Sunday / July 21

Ensuring All Learners are Ready for the Right Level of Challenge: Front-End Scaffolds

A Man Teaching Students How to Use a Microscope

In an earlier Corwin Connect post, we took on the challenge of providing just-right supports for learners to provide the access and opportunity to the highest level of learning for all our students.  As a reminder, we shared our model for educational scaffolding that brought together the necessary components in supporting learners as the engage in learning experiences and tasks.

Source:  How Scaffolding Works, Corwin.

This model provides a framework or structure for allowing all learners to move forward in whatever task or learning experience is at hand.  Keep in mind that:

  1. Scaffolding is only used when the task at hand is not possible to complete without that support system or structure.
  2. Scaffolding is customized; there is no one-size-fits-all scaffolding.
  3. Scaffolding is temporary and not permanent.

What is notable about these three characteristics is the timing and nature of the scaffolds.  “When,” “customized,” and “temporary” are all terms that have an element of timing.  This timing element is exactly why we break down scaffolds in our model into four distinct types: front-end scaffolds, distributed scaffolds, peer scaffolds, and back-end scaffolds.  Over the next several Corwin Connect posts, we will look at each one of these individually to better understand the “when’ and “how” of educational scaffolds.  In this post, we focus on front-end scaffolding.

Before reading on in this post, take a moment and brainstorm what you believe is meant by a front-end scaffold.

What are front-end scaffolds?

              As suggested by the name, front-end scaffolds are those scaffolds put in place prior to the start of instruction to support learners before entering the learning experience or task.  In other words, what do learners need prior to the start of the learning experience or task to support their initial engagement and learning around specific, content, skills, and understandings?  Let’s look at specific examples of front-end scaffolds to better understand the when and how of these supports.

  • Based on a pre-assessment, Ms. Martinez recognizes that some of her learners are still working on their understanding of two-digit multiplication or repeated addition. While repeated addition is a necessary skill for the area and perimeter unit, this should not interfere with their conceptual understanding of the area and perimeter of quadrilaterals and triangles.  She provides these learners with small group pre-teaching lessons to build or fine-tune these requisite skills.
  • Lee’s classes are very language diverse. The incredible growth of his learners has created an opportunity to provide them with more challenging text.  He believes, “we should enrich their learning with more advanced literature because they are ready for it.”  However, he wants to ensure front-end scaffolds are in place to support them as they also continue to develop proficiency in the English language.  He provides his learners with several front-end scaffolds.  He breaks down the reading into smaller chunks, provides a reading calendar to support their pacing, and offers an audio and video recording of a read aloud if needed.
  • Farley recognizes that there may be hesitancy in her learners willingness to take risks in her art class. “The learners enter into my classroom with preconceived ideas about art and their artistic ability.”  To support her learners as they begin their still life drawings, she provides her learners with clear learning intentions and success criteria in the form of a single-point rubric.  Furthermore, each success criteria have a visual example so that they can “see” how a particular element of art is linked to the success criteria.
  • Raines reviews the accommodations for each of his students prior to the start of a new unit in World History. Recognizing the need to support learners in their comprehension of the readings on The Crusades, he builds in the front-end scaffold of pre-highlighting text for some learners so that when they reread independently, they can focus on the essential information. He also eliminates the need for students to copy information by providing it on handout or other student materials.

What do you notice about each of these four examples?  Did you recognize the supports that were put into place prior to instruction?  What is also important to point out is that the decisions made my Ms. Martinez, Mr. Lee, Ms. Farley, and Mr. Raines were intentional, deliberate, and purposeful.  Each teacher drew from specific sources of evidence to ensure the front-end scaffolds met the three criteria discussed above: necessary, customized, and temporary.  In other words, each of these teachers, alongside their learners, must strive to build the capacity in their learners to develop learning strategies that allow for the removal of these front-end scaffolds.

Front-end scaffolds provide equity of access and opportunity to the highest level of learning possible for all our students.

Front-end scaffolds perform three of the six functions Wood and colleagues outlined: recruitment, reduction in degrees in freedom and marking critical features (1976). Some front-end scaffolds focus on understanding current skills and knowledge in an effort to bring the student into the learning.  Other techniques, such as chunking a reading into smaller passages, are meant to simplify elements of the task not directly related to the learning intention or success criteria.

How do I avoid over-scaffolding on the front-end?

As teachers, we often over-use front-end scaffolds.  It is easy to do in our attempt to motivate learners and engage them in the learning.  To avoid over-scaffolding on the front-end, there are two things to consider and reflect on with your colleagues:

  1. Remember that scaffolds in general, especially front-end scaffolds, are tools to address immediate learning needs. That is, the learning needs for the learning intentions and success criteria right now, not those sixth months from now.
  2. Knowing the immediate learning needs requires us to gather initial evidence or implement an initial assessment.

Let’s first look at the consideration of immediate learning needs.  Focusing on the immediate learning needs helps ensure we do not overwhelm the learner.  Consider the front-end scaffold of vocabulary instruction.  For complex text, we would introduce definitions of unfamiliar words and phrases before engaging learners in the text associated with an upcoming unit.  This is a key front-end scaffold for multilingual learners (Lesaux et al., 2014) and those who are not yet reading at expected levels (August et al., 2009).  However, we can overwhelm learners if we are not very clear on the immediate vocabulary needs.  What words do they need to know versus words that are neat to know?  We have all been in a situation where we frontloaded a dozen or more vocabulary terms at one time.  In this specific instance, we likely end up overwhelming students’ working memory and creating a significant barrier to learning.  A reader must juggle their knowledge of decoding and syntax, as well as the background knowledge and vocabulary, to make sense of the text. Now add too many unfamiliar terms introduced all at once. The result can be a cognitive overload for the learner (Sweller, 1988). In other words, the brain has a finite number of things it can do all at once. We need to be selective in what we are asking those brains to do.

Now let’s look at the role of initial assessments in identifying those immediate needs. Figuring out what those varying needs requires some initial assessment. Initial assessments do not need to be incredibly involved and prolonged.  They do not need to be 50 multiple-choice questions in the form of a pre-test.  Instead, we might administer an anticipation guide at the beginning of a unit to see where learners are with a particular concept, skill, or understanding.   The before-and-after nature of the anticipation guide provide students with an opportunity to reflect on their learning. Anticipation guides provide us with a sense of who has some prior knowledge about the content, and who doesn’t. This visible evidence also us to provide those students with a small group pre-teaching lesson to build requisite skills.


Front-end scaffolds provide equity of access and opportunity to the highest level of learning possible for all our students.  This scaffold requires active planning for the learning needs of our students instead of the reactive retrofitting of instructional techniques once learners have launched into the learning experience or task. Taking the time to develop and implement front-end scaffolds is a more efficient and effective use of our time and, in the end, our students’ learning time.  The intentional, deliberate, and purposeful use of front-end scaffolds reflects the belief that we design learning experiences and tasks with who our students are in mind, from the very start.




August D., Branum-Martin, L., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Francis, D. J. (2009). The impact of an instructional intervention on the science and language learning of middle grade English language learners. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2, 345–376.

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Kelley, J. G., & Harris, J. R. (2014). Effects of academic vocabulary instruction for linguistically diverse adolescents: Evidence from a randomized field trial. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 1159–1194.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257-285.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

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