionality: The task has a clear overall purpose to the learner requiring individual contributions to the whole.

2. Appropriateness: Instructional tasks should build upon prior knowledge and should be appropriately challenging to the student.

3. Structure: The learning environment in structured to present appropriate approaches to the task and lead to a natural sequence of thought and language.

4. Collaboration: The teacher’s primary role is collaborative rather than evaluative as tasks are solved jointly in the course of instructional interaction

5. Internalization: As students internalize new procedures, external scaffolding for the activity is gradually withdrawn

Types of Scaffolding

Designed In Scaffolding

Scaffolding begins during the planning of the unit. Activities are sequenced to connect previous knowledge to new knowledge. The assessment of the desired outcomes is considered in the unit planning stage. Example - Using manipulatives in math then moving to the abstract, but refering back to the manipulatives if students still need support.

Point of Need Scaffolding

The teacher recognises a "teachable moment" and capitalises on the learning potential at that point in time. Questioning is very important in identifying need, confirming understanding, relating previous and new knowledge, and making connections between concepts. Teachers might also paraphrase, repeat or recast student responses to clarify and elaborate on their ideas. Point of need scaffolding relies heavily on classroom discourse and provides strong and timely support for student learning. Planning for contingency is also an important component as scaffolds must be varied to suit the individual needs of the learner at that point in time.

Implications on Second Language Acquisition

Scaffolding is the temporary support that surrounds a building under construction. The term is used metaphorically to describe the temporary interactional support that is given to learners while their language system is ‘under construction’. It is this support – from teachers, parents or ‘better others’ – that enables them to perform a task at a level beyond their present competence. The term derives from theory, Sociocultural Learning which views learning as being jointly constructed. Scaffolding is an integral part of this model. In first language acquisition, it has been observed that children, even at an early age, are able to participate in conversations because of the verbal scaffolding provided by their caregivers. Scaffolding not only provides a conversational framework, but it is believed to shape language acquisition itself. Similar processes are believed to occur in second language learning. The scaffolding is provided by teachers and also by peers.

The importance of visual scaffolding for ESL students

ESL students are particularly dependent on visual scaffolding which can and should be removed when it has served its purpose, but often the purely oral scaffolding undertaken by the teacher is not enough. ESL students greatly benefit from the type of scaffolding that makes extensive use of visual aids – hence the term visual scaffolding. When students can see an image of what the teacher is describing or see the key words that the teacher is explaining, this not only serves to make the input considerably more comprehensible, but serves to remove the affective filter which results from the fear or boredom that comes of understanding very little in class. The Smartboard and its software are excellent tools for the production and viewing of content that is both interesting and comprehensible.

Visual scaffolding is a support that includes images and words that can be seen as well as heard. Visual scaffolding is an excellent way to provide comprehensible input to ESL students so that not only will they learn the essential subject content but also they will make progress in their acquisition of English. Researches in cognitive/ educational psychology and second language acquisition such as Vygotsky, Krashen and Bruner have contributed with their theoretical bases to understand scaffolding in the acquisition of a second language.

Vygotsky: Scaffolding and Language Acquisition

Although Vygotsky and Krashen come from entirely different backgrounds, the application of their theories to second language teaching produces similarities. Krashen's input hypothesis resembles Vygotsky's concept of zone of proximal development. Although Vygotsky speaks of internalization of language while Krashen uses the term language acquisition, both are based on a common assumption: interaction with other people. Vygotsky considers the environment and the affinity between its participants as essential elements to make the learner feel of this environment when it comes to language learning.

Krashen: Theory of Second Language Acquisition

Stephen Krashen, a researcher into second language acquisition, devised a similar notion for the kind of input that an ESL student needs in order to make progress in acquiring English. He called this gap i+1, where i is the current level of proficiency.Clearly, an ESL student cannot cope with or learn from language input that is at i+6 or i+13. The input must be made comprehensible. Indeed, Krashen states that comprehensible input is a sufficient condition for language acquisition. However, Krashen further claims that no language will acquired in the presence of the affective filter. This simply means that a ESL student who is nervous or bored in class will learn neither subject content nor new language, even if the input is comprehensible.

Bruner: Scaffolding and Language Acquisition

Bruner creates a learning theory directly related to students’ self-improvement called “The process of education” (Bruner, 1960). This theory is sometimes referred to “the active process of learning”. The active process of learning focuses on learners’ background knowledge. That is to say, in order to acquire the second language quickly, students have to relate the new experiences they obtain to their own previous knowledge. Nonetheless, this process is dependent upon the readiness of each learner. In addition, teachers’ instructions play a major role on students’ learning readiness. Scaffolding includes all the things that teachers do already when they predict the kinds of difficulty that the class or individual students in it will have with a given task. Typical examples are the activation of background knowledge at the beginning of the lesson or a brief review of key vocabulary at the end of it. The Writing Process is another prime example of scaffolding.

Examples of Scaffolding

  • Break tasks into smaller, more manageable parts
  • Provide explanations
  • Model by example - "think alouds"
  • Cooperative learning to provide practice with teamwork and promote dialogue amoung peers
  • Using a variety of questioning techniques - prompting, coaching, and cueing
  • Reminding students of prior knowledge

Example - In working through a Math problem, the student needs assistance with a question like 975/25. Instead of directly showing the student how to work out the answer, the MKO could ask a question like "How many quarters are in a dollar?" If the student was able to answer that but still could not connect that understanding to the question at hand, the teacher could provide further scaffolding by prompting "How many quarters are there in 9 dollars?" The scaffolding would end once the student was able to successfully complete the task. The questions would become increasingly directive if the student continued to need assistance.

Stop Motion Video about Scaffolding


  • An A-Z of ELT scaffolding SLA (p. 201). Retrieved Feb 01, 2009 from

  • Foley, Joseph. Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Retrieved February 24, 2008 from

  • Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding (Vygotsky, Bruner and Rogoff).

State of Victoria. 2007. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Retrieved February 22, 2008 from

Additional References

  • Cummins, Jim. University of Toronto. Computer Assisted Text Scaffolding for Curriculum Access and Language Learning/Acquisition (CATSCALLA),

  • Larkin, Martha. 2002-12-00. Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA. Using Scaffolded Instruction to Optimize Learning. ERIC # ED474301.

  • National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). Published co-operatively by the Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska Departments of Education. Spring 1996 Vol.3 No. 4. Scaffolding in the Zone of Proximal Development.