Scaffolding and Differentiation

An Action Research project by Teresa Howe

My action research project was born out of a realisation that as a primary trained teacher I would naturally scaffold and differentiate for the pupils in my class. I could quickly establish their needs, and therefore adapt my teaching style and resources (often overnight). Transferring to teach in a secondary setting, teaching Year 8 and 9 English as well as SEND pupils in a nurture class, highlighted that scaffolding and differentiation were paramount in lesson planning. I felt that my skills in Scaffolding and Differentiation needed refreshing. I was also aware that there were many approaches that I still had to learn and try.

Rebecca Alber in her blog post ‘Scaffolding lessons- six strategies’ on explains both the difference and connection between the two clearly. Scaffolding is ‘breaking up’ the learning into chunks and then modelling or explaining the tool to help. For example, when scaffolding for reading you may do one or many different things prior to work on the text. You may discuss the nature of the text and key vocabulary. Alternatively, you may chunk the text and read and discuss each part as you go. Differentiation might involve you giving a different piece of text to a pupil, or you may give a shortened or altered version. You may also modify the writing task associated with the text.

In my opinion, there are many approaches used in primary teaching that are useful tools in secondary teaching. The most important approach, I feel is flexibility. It is having the confidence to adapt and change set lesson plans to best suit an immediate pupil need.

I heard a fabulous example of this given by a PGCE tutor, who observed a student using a block of post it notes. During a task, the student would assess the progress of pupils and jot a note of help/advice/challenge to pupils and pop it on the desk next to them.

The student explained this as ‘instant differentiation’.

One of the classroom management tools I find very effective, no matter what level a pupil is working at, or whether they have a particular learning need, is a visual lesson plan displayed to the class giving a brief LIST of the steps or activities to be completed in the lesson. This helps pupils (and you) to focus on what to expect and acts as a reminder as to how far the lesson has progressed. I have used this with all my classes, small groups and when teaching individuals. It has  worked especially well with challenging groups of boys who have a reading intervention with me.

I’ve also found this useful when needing to ‘change’ the lesson content / order / recording method to suit the needs of the group (flexibility). The pupils appear to appreciate that their needs have been taken into account when you are crossing through your ideas and writing the new ‘agreed’ task.

Scaffolds and differentiated tasks, including visual aids, benefit all pupils. I’ve found that when pupils become familiar with the variety and range of activities that form part of your everyday lessons, they are not seen as ‘the easier option’ but rather, a different way of working. A good way to introduce this is by using a ‘tick-tack-toe’ or ‘noughts and crosses’ grid. This gives the pupils a choice of 9 activities (on a 3X3 grid). They have to choose 1 activity from each row but they make the choice. (You select tasks that you know give all pupils in your class the ability to access the lesson and use prior learning). Other consolidating or starter activities could be loop games, matching activities or sequencing tasks.

Since starting my action research, I have become more interested and stimulated by the needs of Dyslexic Pupils, primarily, when I began working with a statemented pupil and others who showed strong dyslexic tendencies, particularly with regards to literacy. As a result, I adapted my activities (scaffolding and differentiation) for intervention with these pupils and assessed their impact. The area that is crucial for such pupils before expecting them to complete tasks is to ensure that they are organised in preparation for both their learning and then recording. The lesson plan plays an important role, as does giving them model answers and creating opportunities for shared writing. Mostly for me, this would be teacher/pupil shared writing which proved very successful with groups of boys. Shared writing is not cheating but a way in which a group can learn from and teach each other.

One important fact became evident from my initial work with groups.  I was not always ‘chunking’ information into small enough steps, I assumed too much as far as the skills a secondary aged pupil would have. I found myself revising initial tasks set, chunking information into smaller steps. I ensured step by step instructions with model sentence starters. Diagrams and mind maps proved to be essential in allowing the pupil to both access and complete the task. Another crucial discovery was that the time needed to complete an extended task was at least doubled. I became more realistic about the quantity of work output as well as the amount of practise time needed before independent work would follow. Consolidation exercises, such as loop games, were essential in raising the self-esteem of dyslexic and other SEND pupils.  All of these scaffolds and differentiated tasks contributed to the groups progress.


The most ‘obvious’ point I learned when trying new approaches in my teaching is to not expect the pupils to ‘know’ what or how they want to do something – without first giving them choices and ideas. With a few hints and scaffolded activities they develop the confidence to ‘have a go’ and follow their own instincts. They know that, using my lesson plan, I will keep them focused if they go ‘off piste’.

The resounding success was the lesson plan/structure.

Next Steps

During my research, particularly of the US websites, I regularly heard the phrase ‘having a growth mindset’. I liked this quote which made its meaning clearer for me.

Carissa Romero’s Tch blog post:

“People with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is innate. This belief can make school a threatening place. It becomes a place to go to learn how smart you are — or how smart you’re not. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe intelligence can be developed. For these students, school can be an exciting place, as it provides them with an opportunity to learn and develop their intelligence.”

This will be the focus for my on-going research, with the hope that my teaching provides children with positive support and I contribute to school being an exciting place.


Featured image: ‘Scaffolding’ by 3112014 on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain