7 ways to use ZPD and scaffolding to challenge and support students

In my last post, we covered the basics on ZPD: what it is, why it matters, and how to identify it for each student. That was ZPD 101. (Bill Amend, of FoxTrot fame, must read this blog regularly because he just drew a hilarious strip about what it can feel like for a student to tackle math outside their ZPD.) I’m so glad you’re back for more. Let’s keep exploring.

Once we know where students are academically, we can begin to think about how to challenge and support them, specifically by planning instruction targeted on content they can’t yet access independently and by providing appropriately designed and timed scaffolds so they can get there on their own, eventually. The instruction and scaffolds are always intended to give students frequent access to grade-level content so they can reach those standards, that high bar set for them and their classmates. Ready to delve into how to do that? Let’s start at the very beginning: by demystifying scaffolding.

What scaffolding is—and isn’t

In my experience, scaffolding is one of the most misunderstood and misused approaches in education. In our professional learning workshops, we define scaffolding as the temporary supports teachers provide students so they can access complex content. “Temporary” is a key word there (as critical as the word “complex.” Don’t lose sight of those grade-level standards). Driven by positive intent to prevent student frustration, many teachers tend to leave a scaffold in place for too long, creating the potential for students to become reliant on the support and decreasing the likelihood of independence and growth.

We recommend designing scaffolds by planning with the end in mind, that is, beginning with grade-level standards and determining how to provide all students access and opportunities for mastery. Then construct specific plans for when and how scaffolds will be removed as students achieve successive levels of independence with content. Just like physical scaffolding on buildings is removed as construction is completed, supportive learning structures and strategies must be incrementally removed when formative data indicates students no longer need them to be successful.

[I]nstruction and scaffolds are always intended to give students frequent access to grade-level content so they can reach […] standards, that high bar set for them and their classmates.

Whether you’re teaching online, following a hybrid model, or in person, your presence (literally, if you’re stuck behind a computer) is critical to the success of scaffolding. You are that more knowledgeable other Lev Vygotsky was referring to in his work. And just like you would never leave a child who can’t swim alone in a pool, you’ll always provide support to students working in their ZPD. Your support keeps their motivation for learning afloat (pun intended). Sometimes your role will be swimming instructor, jumping into the pool with your students, teaching them things like how to breathe or how to do the backstroke. Other times, you’ll serve as lifeguard, staying dry and keeping an eye on things as you allow your students to interact with the flotation devices they need before they’re ready to dive into the deep end solo. When you can’t be at the pool at all, you’ll ensure your students have a life vest—and know how to put it on.

7 ways to scaffold

General scaffolding strategies can be used in many contexts. Here are seven approaches to try:

  1. Activate prior knowledge: Connect new learning to prior learning to build relevance and bridge understanding.
  2. Build prerequisite knowledge: Create opportunities for students to build the content- or context-specific knowledge needed for access and understanding.
  3. Try mini lessons: Break learning into smaller, more manageable chunks that build progressively in complexity.
  4. Use visual, sensory, or auditory aids: Support multiple modes of learning using models, videos, artifacts, experiences, recordings, and read-alouds to reach students in different ways.
  5. Have some Think-Write-Talk time: Provide low-stakes opportunities for students to process through thinking, writing, speaking, and listening, both independently and collaboratively.
  6. Include intentional practice: Gradually release students to successive levels of independence through the I Do, We Do, You Do model.
  7. Introduce increasingly complex questions or tasks: Design and order tasks and questions to build from simple to complex in a way that helps students gain just-in-time insights or skills.

Scaffolding may look different depending on your content area. Here are some things to take into account.


Reading and ELA teachers, you have your work cut out for you. It can feel especially difficult to give all students access to grade-level text when many of us are so used to reading-level books. But as my colleague Cindy Jiban explained in “Let’s talk equity: Reading levels, scaffolds, and grade-level text,” approaching readers with leveled texts can be very problematic. Timothy Shanahan, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, provides a compelling exploration of the difference between instructional level and ZPD in reading in his blog, too.

What can make this challenge a little easier? Consider the primary features of the complex grade-level text that is at the center of your upcoming instruction. What supplemental text-dependent questions can you develop to help students make sense of the text? Which related prior grade-level standards will help you add additional scaffolds to your text-dependent questions? Where might students struggle with the qualitative features of the text, i.e., structure, levels of meaning, knowledge demands, and language demands? Can you prepare students for the text through a mini lesson on knowledge building or vocabulary development?

[S]caffolding [is] the temporary supports teachers provide students so they can access complex content. ‘Temporary’ is a key word there (as critical as the word ‘complex.’ Don’t lose sight of those grade-level standards).

