The Conflict Between Differentiation and Scaffolding

by RSBSADMIN | Dec 11, 2017 11:45:37 AM

What is the difference between differentiation and scaffolding?  While educators have long defined these strategies as being almost identical, they are, in fact, in sharp contrast to one another.  Differentiation adjusts the text to the child, while scaffolding enables the child to read and comprehend at a higher level.  

The concept of differentiating instruction is close to celebrating its 100th birthday. In comparison, the idea of scaffolding instruction is a mere 41 years old. In truth, adults have been scaffolding their children’s learning since we emerged as humans, but in the quest for efficiency educators have paid more attention to differentiation than to scaffolding. These two concepts, differentiation and scaffolding, guide how we think about instruction, but rarely do we see them in conflict. It is only by contrasting them do their differences, their positives and negatives, emerge.

We have long known that the students in any classroom vary in ability, skills and interests. These differences were brought to clear focus in the early 1900s with the invention of the standardized test, giving educators a tool to identify the level or the abilities of their students. At the same time other educators worked out procedures for rating the reading level or difficulty of texts – readability formulas (Chall, 1988). Later, in the 1940s Betts (1946) created the concept of independent, instructional and frustration levels. Now teachers could match students to texts using an informal reading inventory and a readability formula. The current Lexile system that levels books and students is just a contemporary upgrade for matching students to text and for differentiating instruction.

Scaffolding has a more recent history, emerging as psychologists studied how adults help children solve problems and learn. In the often-repeated statement, scaffolding is a “process that enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976).” Scaffolding is a process of enabling the child to read and comprehend at a higher level, while differentiation is a process of adjusting the text to the child, what Hoffman (2017) calls the “just right” level. With strong scaffolding children can reach beyond their instructional or their independent reading level (Spache, 1972).

There are several conflicts between differentiation and scaffolding, even after we acknowledge that teachers can differentiate more than the reading level of the text. Teachers can differentiate the time they spend with students, the size of the instructional group, and the type of instruction. In practice, especially in the guided reading approach, determining the just right level of the text is paramount. Scaffolding assumes that a teacher or a student can select a challenging text and with assistance read, comprehend and enjoy it.

  1. When differentiation is the dominant philosophy, placing students in the “just right” level becomes the goal but instruction varies little (Hoffman, 2017). When scaffolding is the focus, teachers think about how to help a students read interesting but more difficult books.
  2. When differentiation is the focus student choice is confined by their designated reading level; they are a level 34. When scaffolding is the focus, student choice expands as teachers provide the instruction allowing students to succeed.
  3. When the focus is on differentiation, a system of leveling books defines the reader (Hoffman, 2017). Book leveling often ignores interest, theme and background knowledge. Scaffolding does not define the reader; the reader defines himself through the books and articles he chooses to read.
  4. In differentiated instruction once the teacher has selected the “just right” book, the instruction is relatively routine. There is pre-reading instruction where students preview the text, build knowledge and vocabulary. During reading the teacher prompts, questions and guides the comprehension. After reading the students summarize and review.  Scaffolding demands that the teacher has a theory of the task. The teacher must understand how a book is structured and how it is read. The teacher must also posses a theory of the performance characteristics of the students (Woods, Bruner & Ross, 1976).

Where are the students in the process of reading a book and how do I assist them?

What scaffolding tasks should you be looking for in a reading program? 

Woods and his colleague highlight several important scaffolding tasks (Woods et al, 1976).

  • Recruit the interest of the students before reading.  In the Read Side by Side Reading Program, the teacher models reading the blurb to gain interest and set a purpose for reading.  Students learn to engage in this task whenever they read, whether with the teacher or independently.
  • Simplify the task by guiding the students’ inferential reasoning. In the Read Side by Side Reading Program, the teacher guides students inferential thinking through modeling and guided practice.  Students learn to use the text as evidence of their thinking, and have access to the text to support inference generation.
  • Pace the instruction so that the students do not lag. In the Read Side by Side Reading Program, the teacher uses a slower pace at the beginning of the text when students are organizing and processing new information.  The teacher then increases the pace across the text as students gain background knowledge, and become more familiar with the author's style.
  • Mark the critical features of the task and model the task.  In the Read Side by Side Reading Program, the task is clearly stated at the beginning of each lesson and the teacher clearly models the task.  Students have the support of the teacher as well as his/her peers.  This aligns to the theory of scaffolding, which suggests that students can only imitate acts that they can partially complete on their own.

The theory of scaffolding provides a far more complete description of how to promote growth in reading. Differentiation, to the extent that it is important, is a theory of where to begin. It does not tell how to get to where we want to go. Scaffolding does.

Want to learn more about the Read Side by Side Reading Program mentioned in this article?  Please visit

 Dr. Peter Dewitz director of research headshot




Written by Peter Dewitz, Ph. D.

Director of Research

Read Side by Side Publications, LLC.

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