Supports vs. Modifications: What’s the Difference?

November 20, 2020

Have you ever been to a professional learning session where the topic turns to supporting students and a picture of a construction scaffold is displayed?  This analogy equating the support we provide students to a construction scaffold is not new. In fact, we regularly call our instructional supports “scaffolds.”

Often, the images that equate instructional support with a construction scaffold include no people. In many cases, as with the one above, the purpose of the scaffold appears to be to shore up or secure the structure. During the unpacking of this analogy, I’ve been told that as the structure becomes strong, we begin to dismantle the scaffold. With students, we remove the scaffold when they can “stand on their own.”

If I may, though, I’d like to expand the analogy and the image in your mind. What if the purpose of the scaffold is to “provide access” rather than to “hold up” the structure or the student? In this expanded analogy, the construction scaffold is used to provide workers access to the work of the day and the instructional scaffold is used to provide students access to the work of the day—access to the grade-level expectations for the day.

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These two conceptualizations of construction scaffolds mirror the distinction between instructional modifications and instructional supports— and the difference between inequitable and equitable instruction. Instructional modifications change the grade-level goals so that students can “stand on their own.”  Instructional supports (or scaffolds) provide what each student needs to access the work without changing the grade-level goal. They support students’ access until they can access the goals with fewer or no scaffolds.

Providing support for our students starts with an asset orientation. We begin by considering what our students already know, their cultural funds of knowledge, and their prior experiences that can support them in the task or text.

Providing support for our students starts with an asset orientation. We begin by considering what our students already know, their cultural funds of knowledge, and their prior experiences that can support them in the task or text. Next, we consider elements of the teaching and learning that are new, unfamiliar or not yet fluent. These add to the “cognitive load” of learning. Providing support for these elements can help to  free working memory for planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving required to engage in the grade-level work.

We can eliminate cognitive load  by considering the intricacies in our texts and tasks, including the number of steps and extraneous elements, as well as their novelty or ambiguity.  We can also eliminate cognitive load by adjusting the focus and structure of our teaching. That is, we can make the teaching more or less focused by considering the level of explicitness in our teaching, the amount of guidance and feedback provided, and the level of structure added by the graphic organizers, protocols, and procedures we use.

Doing these things support students without modifying the intended, grade-level learning target.

Here are a few examples that may help clarify the distinction between modifications and supports.

When a sixth grade lesson calls for independent reading of a grade-appropriate complex text: 

Modification:  Watch video of the story
Watch a video segment that aligns with Bud, Not Buddy. Answer the question – “What did Bud do to Todd? Why did he do this?”
Support:  Audio text to read along
Listen to an audio version of Chapter 4 as you read along in your own copy of Bud, Not Buddy.

When students aren’t yet fluent with fourth-grade multiplication in a sixth grade ratio lesson: 

Modification:  Below-grade-level problems
During class, students practice multiplying only, so that they can focus on ratios later in the unit.  
Support:  Provide calculators
During class, students are given calculators so that they may focus on the grade-level goal of understanding ratios 

When questions are used to help students understand the reading:

Modification:  Questions are altered to focus on the topic or ideas rather than on how those ideas are conveyed in the text.
During the classroom discussion, the questions posed by the teacher can be answered about the text (or the video).
Support:  Pairing the questions with chunks of the text so that students reread pertinent passages to use pertinent details from the text to answer the questions.
During the classroom discussion, the teacher often directs students to reread a particular passage before answering.

When educators make modifications such as these, they change the nature of the learning.  They decrease complexity and expectations. The impact of using such modifications is that we perpetually, and inequitably, keep students in texts and tasks representing below-grade-level expectations.

When educators use supports, we preserve grade-level expectations and foster persistence. We maintain opportunities for all students to read the grade-level texts and engage in the grade-level tasks that prepare them for college and career.  This is equitable instruction—instruction that grants all students access to grade-level reading and thinking.