For example, if the text relies on figurative language and a student’s ZPD indicates they may not have a strong understanding of metaphors, provide additional opportunities to engage with metaphors. Maybe introduce one they’re probably familiar with, like “a barrel full of monkeys” or “a blanket of snow,” using some pre-planned questions for small group activities. Ask them to consider what these phrases are really saying. Can they picture how chaotic it would be to have a barrel with monkeys inside? Does the snow outside their window or in their favorite scene in Frozen look like the blanket on their bed? Practicing with common metaphors will help them make more sense of the figurative language found within that grade-level text you want them to access. And it will increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to make sense of that text.

Content area reading

Those who teach social studies, science, and other subjects know their students do plenty of reading, reading that can help them understand the concepts they’re trying to teach. In your case, your students are reading to learn—as opposed to learning to read—and there’s a lot you can do to support that.

Think critically about the grade-level text that will be used with your instruction. For example, if the text relies on a particular structure, and if the students’ ZPD indicates they may need support with understanding big-picture organization, provide time for students to learn about how the text is organized before getting into the material. Or, if the text relies heavily on content-specific vocabulary and assumes a level of current understanding a student doesn’t have, consider pre-teaching the words and word roots that students will need to understand to best make sense of the text. In a biology class, it could be helpful to define the word “photosynthesis” ahead of time and to clarify what the prefix photo- and the root -syn- mean, for example.


Math teachers, you’ll want to consider the grade-level standard of instruction you’re focused on. What does the progression of concepts and skills for the standard look like within and across grade levels? What are the aspects of rigor?

Reference a district or state learning progression, curriculum scope and sequence, or, for schools using Common Core State Standards, a tool such as Achieve the Core’s Coherence Map to identify the prerequisite skills and concepts students need to support the grade-level instruction. Cross-reference these skills with the learning statements and evidence you’ve gathered about students’ current level of understanding. Consider scaffolding instruction for students by providing supportive resources or tools or by pre-teaching key skills and vocabulary.

For example, if students are struggling with the concept of numerical fractions, consider scaffolding their understanding by reviewing skills earlier in the fraction progression, including visual models of parts-to-whole. Additionally, math teachers may need to support student access to math texts in the form of word problems. Consider teaching the common structures and language of word problems and using graphic organizers to support students’ comprehension and sense-making.

In order to effectively operate in the ZPD, every learner must experience productive struggle, or effortful learning.

Pitfalls and barriers to avoid

Scaffolding and ZPD are all about just-right support for just-right content. When we set a learning task too far past readiness or do not provide appropriate scaffolding, learners are likely to enter the panic zone, aka, frustration, and shut down (think Paige in that FoxTrot strip). Too many experiences with frustration can lead to learned helplessness, a state where learners view themselves as incapable of self-agency or successful engagement in the learning process. Learners who experience learned helplessness tend to manifest self-protective behaviors, such as disruption to the learning environment, disengagement, absenteeism, and even school dropout. When we set the learning task too far below readiness, on the other hand, learners can enter the apathy zone, aka, boredom. Too many experiences with boredom—where we simply reinforce what learners already know and can do rather than provide opportunities for challenge—can lead to similar outcomes associated with frustration.

In order to effectively operate in the ZPD, every learner must experience productive struggle, or effortful learning. Closing the gap between what learners can do and what they can’t do yet, moving them from current development to potential development, will not happen in the absence of productive struggle. And by its very nature, struggle is challenging, so how do we make it productive?

Teaching about mindsets and habits is as important as providing appropriate scaffolds and supportive instruction. It’s imperative to consider how you might cultivate growth mindset, perseverance, resilience, and self-efficacy for learners. It is through intentional practice that learners gain the skills needed to move along the continuum toward greater mastery of concepts, including mindsets and habits. I encourage you to watch my YouTube video on growth mindset, check out the free mindset kit on mindsetkit.org, and use LearnStorm growth mindset activities through Khan Academy. Remember to pay particular attention to indicators of growth mindset, perseverance, resilience, and self-efficacy among your students by asking questions like these:

  • How long do students tend to persist before asking for help or giving up? (Persistence)
  • What kinds of statements do students make about the learning or themselves as learners? (Growth mindset)
  • How do students respond in the face of struggle or setbacks? (Resilience)
  • What kinds of strategies or self-talk do students effectively employ? (Resilience, self-efficacy)
  • How confident are students in the learning process? To what degree do they see themselves as agents in their own learning? (Growth mindset, self-efficacy)

Move from theory to practice

Do you know the ZPD for all of your students? In my last post, I explained that the best ways to determine ZPD are classroom and interim assessment. If your school didn’t administer MAP® Growth™ remotely this fall, no problem! There is still a lot you can do, especially with formative assessment. I encourage you to begin exploring what you know about your students so far and how you can set specific goals for incorporating ZPD-informed scaffolding into your practice.

This is the second post in a series on using ZPD to inform instruction. Read the introductory post.

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