4 Questions that Drive Successful Scaffolds

Dr. Natalie Saaris
May 10, 2017

There are countless reasons to read complex texts: the Common Core requires it, students will learn more from texts that challenge their thinking, and these are the texts that prepare students for the reading they will be doing as adults, to name just a few. But like many teachers, you may have found yourself teaching a highly demanding text to students who are not quite ready to tackle it on their own.

There are some folks who argue that the best way to bridge the gap between the challenge of the text and the students’ abilities is to lower the difficulty of the text by leveling. However, the better approach in terms of building students’ skills and knowledge is to scaffold the more challenging text to make it accessible. But how do teachers do that successfully?

While the scaffolds themselves may differ from one text (and one class) to the next, the thought process that produces the scaffolds follows a similar pattern. Let’s look at the four questions that every teacher should ask when planning scaffolding for a challenging text.

1. What makes this text hard for my students?

The scaffolds that teachers provide will depend on what students are likely to struggle with. The reason there is no “one size fits all” scaffolding is because every group of students is different, and every text is different. To be effective, scaffolds need to target the needs of a particular group of students as they are reading a particular text.

The most common obstacles to understanding are:

Gaps in content knowledge: 

Students who lack the necessary content knowledge are unlikely to understand a text, even if they have every available reading comprehension skill at their disposal. Content knowledge is particularly important when students are reading nonfiction articles: if you are assigning students to read a topic that is removed from their daily life (as opposed to, say, an article about smartphone usage and teenagers), they are likely to need help figuring out the underlying context and the references to unfamiliar events, people, and ideas.

Unfamiliar vocabulary

Students who don’t know the meaning of the words they read cannot make sense of the text. This not only applies to English Language Learners but also to students who have not been exposed to the academic language that is so common in challenging text, yet rare in everyday speech. Research has shown that frontloading key vocabulary words can significantly help students access challenging text (Wright, 2017).

Organizational logic

This category applies to both fiction and nonfiction. Novels whose chronology moves forward and back or whose narrative voice shifts can be difficult for students who are unable to track what is happening in the story. The organizational logic of nonfiction can be equally difficult: if a student cannot understand how an example relates to the main idea of an essay, he or she may lose the overall thread of the text.

2. What scaffolds do my students really need?

The goal of reading instruction is to support students’ growing independence. Many students would gladly accept any scaffold that made it easier for them to read the text, even if those students could just as well figure out the meaning on their own. Teachers need to distinguish the scaffolds that are absolutely necessary from those that merely simplify the work of students. For example, many students would gladly opt to read a pre-reading guide that explains the purpose of the text and who its author is. However, these may be things that the students could just as well figure out on their own if the pre-reading guide were not offered.

In some instances, students would do well with scaffolds that guide them in figuring out the text rather than scaffolds that do the work for them. For example, instead of outlining a challenging text structure for students, ask them to create the outline as they work in groups. Instead of giving them the pre-reading guide, ask them questions that draw their attention to who the author is and what his or her purpose might be. 

3. How will I provide support while students read?

There is a familiar instructional pattern where students are assigned a text to read on their own, followed by a class discussion or direct instruction that illuminates what that text means. This approach is undesirable in a few respects:

  • When students are not offered any supports while they read a challenging text, the reading process can be immensely frustrating. Struggling to make sense of something far beyond the students’ knowledge and skill level can leave students feeling like they are not up to the task of reading independently. 
  • If the sense-making process occurs outside of the reading process (as it does when someone explains the meaning of a text during a class lecture or discussion), then the whole point of reading is lost. Why bother to read the text when someone else will end up explaining it in class anyway?
  • Much of class time is devoted to establishing basic comprehension as opposed to analysis. Students miss out on the opportunity to activate higher-order thinking and engage in rich discussion because they are spending all their class time figuring out the basics.

Providing scaffolds during the reading process is one reason why digital text is a preferable medium for teaching complex text. However, teachers can find ways to include notes in the margins of photocopied articles, or read together as a class to fill in gaps. Giving supplementary material such as a list of key vocabulary words and definitions is another way to give students access to resources while they read.

4. Should I differentiate these scaffolds?

Today’s classrooms are increasingly populated by students of diverse academic backgrounds. Some students will be English language learners, some students will have IEPs, and the reading levels of students may run the gamut. What this means is that teachers will need to differentiate the scaffolds available to students.

For example, in a classroom with English language learners and native English speakers, it is possible that English language learners will need to hear the text read aloud, have access to translations of certain words, or require an article summary in their native language. Those same scaffolds will be irrelevant to the native English speakers. Likewise, students who have had exposure to Elizabethan sonnets in previous classes will have an easier time accessing a Shakespearean play, whereas students who have never seen this sort of language before will likely need substantial help. Differentiating scaffolds based on students’ prior reading experience would make sense in this scenario. 


Scaffolding is not easy, but the benefits to students’ learning are well worth the effort. One of the great advantages of reading a text for class is that the support of the teacher enables students to make sense of text that they would not be able to access on their own. By giving students the opportunity to dig into texts that are rich in ideas, we unlock a world that may otherwise be closed to them. This is what makes teaching so rewarding, and learning so meaningful.



Wright, T. S., & Cervetti, G. N. (2017). A Systematic Review of the Research on Vocabulary Instruction That Impacts Text Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly,52(2), 203-226. doi:10.1002/rrq.163

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