Control Scaffolding to Ensure Rigor


A scaffold by definition is a temporary structure put in place to repair a “building or other construction.” Applying this definition to education we know that scaffolding is when we put instructional strategies in place to temporarily repair or support learning.

We, as educators, put scaffolds automatically in place to ensure our students are successful. It is important to support our learners while they are shaky and beginning to learn, practice and apply new tasks or strategies.   All students can benefit from this support. We provide to them in various ways. We use guided instruction where a teacher levels instruction to a child’s level and gradually increases the level of complexity over time. This simplified lesson helps students see and understand the concept in a smaller group and allows the teacher to check and monitor progress. Teachers employ strategies such as “I do, we do, you do” to help transfer responsibility gradually to the student. Other popular ways to offer scaffolding to students are:

  • Frontloading vocabulary
  • Visuals and graphics
  • Modeling and think aloud
  • Sentence starters or word boxes
  • Partner work or collaborative teams
  • Graphic Organizers together as a class to organize ideas

But what happens when we do not remove this “temporary” support?


Teaching is an art and knowing when to apply and remove instructional support is crucial.  We must constantly think:

  • Who is the reader or student?
  • What is their ability?
  • What can they do?  
  • Are we applying tasks that are stretching this student?  
  • Am I providing activities and materials to help them grow and think a bit more than yesterday?  
  • Is the text or material we are providing continuing to challenge?
  • Is the proper scaffold in place?

Constantly evaluating “Task–Text—Student” is the key to ensuring a balanced and rigorous classroom. There must be a balance between these variables to ensure continued learning. If you are providing rigorous material and tasks that stretch thinking but give too much support–you are keeping the student from learning. Rigor and learning is obtained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched to text and task appropriately to ensure they are stretching. Each element must work together in accordance with the instructional strategies and scaffolding the teacher is providing.

How can we lessen “learning scaffolding” AND continue with rigor?


Reading Task Planning

Planning the text you give students by analyzing what scaffolding the author has already provided.  The elements presented should guide your planning and what scaffolding you should provide or take away.

Look at this chart of a few examples of scaffolding provided by the author or in a classroom.

Author Provided Scaffolding Teacher provided Scaffolding


Text Features






Pre teach vocabulary

Graphic Organizer






Think Aloud

Distributed Summarizing Strategies


If you choose to use a story out of a basal, what is provided for the reader? The author has chunked the text on pages with specific graphics designed to support the text. Vocabulary is highlighted for the reader. The author has provided the standard title which gives the main idea and it has been written in a basic fiction structure with character, setting , problem and solution.  

Knowing this is your text, how much more scaffolding do your students need?  Do they all need vocabulary pre-taught? Do some students need pictures removed because they rely too heavily on these?  Planning is a crucial part of instruction because you are ensuring that the text and the student are matched appropriately.  You want the text to be at a higher level than the student can reach without your support–this allows them to be exposed to new features, structures and vocabulary that they cannot access independently.  Remember YOU are a support. You are questioning, having students talk through ideas, you are explaining–all of these allow you to control how difficult the text is for students. Taking away some of these or doing less–makes the text more difficult and providing more allows it to be easier for access.

YOU control the rigor by controlling the following elements–text, task and reader.

Plan time for students to learn in whole group, move to partners and then to  independent work. Let them do the work!

After teaching a concept, it is important for students to talk through their ideas and concepts with a partner to begin to make sense of the information. Student talk is crucial to help students work through the domains of literacy (listening, speaking, reading and writing) to have conceptual understanding.  More importantly, students must take time to work independently on the skill AND MAKE MISTAKES. It is not until you bring students back together to clarify and question students do they begin to make connections and to make sense of errors. The best way to take scaffolding from a student is to make them think through and do the work themselves. Give time for students to think on their own and write their own ideas into their journal or notebook. After they have generated ideas, then let them share and work together. All students should bring ideas to the table when doing group work or it is not an equal learning experience. Instead of think-pair-share, try write-pair-share-write!  By changing this strategy, students are writing or drawing their ideas, getting support from a partner when discussing (deepening understanding). The sharing helps to clarify and deepen understanding further with the teacher modeling. The final write allows the student to conceptualize their ideas into written, drawings or thoughts. Labels on drawings is a great next step for younger students.

Removing instructional scaffolding is not easy because we want our students to be successful. However, we must remember that until they make mistakes–learning truly has no purpose or meaning. Let students have time to make errors and then help students fix them–that is truly TEACHING AND LEARNING WITH RIGOR.

Rigor and Complexity

We continue to discuss ELA and the depth of the standards.  Are we digging deep enough? Are we scaffolding too much?  What does ELA complexity and rigor look like?

