December 19, 2012


At Engaging Minds, we often speak about how we individualize our approach to helping each student because each student with whom we work is an individual. It is a truism that one of the benefits of one-on-one tutoring is that we can devote that kind of particular time and attention to our students in a way that is at the very least more challenging for a teacher faced with a classroom full of such individuals. Yet there are many lessons that both tutors and parents can take away from the best practices of top-notch classroom teachers, and one of these is scaffolding of instruction. It becomes a particularly important tool when working with students with learning difficulties.

In an extremely informative and enlightening blog on the website Edutopia, contributing editor Rebecca Alber discusses scaffolding. She defines this practice as “…breaking up the learning into chunks and then providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk.” She goes on to point out the difference between scaffolding – a practice that should be put in place for all students to improve their chances of success on a given assignment – and differentiation, the practice of altering the actual lesson/work (by shortening it, providing an alternative source or changing the assessment mode) in order to maximize the chance for mastery for students who learn differently. Alber does acknowledge that it is important to recognize where students are collectively and individually in their development and mastery and how far they may have to go before they can move on without additional assistance in setting up both scaffolding and differentiation.

At Engaging Minds, scaffolding is deeply embedded in our approach to working with our students. Alber talks about five key aspects of scaffolding a lesson and ways of utilizing each in a classroom setting; here we will give examples of how we utilize these approaches in our tutoring.


Show and Tell

“Think Alouds” or modeling the thinking one does to problem solve is an extremely valuable tool when tutoring one-on-one. Students with learning difficulties and particularly those with Executive Function issues may not know how to approach a given problem. By showing them the step by step thinking that goes into doing, say, responding to a writing prompt, we are laying the groundwork for our students to emulate that thinking and develop their own structured problem-solving approach.

Tap into Prior Knowledge

One very useful graphic organizer tutors at Engaging Minds utilize is a “KLW” chart. This three-column organizer, often used when beginning a research project, asks students to record what they Know (knowledge amassed from sources other than classroom instruction or research, usually), Have Learned (either through instruction or research), and Want to Know (what they still need to find out in order to have mastery of the topic). You will note that two of these three categories involve information the student already possesses; what better way to build confidence and encourage curiosity than to be able to say to a student, “Wow, you already know so much about this! What else can you learn so that you can become a true expert?”

Give Time to Talk

Alber talks about structured times for the sharing of ideas within a classroom, but this framework is already built into one-on-one tutoring for the most part. The exchange of ideas and the building on the back-and-forth that naturally occurs in the tutorial conversation empowers students in that their ideas are the focus of the session, even if the tutor is guiding its structure.

Pre-Teach Vocabulary

This scaffolding technique, also known as “frontloading,” is another cornerstone of tutoring. When a student comes to us with a novel s/he is working on in school or a chapter from a Social Studies book that is due in the upcoming days, we do more than just sit and read with him/her. One oft-employed technique is to scan the text for unfamiliar words and go over them with the student; this can include both a verbal discussion of the vocabulary and recording the words in a notebook for future reference. Another technique is to use active reading strategies and note these words on “sticky notes” and place them in the actual text so that if the word comes up again, these notes can be referenced.

Use Visual Aids

Alber lauds the importance of graphic organizers, scaffolding frameworks that help a student organize his/her thoughts and ideas in a highly structured way that then makes it far easier to utilize that information. As she points out, these are tools rather than an end product in and of themselves. Engaging Minds tutors work with our students to utilize these tools and then help them take the information they have graphically organized and put it into a thoughtful, well-constructed pieces of writing.

Pause, Ask Questions, Pause, Review

The key concepts here are giving the student time to reflect on new information, assessing the student’s understanding of the new material after reflection by asking guided but open-ended questions, pausing for further reflection (and perhaps elaboration) and then going over this new material using the student’s own language. As tutors, one of the most important things we do with our tutees is to actively listen. When they have time to reflect on their thinking and express their ideas and then are able to ably answer questions about these concepts that are framed in their own words, students again feel a sense of empowerment and mastery.

While this blog has addressed how tutors utilize scaffolding techniques, there is no question that parents can apply them as well. When you are working with your child on homework, any of these approaches can be successfully employed with a little thought and practice. And please feel free to talk to us about how you can build scaffolding into working with your child.