Wednesday / June 19

Scaffolding in a VISIBLE LEARNING Classroom

In the world of Visible Learning, many educators are drawn to influences with effect sizes above the hinge point of 0.40. Not only does Scaffolding fall in the zone of desirable effects, it has an effect size of 0.82 – nearly double the rate of learning. In the face of student struggle, you can achieve these results in three intentional and sequential steps. 

Scaffolding to support students during the learning process is in your hands. Anticipating where students may get stuck and responding in such a way that keeps the cognitive load in the control of students is the aim. Over time, the use of scaffolds fades as the learner gains the knowledge needed and moves onto the next level of understanding. How then can teachers infuse scaffolds that keep students engaged in the cognitive work, while recognizing that too many may hurt more than help? 

Try using a scaffolding design process through a three-step sequence; Prompt-Cue-Reteach. The use of prompts and cues can aid in clarifying the learning target for students, and provide teachers with the necessary information in order to individualize the support needed. To prompt a student is to provide a hint and activate background knowledge to think further. To cue a student means to have the learner focus on one bit of relevant information, and make connections to move forward. Noticing the impact of these prompts and cues is key to determine if re-teaching is the appropriate scaffold needed by the student. Let’s take a look at how to build scaffolding support to activate thinking and spark up learning in three steps: 

Step 1 – Prompts 

Prompts do not give students additional information. They do not trigger students with a hint of where to look or how to process a question or task. Prompts simply activate students’ minds to help them go searching inside their own heads for information to help them apply to their learning. When students feel they have reached a cognitive roadblock, they might just stop their thinking. Prompts reboot their hunt for prior knowledge they already have. We think of it like turning on the light switch in a storage room. It’s a reminder to students that they hold the necessary knowledge. They just need to access and apply it.  

These prompts are often metacognitive. Many prompts are not specific to a grade level or content area. Examples include:  

  • What do you already know? 
  • How will you approach this?  
  • What strategy will be effective?  

However, in thinking about literacy and math, some specific prompts might help students access prior knowledge: 

Literacy  Math 
What do good readers do?  

Does that make sense?  

What is the author trying to say?  

What predictions do you have? 

Wait time 

What strategy is most efficient?  

What is the problem asking you to do?  

What information do you have?  

Does that seem reasonable?  

Wait time 

You can continue to use multiple prompts. There’s no rule that says if one prompt doesn’t trigger productive thinking that you move on to one cue. The important thing to remember is not to skip prompting. Even if a specific student regularly needs heavy scaffolding, that doesn’t mean it is okay to skip prompting. If students are not able to trigger their own metacognition with a prompt like “What is something you can try when you are stuck?” they will never establish it as a mental habit if the teacher chooses to skip the prompt and jump right to cues.  

Teachers sometimes think that a miscue or a wrong answer is an indication that a student did not learn the necessary foundational knowledge to apply to the current learning task. This assumption leads us to use stronger scaffolding than necessary. Prompts are often skipped and replaced with cues during the scaffolding process. Be mindful of how you allow students to activate their own learning to be successful. A common response is to jump to their rescue with leading questions. You might then get a false sense of student learning because heavy scaffolding led to a predetermined result.  

Step 2 – Cues 

Cues are supports provided to students that point them in a successful direction without giving an answer. Using the storage room metaphor, cues shine a flashlight in the room as a suggestion to students to “look here.” When using cues to scaffold, teachers are not blatantly disclosing correct responses, but narrowing the search significantly by providing a directional guide.  

Examples of cues include:  

  • Look at your notes.  
  • What does the anchor chart tell you?  
  • Check this part again.  

Specific to the literacy and mathematics classrooms, cues might be:

Literacy  Math 
Go back and reread that sentence. 

Did you read the caption under the picture? 

What does this prefix mean?  

How can you get clues from the title?  

Review the worked example on page 47. 

Recheck your thinking here (point). 

What does this symbol mean?  


Step 3 – Reteach 

As a last resort, when prompts and cues have been exhausted, it might be necessary to provide some re-teaching. Reaching might include filling in surface level knowledge so students can move to the deep phase of learning. Checking for understanding in order to identify the gaps will allow a redesigned teaching delivery so that it’s different rather than a repeat of what was already taught. 

Be careful. Too often, re-teaching is followed with close-ended yes/no questions that do not hold students accountable for retaining the content. It’s better to ask questions that provide some accountability: 

Little/No accountability  Some accountability 
Does that makes sense?  

Do you understand now?  

Do you see where you made your mistake?  

Are you ready to do it on your own now? 

Paraphrase what you just heard. 

Share what you understand now. 

How does this provide clarity?  

What can you try the next time you get stuck? 

Using the 1-2-3 steps of Prompt-Cue-Reteach in a chronological sequence leads to continuous learning and builds efficacy in students. Keeping the learning in the hands of students is the aim. Knowing the difference between prompts and cues provides the right amount of support to activate students to apply what they have previously learned. You can continuously assess throughout the scaffolding sequence using student responses to your prompts or cues to make instructional decisions in the moment. Focusing on this sequence will keep students thinking and persevere when learning gets tough.  


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2017). Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing the Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE company. 

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2017). Visible learning for mathematics, grades K-12: What works best to optimize student learning. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE company. 

Visible Learning books

Written by

Connie Hamilton, Ed.S. has served the education profession for more than twenty years as teacher, instructional coach and administrator. She currently serves as curriculum director in Saranac Community Schools and provides series of professional learning workshops for districts across the country. Connie’s passion is questioning and coaching leaders to better support their most valuable school assets: teachers. As the founder and moderator of #TMchat, @conniehamilton is a connected educator and exemplifies the habits of a lifelong learner and servant leader. Olivia Amador, Ed.D is a Professional Learning Consultant with Corwin. As an award-winning elementary school principal, former bilingual teacher, and reading and language arts specialist, her area of focus and expertise is in creating a culture of learning connected to high-impact practices, English language development, teacher collaboration, and leadership development.

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