Tips for Designing Model Scaffolds

Sep 15, 2023

All students are complex thinkers considering many different ideas and experiences. A model scaffold can support students in activating, sharing, and working with their thinking about an anchoring phenomenon over time. With scaffolds, each student can explore their own thinking and represent their ideas, drawing on their cultural and linguistic assets. 

  • This video provides examples of how teachers can support students’ written and oral scientific models.

Teaching Considerations

Providing a blank page for students to create their models can make some students freeze up when asked to explain how/why a phenomenon happens. However, too much scaffolding can make students feel like there is one specific “answer,” limiting idea generation. Here are six tips to help find balance.

1. Connect explicitly to an observable event. Include a specific question about the unit event or phenomenon that students must explain or figure out. This is an event students can observe, watch, or replicate to make their own observations. This should be an event within a specific context – not a generic process like the “ecosystems.”

2. Structure spaces for drawing and writing. For instance, lines indicate to students that you want them to write. Adding features like “zoom-ins” within a drawing space can prompt students to show what they think is happening that they can’t see. Also, drawing spaces are usually not entirely blank. Starting a drawing for students using observable items gives students a frame of reference and prevents them from “overdrawing” the perfect ocean, whale, etc. Small components like these can help students focus more time and energy on getting their ideas on paper. 

An initial model asking the student to draw and label what they think about how sound pollution may negatively be impacting Orcas with space at the bottom of the model for the student to write about what they think as well as for them to write questions they have about what's happening.

Providing ample space for drawing and writing is helpful in cultivating creativity and supporting sensemaking. Most copiers can accommodate ledger size (11”x17”) paper, which is the same size as two letters (8.5”x11”) sheets next to each other. Blog post: Modeling Support: Scaffolding versus White Space

3. Include multilingual prompts. Since model scaffolds elicit students’ ideas, students should have explicit opportunities to draw on their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. This will enrich the conversations about scientific ideas for all students. Here are some techniques for using multilingualism in models (see image). 

The placement of students’ home languages on the page sends a subtle message about the importance of their multiple linguistic resources. For example, if you always place English first, followed by Spanish, or if you always include English in regular font with Portuguese in italics, that sends a subtle message to students that their home languages are not as valuable as English. Vary how you include multilingual prompts. You might sometimes print home languages other than English first, followed by English. 

In the model directions, explicitly welcome students to use all of their language resources to complete their model and respond to prompts. Without this explicit instruction, students in English-medium science classrooms might appreciate the multilingual prompts but not feel comfortable responding in languages other than English. For example, your directions might state: “Puede utilizar todos sus recursos lingüísticos mientras completa sus dibujos, agrega etiquetas y explica sus ideas. / You may use all of your language resources as you complete your drawings, add labels, and explain your ideas.” 

If you are feeling uncertain about how to translate model scaffolds into the various home languages represented in your classroom, here are some tips: 1) reach out to the family/community liaison or multilingual support staff at your school or in your district to ask about available translation services; 2) use free online translation tools, such as Google Translate; 3) ask parents and students to proof-read and suggest corrections to your model scaffold translations.

Consider discussing with your students why you include multilingual prompts. How do multilingual prompts align with your stances about who can do science and what ideas are worth sharing? In what ways can multilingual prompts decenter English as the only acceptable language for science sensemaking in classrooms?

A multilingual model about orcas and sound pollution. Multilingual models have full side by side translations, small word replacements, complete translations, small segment side by side translation, and include visual cues.

4. Show changes over time. Showing changes over time helps students understand the history of phenomena and connections to larger social, cultural, and political dimensions within communities. For instance, the model below is divided into frames of the past, present, and future landscape of the dxʷdəwʔabš  (Duwamish) River. (Other versions have included a before/during/after model scaffold.) This scaffold allows students to reason about the consequences of an event and possible futures. In the case of the Duwamish River, it was declared a superfund site in 2001 due to industrialization. Restoration efforts for salmon are underway. Students can draw the river in the future panel and discuss how the river would change. 

A model in Spanish divided into frames of the past, present, and future landscape of the Duwamish River.

5. Consider including prompts on the back. If space is tight on the front of a model scaffold, consider including prompts on the back. For instance, a simple prompt of, “This reminds me of…” allows students to share their expertise and prior experiences and elevate connections they think are important. The teacher and class can then use these ideas to support and extend sensemaking. Here are some kinds of prompts you may consider including:

  • Prompts that uncover personal connections: When students can relate to the phenomena emotionally and intellectually, they are more invested and interested.
  • Prompts that invite questions: Students’ wonderings can be an important resource for driving personal and class sensemaking.
  • Prompts that encourage consideration of impact: Students can identify connections and use learnings to take action in the world (i.e., building sustainable gardens (K unit)).
  • Prompts that encourage storytelling: Students may use varied narrative forms to tell stories connected to their lives.

An example of a prompt to include on the back of the model with space for the student to draw and write their ideas. The prompt reads: This reminds me of...

6. Over time, engage students in more decision-making with model scaffolds. As students become more comfortable and knowledgeable about engaging in modeling, they can take on more decision-making. One way to release decisions to students is to provide a model scaffold “buffet.” This is a line-up of pieces of model scaffolds that students can choose to take and use and may include: a checklist of things to consider including in this model; small zoom-in shapes that students position where they want them; pre-drawn parts of the system, especially detailed or complicated ones; etc. The buffet could also have multiple model scaffold options, including blank pages. Students can take any parts and pages they think would be helpful to them to represent their thinking.


