The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

How can ZPD notion influence language teaching?


submitted by Trinh le, Vietnam

How can ZPD notion influence language teaching? Can you give me an example?

Dr Richards Responds:

An important aspect of sociocultural theory is the notion of mediated learning. Essentially this suggests that learning relies on the transmitted experiences of others. Initially, learners depend on others with more experience than themselves and gradually take on more responsibility for their own learning in joint activity. This is sometimes described as a process of guided participation as learning is mediated through the guidance of a more knowledgeable other. Through repeated participation in a variety of joint activities the novice gradually develops new knowledge and skills. The process involved is often referred to as scaffolding.

Scaffolding refers to learning that results from two or more people interacting during the process of completing a classroom activity or during any setting where language is being used, and where one person (e.g. the teacher or another learner) has more advanced knowledge than the other (the learner). During the process discourse is jointly created through assisted or mediated performance. For example in a classroom setting the teacher assists the learners in completing learning activities by observing what they are capable of, providing a series of guided stages through the task, and through collaborative dialogue, scaffolding the learning process by initially providing support (the “scaffold”) and gradually removing support as learning develops. Learning is initially mediated and directed by the teacher or other more advanced learners and is gradually appropriated by the individual learner.  Throughout, the teacher provides opportunities for noticing how language is used, experimenting with language use, practicing new modes of discourse and restructuring existing language knowledge – essential aspects of teaching.

Here is an example of how this process takes place in which the interactions between an ESL tutor in a US college program and a student during feedback sessions on the student’s essay writing are described. The strategies the tutor used in responding to grammatical errors in the student’s composition are summarized as follows and arranged according to whether they reflect independent functioning on the part of the learner (0), or different degrees of collaborative interaction between the tutor and the learners (stages 1-12):

0.  Tutor asks the learner to read, find the errors, and correct them independently prior to the tutorial.

1.  Construction of a ‘collaborative frame’ prompted by the presence of the tutor as a potential dialogic partner.

2.  Prompted or focused reading of the sentence that contains the error by the learner or the tutor.

3.  Tutor indicates that something may be wrong in the segment (for example, sentence, clause, line) – ‘Is there anything wrong in this sentence?

4.  Tutor rejects unsuccessful attempts at recognizing the error.

5.  Tutor narrows down the location of the error (for example, tutor repeats or points to the specific segment  which contains the error.)

6.  Tutor indicates the nature of the error, but does not identify the error (for example, ‘There is something wrong with the tense here ’).

7.  Tutor identifies error (‘You can’t use an auxiliary here’).

8.  Tutor rejects learner’s unsuccessful attempts at correcting error.

9.  Tutor provides clues to help the learner arrive at the correct form (for example, ‘It is not really past but something that is still going on’).

10.  Tutor provides the correct form.

11.  Tutor provides some explanation for the use of the correct form.

12.  Tutor provides examples of the correct pattern when other forms of help fail to produce an appropriate responsive action.

(Lantolf and Thorne 2006, 278-80)

Central to learning from this perspective is the zone of proximal development, which focuses on the gap between what the learner can currently do and the next stage in learning – the level of potential development – and how learning occurs through negotiation between the learner and a more advanced language user during which a process of scaffolding occurs. To take part in these processes the learner must develop interactional competence, the ability to manage exchanges despite limited language development. Personality, motivation, cognitive style may all play a role in influencing the learners willingness to take risks, his or her openness to social interaction and attitudes towards the target language and users of the target language.

Language learning is facilitated by interactions like the ones above in which the interaction proceeds as a kind of joint problem-solving between teacher and student. During the process the teacher assists the learner in using more complex language through a type of assisted performance, and this is central to how many aspects of language use can be learned. The kind of discourse or talk that that occurs in language classrooms also reflects both the pedagogical strategies the teacher employs (e.g. in trying to facilitate negotiation of meaning, interaction and feedback, or to provide scaffolding for activities) as well as the kind of learning community that develops in the classroom.