Theory of Instructional Scaffolding

Scaffolding theory was first introduced in the late 1950s by Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist. He used the term to describe young children's oral language acquisition. Helped by their parents when they first start learning to speak, young children are provided with informal instructional formats within which their learning is facilitated. A scaffolding format investigated by Bruner and his postdoctoral student Anat Ninio whose scaffolding processes are described in detail is joint picture-book reading (Ninio & Bruner, 1978). By contrast, bed-time stories and read alouds are examples of book-centered parenting events (Daniels, 1994) without scaffolding interaction. Scaffolding is inspired by Lev Vygotsky's concept of an expert assisting a novice, or an apprentice. Scaffolding is changing the level of support to suit the cognitive potential of the child. Over the course of a teaching session, one can adjust the amount of guidance to fit the child's potential level of performance. More support is offered when a child is having difficulty with a particular task and, over time, less support is provided as the child makes gains on the task. Ideally, scaffolding works to maintain the child's potential level of development in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). An essential element to the ZPD and scaffolding is the acquisition of language. According to Vygotsky, language (and in particular, speech) is fundamental to children's cognitive growth because language provides purpose and intention so that behaviors can be better understood. Through the use of speech, children are able to communicate to and learn from others through dialogue, which is an important tool in the ZPD. In a dialogue, a child's unsystematic, disorganized, and spontaneous concepts are met with the more systematic, logical and rational concepts of the skilled helper. Empirical research suggests that the benefits of scaffolding are not only useful during a task, but can extend beyond the immediate situation in order to influence future cognitive development. For instance, a recent study recorded verbal scaffolding between mothers and their 3- and 4-year-old children as they played together. Then, when the children were six years old, they underwent several measures of executive function, such as working memory and goal-directed play. The study found that the children's working memory and language skills at six years of age were related to the amount of verbal scaffolding provided by mothers at age three. In particular, scaffolding was most effective when mothers provided explicit conceptual links during play. Therefore, the results of this study not only suggest that verbal scaffolding aids children's cognitive development, but that the quality of the scaffolding is also important for learning and development.

A construct that is critical for scaffolding instruction is Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The zone of proximal development is the field between what a learner can do by himself (expert stage) and what can be achieved with the support of a knowledgeable peer or instructor (pedagogical stage) (Ellis & Worthington, 1994). Vygotsky was convinced that a child could be taught any subject efficiently using scaffolding practices by implementing the scaffolds at through the zone of proximal development. Students are escorted and monitored through learning activities that function as interactive conduits to get them to the next stage. Thus the learner obtains or raises new understandings by presenting on their prior knowledge through the support delivered by more capable individuals (Raymond, 2000). Several peer reviewed studies have shown that when there is a deficiency in guided learning experiences and social interaction, learning and development are obstructed (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000). Moreover, several factors have an impact on the ZPD of students, ranging from the collaboration of peers to technology available in the classroom (Ebadi, Khatib, and Shabani, 2010)

In writing instruction, typically support is presented in verbal form (discourse). The writing tutor engages the learner's attention, calibrates the task, motivates the student, identifies relevant task features, controls for frustration, and demonstrates as needed (Rodgers, 2004). Through joint activities, the teacher scaffolds conversation to maximize the development of a child's intrapsychological functioning. In this process, the adult controls the elements of the task that are beyond the child's ability all the while increasing the expectations of what the child is able to do. Speech, a critical tool to scaffold thinking and responding, plays a crucial role in the development of higher psychological processes (Luria, 1979) because it enables thinking to be more abstract, flexible, and independent (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). From a Vygotskian perspective, talk and action work together with the sociocultural fabric of the writing event to shape a child's construction of awareness and performance (Dorn, 1996). Dialogue may range from casual talk to deliberate explanations about features of written language. The talk embedded in the actions of the literacy event shapes the child's learning as the tutor regulates his or her language to conform to the child's degrees of understanding. Clay (2005) shows that what may seem like casual conversational exchanges between tutor and student actually offer many opportunities for fostering cognitive development, language learning, story composition for writing, and reading comprehension. Conversations facilitate generative, constructive, experimental, and developmental speech and writing in the development of new ideas (Smagorinsky, 2007).

In Vygotsky's words, "what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 211).

Some ingredients of scaffolding are predictability, playfulness, focus on meaning, role reversal, modeling, and nomenclature.