Planning lessons at the point of need for high-ability students

This page provides guidance on planning lessons at the point of need for high-ability students.

The importance of planning lessons at the point of need

Teaching at a students' point of need, or their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), is important. It helps with students' engagement, motivation, and growth. If a task is too easy (well below their ZPD), then the student is likely to become bored and disengaged. If a task is too hard (above the student's ZPD), then the student will be unlikely to access the material and may 'give up'.

What we know

Research (see reference list below) shows:

  • it is not efficient nor effective to re-teach skills students have already mastered
  • learning tasks need to be planned so students are working in their ZPD
  • students need the support of others who are more knowledgeable to complete learning tasks in their ZPD. For example, their teacher, a peer, a parent, and/or a video tutorial
  • teachers need to track how students are responding to teaching strategies.

From theory to practice


Scaffolding can help students become more competent working in their ZPD. Scaffolding consists of the following steps:

  • teachers provide initial support
  • support is then removed gradually
  • responsibility is transferred to the student as learning progresses.

The use of the term 'scaffolding' was made popular by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976). They describe scaffolding as controlling those elements of the task that are beyond the learner's capacity. This permits students to concentrate on the elements that are within their current range of competence, or their Zone of Actual Development (ZAD).

The provision of scaffolding need not come only from the teacher. A learning tool, such as an online resource, can also provide the necessary scaffolding. Teachers can also add depth and complexity through their scaffolding. For example, by scaffolding higher order thinking questions into their lessons.

Scaffolding is an important aspect of the Victorian Pedagogical model. It is also a component of 'structuring lessons', which has been identified as a High Impact Teaching Strategy (HIT).

A teacher must also decide on which evidence-based strategies to use in their lessons, given the student's level. Over time, teachers develop a bank of successful strategies and learning experiences. This can develop through:

  • consulting with colleagues and other school support staff
  • participating in teacher professional learning sessions
  • engaging in professional reading, and/or
  • using evidence-based resources such as the High Impact Strategies (HITS).

Teachers must choose their strategies carefully. They may have two students who seem to be matched in their ZPD. But these students may need different teaching strategies to be successful. For example, a high-ability student may only need 1 or 2 repetitions of new material to achieve at the next progression level. Their peer may need 6 or 8 repetitions. This should be considered when planning lessons at students' point of need.

Key questions to ask when scaffolding and selecting strategies include:

  • What teaching strategies and learning experiences will help students make progress at this stage of skill and understanding?
  • What sorts of learning tasks should be established to challenge the high-ability student?
  • What sorts of experiences and instruction would be most useful in helping the student make progress?

Teachers do not need to plan 25 different lessons for the students in their class. Students working at similar ZPD levels may be grouped together and given the same or similar learning tasks. Teachers need to remember though, that different students may need different strategies, even if they are at the same point of need.

Strategies and tools

Strategies that teachers can use to plan lessons at high-ability students' point of need include:

  • using a ZPD planner
  • scaffolding higher-order thinking skills into tasks that are within the high-ability student's ZAD
  • grouping high-ability students with similar ZPDs
  • use of the Victorian Pedagogical Model and the teaching and learning cycle to scaffold learning
  • selecting from evidence based strategies, such as the HITS, that are appropriate for the student's learning needs and preferences.

Tools that can assist teachers to plan lessons at the point of need include:

Focus questions for professional learning

  • How can you identify the varying levels of need within your class?
  • How can you collaborate with colleagues to recognise your students' Zone of Actual Development (ZAD)?
  • How can you collaborate with colleagues to better work with your students' Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)?


Goss, P., Hunter, J., Romanes, D., & H, P. (2015). Targeted teaching: how better use of data can improve student learning.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental process. Harvard University Press

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17 (2), 89–100.