Suleiman Ibrahim

Head of Islamic studies & Social studies / Islamic Education Lecturer

Classroom practice: How to use scaffolding well

We all use scaffolding in the classroom, but it can be hard to know exactly what great scaffolding looks like. 

In some cases, we might find ourselves relying on the same type over and over again.

I’m on a mission to change this in my school.

Over the past couple of years, my school has embedded Tom Sherrington’s Teach to the Top approach, which focuses on ensuring that all children are challenged.

In practice, this means we only have one learning question (or objective) for all students, we use challenging texts and we try to lift the lid on our expectations of what all students can achieve.

However, a high-challenge environment must be coupled with an appropriate level of support. This is where scaffolding comes in. 

What should scaffolding look like?

Scaffolding must be bespoke to the needs of the students and the task involved, but that doesn’t mean producing different worksheets or activities; it means being responsive.

As a teaching and learning lead, I wanted to give more guidance to staff about what exactly scaffolding should look like, and how to gradually remove support.

To do this, I started to think first about the different activities and approaches that could be used as scaffolding: things like sentence starters, detailed guided reading activities or using a “we write” class answer followed by independent practice.

I then thought about how these approaches could be adapted for “heavy”, “medium” and “light” support. The result was a document that lays out the various activities that can be used for each level of support.

For example, when an examination question is first introduced, heavy support may be needed for all students.

After a couple of attempts with this kind of support, it may be that the scaffolding can be reduced to a medium level. A detailed writing frame can become just sentence starters at the beginning of every paragraph. 

Scaffolding can then be further reduced to “light” support: perhaps, in this case, just verbal reminders about sentence starters before the task begins, and a discussion of what the first sentence starter may be. 

There may be some students in the class who need “heavy” support for longer, whereas others may be able to move more quickly to having less support.

How does this approach work?

To test my scaffolding document out, I used it with my own classes. 

For example, when first reading a challenging text as a class, I started out with some heavy scaffolding: in this case, reading aloud having already identified key vocabulary and provided students with a glossary, which I used as a prompt to devise questions to pose to students.

I also provided the class with a timeline of background information for the book and read along with them under the visualiser. 

I modelled how to summarise the key points in a paragraph and match inferences to evidence in the text, too.

The next step was to reduce this to medium or light scaffolding. After modelling how to analyse a paragraph, I asked the students to replicate my method for another paragraph and highlight the key vocabulary themselves. 

What has the impact been?

I’ve been using this kind of scaffolding for a long time in my teaching, but having the document makes the approach more explicit and gives me a clear structure.

As a result, I am much more conscious of not just using the same approach for everyone, but being responsive to the needs of my students in terms of how much scaffolding is needed. 

I now spend time before lessons considering who may need more structured scaffolding and who I can begin to remove scaffolding for. It has also made me much more thoughtful about ensuring that I move through from heavy to light support as students become more confident with an activity or topic. 

The students responded really well. They understand that support for activities in the classroom will look different at different times and sometimes for different students. 

I like to use the image of a bike with stabilisers, so they understand that early on in the journey of their learning they will be given lots of guidance and structured support, but it would be a mistake to leave that in place too long as, ultimately, they have to learn to succeed independently. 

What next?

At the moment, this is a generic approach, but it could be tailored to different subjects. I am planning to sit down with subject teams to explore this. 

I am hoping these conversations will result in a live working document that is constantly discussed and used in planning, or when giving feedback after lesson visits.

My aim is to give teachers concrete ideas for ensuring that every student has the support they need, and – when coupled with high expectations and a focus on challenge – that this will allow teachers to effectively reduce support over time, encouraging independence and, ultimately, success.

Rachel Ball is the assistant principal in charge of teaching and learning at Co-op Academy Walkden in Salford, Greater Manchester

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