The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a concept developed by the Russian language researcher Lev Vygotsky nearly a century ago. The theory simply stated is there is a learning "zone" each child is in, with tasks they are capable of completing with assistance from their teacher now. These are tasks they will soon be able to do on their own, without assistance. Vygotsky put it simply, "What the child can do with assistance today, he can do alone tomorrow." Vygotsky's ideas have been adapted by many language researchers, notably Tharp and Gallimore (1988) and Pearson and Gallagher (1993) in stage models, with individual children moving from assistance from teachers or peers, to practice on their own, to internalized or automatic completion of the task.
The primary aim of a teacher in any conference with a student is to figure out where the ZPD is for that child, and then to work within it. Teachers find the zone by referring to their previous notes from conferences with the child, to determine what they have completed with assistance or on their own in the class. The teacher might note what letters the children have written successfully, with sound-symbol correspondence, on a master sheet. In addition, teachers are aware of what might come next as students move successful through their ZPD, and into new learning. Here are some "what's next" possibilities for children in various zones.
"Scribbling" to Recognizable Letters
Researchers including Harste, Woodward and Burke (1988) note that "scribbles" from children in different cultures aren't just random marks on the page. Children with English as a first language often scribble left to right on the page; children from a Hebrew culture will scribble right to left, reflecting the movement of print in their culture. Likewise, the random curlicues of an American preschooler have the shapes of the English alphabet in them; a preschooler in China will make marks that look like the pictographs of their written language. Good questions to ask a child who is scribbling in order to find their ZPD include:
- What have you written here?
- What are you going to write next?
- How did you get the idea to write this?
Often the first letters children write are from their names, and those letters serve as good anchors for building new letter knowledge.
Pictures to Labels or Beginning Narrative
Children who are drawing pictures of themselves, family members, houses, or flowers present two possibilities for work in the ZPD. Children will draw the same image over and over again, and there is often a story beneath the image — a favorite event that took place in that scene. A child may be ready to label the picture with one or two letters, or they may be starting to understand that writing is about telling stories and recording events. Good questions to ask a child who is drawing pictures with no script to include:
- Why did you write this?
- What is happening in your picture?
- Do you know any sounds in that word? [Repeat back a word from the story, like "mom" or "house" or "play."]
- Would you like to try to write it?
Beginning Sound-Symbol Correspondence
Most children in the first year or two of school will experiment with sound-symbol correspondence. They might begin by recognizing the sounds and letters in their names or those of their friends. Children are more likely to recognize consonant sounds first (from anywhere in the world). Over time as they master the alphabet, they will move from writing initial consonant sounds to middle or final consonant sounds, with digraphs and vowels being the most difficult to master. If a child is starting to label drawings, or write some strings of letters, here is what you might ask to extend their knowledge:
- What sounds or letters do you hear in that word?
- Do you know how to write that sound or letter?
- What other words do you know with that sound letter?
- Do you want to learn how to write that letter?
It is easy to get bogged down in a conference teaching a child one letter. For children in the midst of cracking the code, they will learn most efficiently if much of their time is spent continuing to write. By practicing their letters, and being encouraged to take risks in their writing, they will naturally pick up many letters without much assistance. Children are then also more likely to ask for assistance when they truly need it, and you can be assured you are working within their ZPD.
Some of the writing learning zones young children might be in and may need assistance with include:
- making the connection between sounds and symbols
- understanding that writing is about recording events or telling stories
- mastering the page — where drawings go, where print goes, which direction to begin writing
- sustaining writing through an entire workshop
- initiating new writing topics
If you're stumped in figuring out a good ZPD for any child, just sit and observe them writing for a few minutes. By quietly noting what they write and asking a question occasionally as they work, you will almost always find some zone in which they are ready for assistance and eager to learn.
Harste, Woodward and Burke. 1985. Language Stories and Literacy Lessons Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. 1983. "The Instruction of Reading Comprehension," Contemporary Educational Psychology.
Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. 1988. Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vygotsky, L.S 1978. Mind in Society Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.