Are We Providing Scaffolds or Swooping in for the Rescue?

There is a fine line between providing a student the support he/she needs and doing the work for the student. Unfortunately, when we cross the line and provide our students with too much help we are stealing opportunities for them to :

  • Develop a sense of agency
  • Feel like a problem solver
  • Take initiative
  • Feel a sense of control over their actions

The students that teachers tend to swoop in and rescue are those fragile readers that have had negative experiences with reading and writing in the past.  We are afraid to make our striving students uncomfortable.  We want to avoid adding to those negative reading and writing experiences.

We need to move past this type of thinking and realize that it is okay for our students to feel a little discomfort as they grapple with something. Think about yourself and how you feel when you finally succeed after trying something difficult. After all of the hard work and effort doesn’t the success feel that much sweeter?

When planning for a reading lesson we begin by thinking about what our student needs next to strengthen his/her processing system.  Then we go to our books and find a few books that will help to work toward our goal(s).  The better you know your books the easier this becomes.   As we plan the orientation for our chosen book we want to consider the challenges this book might offer, where the child can actively work on the goal(s) we have in mind for the lesson, and what scaffolds we might provide so the child can do the work as independently as possible.

Scaffolding is quite different from rescuing.  When we rescue the child we tell them things and essentially do the work for them.  Telling the child the word, making the (known) sounds of the word for the child, and continuous modeling of problem-solving without holding the child accountable for the modeled work (as it becomes more under his/her control) are all forms of rescuing.  Kayla Lewis cites Wood, Bruner, and Ross’s definition of scaffolding in her article, Lessons Learned:  Applying Principles of Reading Recovery in the Classroom.  They define scaffolding as “the support that a knowledgeable person provides to a beginner for a task that might be too difficult without assistance or for something just beyond the beginner’s control.”   Wood, Bruner, and Ross go on to say that “scaffolding allows the teacher to help each student reach his or her full potential by teaching to his or her individual needs” (p. 730).  Expert teachers are able to provide just the right type of scaffolding in the form of “coaching” rather than providing too much support in the form of “telling” (Howard, p. 84).

There are various levels of support that can be offered through scaffolding.  Knowing our student well can help us to know whether we need to come in with a more or less supportive scaffold.  As the student becomes more independent we are able to provide less supportive scaffolds until it is no longer needed.

Scaffolding is closely related to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Scaffolds enable students to work within their ZPD.  Vygotsky’s definition of ZPD is “the difference between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, p. 86).  According to Vygotsky, what a student could accomplish with the support of a more knowledgeable other was a better representation of the child’s ability than what the child could to independently.


When working with striving readers it is imperative that we work within their ZPD.  If we are truly working within a student’s ZPD whatever we are calling on the child to do with our support will be neither too easy nor too hard.  It is easier to work within a child’s ZPD if we make careful observations of the child’s reading and writing behaviors and note everything the child is able to do.  Effective teachers are able to notice and analyze reading and writing behaviors in order to know how to be responsive to their students and provide the appropriate scaffolds that will allow the child to do as much of the work as they are able to at that point in time.

In Summary

In order to help our students build a strategic processing system, we have to provide “just right” scaffolds that are dependant on where a student is in their learning at that particular point in time.  Our ability to make careful observations of the student’s reading and writing behaviors and to work within the student’s Zone of Proximal  Development will help us to better determine the scaffolds needed.  Recording our lessons and inviting other teachers in for lessons are great ways to check if we are scaffolding or rescuing.



Howard, Mary.  RTI From All Sides:  What Every Teacher Needs to Know.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann.  2009.  Print.

Lewis, Kayla.  “Lessons Learned:  Applying Principles of Reading Recovery in the Classroom.” The Reading Teacher.  Vol. 71, No. 6, May/June(2018): 727-734.  Print.

Lyons, Carol.  When Readers Struggle:  How to Use Brain-based Research to Maximize Learning.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann. 2003.  Print.

Vygotsky, L. S.  Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  1978.  Print.



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