Sunday / July 21

Support Learners While in the Learning: Distributed Scaffolding

Children using Laptop

If front-end scaffolds are put in place to support learners prior to the start of instruction, how do we support learners while they are deep into the learning experience and task?  What if learners need additional support that is: (1) not sufficiently provided prior to the start of instruction; and (2) necessary for learners to complete the task and thus cannot wait until after instruction?  The answer: distributed scaffolds.  This post continues our discussion of the different types of scaffolds within our model of scaffolding by focusing on distributed scaffolds.

Source:  How Scaffolding Works, Corwin (2023)

What are distributed scaffolds?

Distributed scaffolds are those supports that provide ongoing support within the learning experience or task.  In these moments, we can provide support to learners through various tools, activities, technologies, and environments that move learning forward (Puntambekar & Kolodner, 1998).  These in-the-moment scaffolds are implemented based on specific needs of individual learners or learners engaged in a cooperative learning task.  There are several perspectives to consider when thinking about distributed scaffolds.  Let’s look at these perspectives to better understand how we can best develop and implement this type of scaffold.

As we continually check for understanding during the learning experience or task, gathering evidence of students’ progression towards the learning intention and success criteria, we may notice that some learners need additional support to successfully meet the learning expectations through students’ errors and misunderstandings.  Even our students recognize their own level of understanding and communicate that to us and their peers through questions or actions that indicate they would benefit from additional scaffolds.  We may also notice that some learners are ready for a greater challenge through their rapid movement through an experience or task but need support in stepping into that challenge.  These students may recognize their need for a greater challenge and communicate that to us as well.  In these moments, we must provide just-in-time scaffolds based on what our checks for understanding tell us about the learning progress of our students.

Another perspective to consider draws from our own expertise and experience as classroom teachers.  You can likely think of a specific content, skills, and understandings that also come with predictable catchpoints or hot spots that can be particularly challenging to learners.  Not to say that all learners are the same, but there are often notoriously challenging areas in any unit, learning experience, or task.  These often-predictable moments call for us to provide just-in-case scaffolds that we plan for in advance of the learning experiences or tasks.  When planning distributed scaffolds in advance, we must note the common misconceptions students have in learning the specific content as well as their experiences with teaching this content previously and their experiences with the needs of this group of students.

Putting these perspectives together, we have two different takes on distributed scaffolds.  Dixon (2018) notes:

  • just-in-case scaffolds are made available to students before they attempt a challenging task.
  • just-in-time scaffolds are provided when a student’s struggle becomes unproductive, or they otherwise demonstrate they need help because they are unable to move forward.

Before we look at specific examples of distributed scaffolds, we want to be clear that these scaffolds are not haphazard or spontaneous and magical acts displayed by us in our classrooms.  Not to be redundant, but as a point of emphasis, both just-in-case and just-in-time scaffolds are planned for and ready to go before the learning experience and task.  What separates these two is when they are offered to the learner.  Are they provided to the learners just-in-case they need them during the learning experience and task or are they provided to the learners at the moment they are needed?

Let’s look at questions, prompts, and cues as exemplary distributed scaffolds.  Each of these distributed scaffolds require careful, thoughtful, and reflective thinking to ensure the that the just-in-case and the just-in-time scaffolds align with the learning intentions and success criteria.  The questions, prompts, and cues must ensure that learners still experience right level of challenge and are not over scaffolded (e.g., creating learned helplessness) or under scaffolded (e.g., creating frustration).


We can distribute scaffolds during the learning experience or task by asking questions. When we ask questions, questions that make student thinking visible, we can determine learners current level of understanding.  However, the type of question we pose will vary depending on what we want to find out.  In other words, not all questions are created equal.  We may ask questions with the goal of guiding learners towards a specific learning outcome.  This is much like a prompt, but in the form of a leading question.

Other questions may seek to uncover the depth and breadth of student learning.

A question posed to check for understanding yields a response that alerts the teacher about what a student knows and does not know at that moment in time.  To help make sense of the different types of questions, we think of them in terms of six major categories.  These categories are questions that do the following:

  1. elicit information
  2. foster elaboration or clarification
  3. require students to link divergent information
  4. involve problem solving heuristics
  5. trigger inventive responses.

The key to distributed scaffolding is asking the question that provides you with the response you need to decide where to go next in the learning process.  We must listen and identify errors, misunderstandings, and misconceptions.  We must listen and decide how to scaffold up the learning experience or task.


We have all had an experience where we asked a question and either got an answer or we were met with blank stares and silence.  In the first situation, we can follow up on the initial inquiry to check for understanding by asking further questions.  These additional questions push the student to extend, elaborate, or clarify the thinking.  However, when we are met with blank stares and silence, or their responses demonstrate partial understanding, additional scaffolds are necessary. This comes in the form of prompts, which are statements or questions that assist the student in focusing on the cognitive or metacognitive processes needed to complete the task. Unlike questions to check for understanding, prompts are intended to get the student to do the thinking needed to achieve a new level of understanding. Prompts can be organized into four broad categories:

1) we can prompt learners to retrieve background knowledge that, at first, is temporarily unavailable.

2) we can prompt learners to return to a specific process or procedural knowledge that they have currently moved away from.

3) we can prompt learners to visit a model, template, or frame that will move the along the learning progression.

4) we can prompt students to think about their thinking and reflect on their decisions about where they need to go next.

In many ways, a prompt is a cognitive nudge that still places the responsibility for thinking on the student and scaffolds their movement forward in the learning experience or task.


The final example of a distributed scaffold that we will address in this blog is a cue.  If questions elicit student understanding and prompts cognitively nudge learners in their thinking, then cues direct their attention to the relevant content, skills, and understandings.  Cues are implemented to shift learners attention.  These differ from prompts in that they are more directly related to what the student is noticing, or not noticing, rather than focused on the cognitive or metacognitive processes the student needs to use.

Using cues, we can divert the learner’s attention to a source of information that will highlight an error or misunderstanding or help the student to solve a challenging problem.  Like questions and prompts, cues come in different forms.

There are visual (e.g. graphic hints), verbal (e.g., variations in speech), physical (e.g. gestures or body movements), and environmental (e.g., things or objects in our surroundings).  Regardless of the mode, cues provide the learner with additional information about what to notice.


Once learners have moved into the learning experience or task, we should always be on the lookout for the need to scaffold learning, moving us closer and closer to success.  Scaffolding is an ongoing process of providing these distributed supports (i.e., just-in-case and just-in-time, in combination with the front-end and back-end scaffolds.  In fact, back-end supports will be the focus of our next Corwin Connect blog.


Dixon, J. (2018).  Providing scaffolding just in case.  Retrieved from

Puntambekar, S., & Kolodner, J. L. (2005). Toward implementing distributed scaffolding: Helping students learn science from design. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(2), 185–217.



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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