Activity: Using Scaffolds to Support Instruction


A common formula for scaffolding is known as “I do; we do; you do” method. Another term for it is “gradual release” instruction. This approach asks the teacher or paraprofessional to

  • first, demonstrate an idea, activity, or process (that is, “I do”),
  • next, guide the student through the idea, activity, or process step by step (that is “We do”),
  • and finally, ask the student to do the activity him or herself (that is, “You do”).

This method really is central to all good instruction. Many of us do it naturally, without ever being explicitly taught about it because it was the way we were taught as children. From tying our shoes, to making our beds, to helping weed the garden or clean the house, the grown-ups in our lives often first showed us and gave an explanation, then offered guidance as we tried to do it ourselves.

In fact, the “gradual release” method is a scaffolding technique so closely linked to the way most people learn that we sometimes take it totally for granted. We forget that its thoughtful use can help students grasp difficult material at all grade levels! “I do, we do, you do,” is as useful for five year olds learning to tie shoes as it is for 9th graders learning to write cohesive paragraphs.

Even though we often use this method naturally, it’s helpful to make its steps explicit. By doing so, we can make this type of scaffolding something we think about every time we plan or collaborate with others to plan a lesson. To give you the experience of using this type of scaffolding in an intentional way, the following activity asks you to use the “I do, you do, we do” method with an everyday household task.


Let’s suppose you were going to help a child in your family learn about how to load and run the dishwasher.

  1. First, think about what you do when you are loading and running the dishwasher. Write a list of the things you do, and the order in which you do them. Keep the list to 12 steps—fewer, if possible.
  2. Now, think about how you would talk to the child as you modeled the steps you were taking to load and run the dishwasher. What verbal cues would you use at this “I do” stage? What verbal cues would be best? The questions below will help you think about the most useful verbal cues to use while you demonstrate how to load and run the dishwasher:
    • How would you explain the importance of doing each step in the way you are doing it?
    • Are there some steps that can be done in different ways, and others that are non-negotiable?
    • How would you explain the non-negotiable parts of the process (e.g., the detergent must always go in the allotted spot; never just throw a scoopful in the dishwasher itself)?
    • How would you explain the parts of the process that can be modified by each individual (e.g., putting the prongs of the forks facing upwards or downwards)?
    • Write down how you’d explain one of the “must be followed exactly” steps, and one of the “I do it this way, but you might choose to do it this other way” steps.
  3. Next, as you think about guiding the child through loading the dishwasher, ask yourself, “What mistakes are likely to occur? What mistakes can I let the child make, and when should I intervene?” Write down the answers to these questions. Also think about how you are going to guide the child through the process. For example, are you going to load one dish and then have the child load another dish? Or are you going to let the child load the whole dishwasher while you offer suggestions?
  4. Finally, ask yourself what approaches you will use to encourage the child to ask you questions as he or she performs the task at the “You do,” phase (i.e., the phase where he or she performs the whole task while you observe). Think about what you will say or do if the child makes a mistake at this phase. Think about circumstances that might require you to return to the “We do” or even the “I do” phase.

Perhaps you will have the chance to teach a youngster how to load and run the dishwasher. If not, you undoubtedly will have the chance to teach something to someone. How will your answers to the planning questions in this activity help you prepare for that teaching experience? If you have a chance to work on this activity with other educators (e.g., in a class or workshop), your instructor may encourage you to discuss your responses to this final question with a partner or a small group of colleagues.