Model scaffolds can provide entry points for students to explain a phenomenon and access varied ways and means of representing ideas. Further, they can highlight connections that students make to their lived experiences, which can be integrated into science instruction and the selection of relevant phenomena so that students’ contributions meaningfully shape learning. To work more explicitly on justice-centered phenomena, we suggest developing an anchoring phenomenon with explicit connections to social justice (Justice-centered phenomena). 

While we focus most on written and pictorial models here, other modes like talk, storytelling, use of metaphors, or physical modeling can also be integrated. 

Questions to consider when designing a model scaffold:

  • When asking students to model something, which observable events are relevant and meaningful to specific students?
  • How might the language used on a model be a barrier for some students? How can we invite students to use multiple languages, gestures, and other modes of communication? (Haverly et al., 2021)
  • Which pieces are provided on a model and why, and what space is left for students’ diverse sensemaking?
  • How might pairs of students working together support language or physical ability needs?
  • How can we invite attention to differential impacts and social and environmental justice issues on a model scaffold?


Using a Model Scaffold Buffet in a 5th-Grade Science Classroom. In a conservation of matter unit in which students were invited to model how/why mixing baking soda and vinegar in a bottle-balloon system causes the balloon to inflate, teacher Jennifer Calvario provided three model scaffold options for students to choose from. As seen in the pictures below, some students chose a scaffold with a single bottle, showing one point in time or a change-over-time story layered on top of itself. Some students chose a scaffold with two bottles to show a before/after story, and others took the three-bottle option for a before/during/after model. Students could also reference a “Modeling Toolbox” anchor chart that showed different ways the class had decided to represent ideas, like using labels and zoom-ins. Students used their chosen model scaffolds in many different ways — you can see that no two models looked exactly alike.

The fifth-grade students then did demonstrations for their kindergarten science buddies and talked through their models, which were in plastic page protectors. Each kindergartner provided feedback on their fifth-grade buddy’s model verbally and with dry-erase markers, as these younger students had already learned some basic features of models and had started their own Modeling Toolkit chart during their weather unit. Building understandings of varied purposes and ways of modeling across grade bands, like at Jennifer’s school, can open up rich possibilities for learning! With guidance, opportunities to practice, and feedback discussions, students learn what modeling is for, recognize features that models often include and how they function to communicate clearly and offer constructive feedback to peers on what worked well and what could be clarified.

Several student's models are shown of how/why mixing baking soda and vinegar in a bottle balloon system causes the balloon to inflate. Some models show a before and after story with two bottles, while others show 3 bottles for a before, during, and after model, and some models show a single bottle showing one point in time or a story over time layered.Four images are shown of students creating models and resulting models. The upper left image shows a student creating a model of the baking soda, vinegar, and balloon system with 3 drawn bottles and labels. The lower left image shows a color coded model of 3 bottles with labels. The upper right image is a student's model of 3 bottles, each of which is a stage in the experiment with labels and illustrations to explain the 3 stages. The lower right image is of two students with one explaining their model while the other is performing the experiment with the baking soda, vinegar, balloon, and bottle.

Teacher Educators & Professional Learning

Design Considerations

Here are a few ways to start working on model scaffolds with teachers in TE courses or PL settings.

A group model representing student's thinking about where a puddle on the grass comes from and goes. The image shows the sun, clouds, and the ground with labels for heat and movement down with arrows pointing down towards the ground, as well as labels for evaporation and movement up and arrows pointing up towards the clouds.

Discuss why modeling and model revision are important in science. You could use these slides on supporting students in revising models to do so.

Invite teachers to use a model scaffold to elicit and advance their own thinking. For instance, in a modeling PL for the early elementary grades, we invited teachers to use a similar scaffold as they would use with their students to represent their thinking about where a puddle on the grass comes from and goes. (The picture is a model we generated as a group across teachers’ initial models, including questions to explore.) By using and reflecting on their own use of a model scaffold, teachers may better see the potential in practice and some pros and cons of particular scaffold choices.

Do a gallery walk of varied model scaffolds. Seeing different examples with different choices can spark productive discussion of what you might include on a scaffold, when, and why. You can also discuss elements that you do (or don’t) see on all scaffolds, such as asking students to explain why they think an event is occurring.

Analyze student models. You could provide several sample models or ask teachers to bring models from their classrooms. Consider the diverse ideas, experiences, and ways of representing ideas seen on and across models and how different parts of the scaffold seemed to help or hinder students in showing their thinking. The Rapid Survey of Student Thinking or Funds of Knowledge tools may be useful here.





The Power of Modeling as Adults. Even when we have much content knowledge related to a phenomenon, it’s still helpful to engage in modeling from our perspectives because we inevitably run into questions, aspects, or related phenomena that we haven’t dug into before! For instance, working with elementary teachers on where a puddle on the playground came from, we “knew” that it probably evaporated and went into the ground. But how, exactly, did the water do that? In what ways was it like water boiling on a stove? How would humidity and other factors play into how much water moved where? Teachers were regularly surprised at how much thinking went into deciding what to include in their models and how. They appreciated the diverse ways their students thought about the same phenomenon — including considering whether the sun was a magnet that attracted water! (Jen Richards, Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University).


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This site is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Award #1907471 and #1315995