Some people think rigor or complexity in a reading classroom is simply asking higher order questions, doing a close reading, and giving more difficult text but it is actually MORE than that!  You probably have heard in math that rigor is obtained through procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and real world application.  I think these same elements of rigor are needed in the ELA classroom in the following form:  strong standards, high level text, knowledge of the reader, authentic tasks, application of strategies and explicit instruction.

I have shared that the Common Core standards are already written in a scaffolding manner. (See this link to review this information:  Blog on Fiction Text Structure )   The standards address all domains of literacy including listening, speaking, reading and writing.  When teaching a concept it is important that students first hear the information, learn to speak the concept through language, read about it and then apply their learning through writing. This encourages students to think conceptually because you are moving them through the concrete to abstract developmentally.  In addition, to using these domains, the standards are building on one another to maximize higher order thinking and deepening of understanding by revisiting a text for different purposes. These standards are the “blueprint” for conceptual understanding.

Tip 1: If you are encouraging student to student interaction, you are deepening understanding of the topic and increasing the opportunity for students to build vocabulary and formulating ideas for written responses.

We think of text as being the most important element of rigor. If we want to challenge, we give more difficult text. Right?  Not exactly!  Text becomes complex and rigorous if you consider both quantitative (the mathematical reading level) and qualitative (quality of text and structure) measures.

See chart below.


Qualitative Quantitative
Looks within the text for the depth of the writing and complexity.

  • Figurative or Literal Language
  • Concise or Strongly Descriptive
  • Levels of Meaning or perspectives
  • Non-conventional text structure, narrator or writing style
  • Tier III vocabulary
  • Singular or multifaceted Plot
Measures the word frequency and length of sentences.

  • Lexile Level
  • Any mathematical reading level

You have to use both of these together to determine what will challenge your students. For example, Harry Potter and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day have similar lexile levels but clearly the depth of these texts are very different. There is actually a rubric (called a placemat) that can help you determine if your text is complex. You can find this document at North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in their ELA livebinder.  This placemat addresses how to ensure a text is complex by looking at various variables.

I like to use my “homemade” version for K-5 because it just seems more manageable to me.

Click here to Access:  Complexity Rubric


This “homemade” rubric helps you decide if the text is complex by examining different elements of the text (Qualitative and Quantitative) such as text structure, language, point of view, amount of background knowledge needed to understand text, vocabulary and the reading level.  Each element is given a point value to determine if the text is “above average.”

Tip #2:  Take into account the reading level AND the structure of the text when choosing a text for students. If the book has a lower reading level, than you will need to pull out the figurative language or multiple perspectives of two characters to make it more complex for your students. If you have a higher text, you may first look at basic 5W questions and then move into the higher concepts using the order of the standards.  It is important to always ensure students have basic understanding before digging deeper.

The reader and task is the next element you must consider in choosing complex text.  How proficient is the reader with multiple problems?  Can the reader distinguish figurative language from literal text?  Does the reader have sufficient background knowledge to pick up on subtle hints and inferences embedded in the text? When answering these questions, it helps you to decide where you need to scaffold and support readers with direct instruction and modeling.  Making sure the task is appropriate but not “too easy” is a challenge.

Tip #3:  Really think about what you are asking students to do with a text. What is the purpose of the task? The task should be real world or application of knowledge—not just simply regurgitating the story elements or sequence. These basic activities can be completed through annotation, reflections, class and peer discussions.  A task should be saved for applying knowledge or skills learned by the reader. Examples of great authentic tasks can be found at the following site by John Mueller:  Some pretty amazing ideas here.

The last elements are strategies and instruction which could take several blog posts to cover. So, the basics are that the instruction should be focused on the reader and allow the reader to discover rather than for the teacher to “teach it” or tell it to others.  Instruction should include higher order questioning that requires students to ground their answers in the text with evidence. This requires students to reread and discover new ideas within the same text. Strategies that help students learn are ones that scaffold learning but do not give answers. Think aloud, modeling, close reading, annotation and discussion—all require students to gain information but do the work themselves which is an important part of ensuring text complexity.

Tip #4:  Really think about the strategies you are using and if they are appropriate for the group of students you have. Consult this resource which I inerited many years ago (not sure of the original source) and modified it and digitized it over the years. The chart shows best practice strategies and their effectiveness for certain students.  Check it out here:  Instructional Strategies Matrix

As you can see, RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is not an easy task. Rigor is attained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Procedural fluency in reading is when students can clearly apply the strategies as they read to fully comprehend the text. Real world application is matching task to text and ensuring that the task has relevancy and requires students to use their knowledge in new ways.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  A text is just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.


Subscribe By Email

Get a weekly email of all new posts.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Skip to toolbar