Saturday, September 23, 2017

Are We Over-Scaffolding? What's Important in this Conversation

We've all had that lesson.  You know, the one where readers are gathered, everyone has their book in hand, and soon it becomes obvious the book isn't going to work for a reader.  For a myriad of reasons, the reader begins to struggle with the text and before we know it, we're off to the rescue.  You know the lesson:  the one where we find ourselves repeatedly giving prompts that are all over the strategy map.

  • "What would make sense?"
  • "Look at the first part."
  • "Try something that would sound right." 

Yep, in these situations, we find ourselves suddenly doing anything in our power to help the reader to get through the text without having to abandon it in the middle of the lesson.  


We've all had that reader.  You know, the one that looks at us every time they run into a challenge in the text. Yep, the reader we all work not to make eye contact with during the lesson.  The one who seems to be having difficulty using what is known to read an unfamiliar text.  The one that before we know it we are off and running with reading prompts galore.  


We've all made that move.  You know, the one where our finger moves across the table and into the reader's book.  Yep, that's always the moment where I know I need to rethink what I'm doing with a reader.  

I'm going to guess we can all confess to times we've "over-scaffolded."  

On the other hand, we all know the readers that have grown in confidence.  We all know the books that have matched the next steps for readers, the ones that have given the right amount of challenge to grow forward.  We all know these successes have come from carefully assessing our readers, reflecting on what they can do and what they need next, and then thoughtfully helping them build that next skill, strategy, or understanding.  

What About Rescuing Readers?
More and more I read about the dangers of over-scaffolding.  More and more I note the tweets and posts from teachers who are wondering if they should be scaffolding.  I'm going to be bold enough to say that I worry a bit about this conversation.  I, too, have read the concerns of Terry Thompson, Burkins and Yaris, and Vicki Vinton, among others.  I get it.  As someone who has spent much time beside emergent and early readers, worked alongside learners in Reading Recovery and reading intervention, I know I have, at times, been guilty of over-scaffolding.

At the same time, I also know that it took me many years (much training and many professional books) to learn to scaffold readers in a way that helped them work toward independence.  I think we should use caution in this conversation.  In education, we easily slip into an all or none discussion.  This isn't really about scaffolding or not scaffolding, it's about being cautious of doing too much for our readers.  As I've read Terry Thompson, Burkins and Yaris, and Vicky Vinton, what I take away is that I can be more intentional in the support I give the readers that sit beside me each day.  Through thoughtful reflection and planning, I can precisely focus on a next step, while adjusting my expectations for readers to use what they've learned to read and understand a new text.

Thinking About Scaffolding
I've found all of this conversation fascinating.  It has made me pause, rethink my practice, and clarify my thinking.  It has made me step back to consider the support I give readers, as well as the ways I might be over-supporting them.  It has made me wonder when to scaffold and when to step back, how to scaffold effectively, and what I should consider in tailoring support.  Where is the line?

I, in no way, have this figured out.  However, I'm wondering if we over-scaffold when we:
  • scaffold the text instead of the reader
  • give too supportive of book introductions
  • monitor for readers 
  • teach to give prior knowledge to help readers read complex texts
  • prompt every difficulty instead of maintaining focus on the next step for a reader
  • prompt too quickly instead of letting a reader attempt to solve the problem

Scaffolding requires that we know our readers and consider their stage of development.  Scaffolding should be:
  • based upon a reader's needs
  • specific 
  • on the reader's edge or next step
  • thoughtful in the level of support of the prompts utilized

When sitting beside readers I know I have to be intentional with my every move.  For me, that means having the self-discipline to keep a reader's focus first and leaving time for the reader to do the work they need to do to problem solve as they read for understanding.  For me, that means thinking about the prompts I will use ahead of time and staying clear in my language.  I hope we'll continue this conversation about scaffolding our readers and helping them to grow in independence.  I think we're all going to learn a lot!

I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments below.  When should we scaffold?  When should we step back?  How can we more effectively scaffold our readers to help them take next steps?  What is essential?  


  1. I love this post, Cathy! I agree it's important to know your learner. When prompting, I think it's best to start with the lowest level of support. Such as a general, "What might you try?" before offering specific suggestions. You can always offer more support based on their response but you can't take hints back once you've given them. Your post is great food for thought!

  2. I have been thinking lots about this balance too- especially because I work with such a high percentage of ELLs. I am trying to encourage my learners to advocate for themselves and let me know when they need scaffolding.

  3. Over-scaffolding is something I've thought a lot about, too. It takes a great deal of trust in the child to restrain ourselves when the urge to prompt or rescue hits!