Scaffolding in The Adult Literacy Classroom

Zone of Proximal Development

The Zone of Proximal Development ZPD is a concept developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. 

Common Examples of the Zone of Proximal Development

  • Helping a child of two to learn his/her colours, but when that child is 5, learning what letter those colours begin with. 
  • A 16 year old is able to effectively drive forward and backward but cannot parallel park. Through targeted guidance from a teacher, the adult is able to learn how to park. 

Vygotsky believed interaction between student and tutors was an essential part of the learning process. When a student is in this zone of proximal development, providing them with the appropriate assistance and tools, which he referred to as scaffolding, gives the student what they need to accomplish the new task or skill. Eventually, the scaffolding can be removed and the student will be able to complete the task independently.

It is important to realize that the zone of proximal development is a moving target. As a learner gains new skills and abilities, this zone moves progressively forward.

What does it mean for us as Literacy Tutors? 

  • In devising class materials and activities, it is important to do reading and writing work that challenges a student a little bit above their level, or a little bit above what they can already do.  There is no opportunity for learning if we as tutors devise class plans/materials that the student can already do.  However, if the material is too far above the level of what the student can do, it demotivates the student for learning and there is no room for progress or development in their skills.  
  • As you get to know what your student can and can’t do, it will be easier to work out what area of reading and writing they need help and support with , i.e. their ZPD. 
  • Think of the ZPD as knowing what supports your student needs to reach his/her learning goal.

DALC Student Liam:

Liam comes to DALC to do a one to one. He recently learned how to write his name and address. He can read a few language experience sentences about himself and his family, his job as a builder and his hobbies. He just learned to recognise the days of the week. He can say them in the right order. 

He wants to be able to read the calendar but does not know the months of the year, the order they come in or how many days in each month. How can we break down the steps to help him reach his goal? 

What he can do: Knows the days of the week, can recognise them and say them in order. 

What he can’t do: Read the calendar to work out, say, the date of a doctor’s appointment, or an upcoming wedding or a party

What he can do with help: Work on looking at the calendar together to learn the sequence of the months of the year. Looking at the calendar page to find out what days it falls on. (e.g. ‘What day does the 25th December fall on this year?’). Working out the abbreviations of the days and months, (e.g. ‘Mon.’ and ‘Aug.’)

When Liam becomes more confident, hopefully, he can move on to the next learning step (or zone) in reading the calendar on his own! As tutors, we need to work out what area of support a learner needs to reach his/her goal.

DALC Student Kate:

Kate attends a further education centre with a view to completing QQI Level 5 in Childcare. She completed a Leaving Cert applied course. Now at the age of 26, she has been out of the work and education setting for many years and struggles with her reading and writing skills at the level required for the course. 

Kate has been working in a crèche for the last few years and is a very experienced childcare worker, yet she finds it hard to put pen to paper. 

She needs to write a report on a child she is working with in her crèche – a record of the play she is doing there, any recommendations, etc. How can we break down the steps to help her reach her goal? 

What she can do: She is very good at expressing herself verbally and explaining all the areas around caring for children. 

What she can’t do: Following the structure of a report, write paragraphs and proofread her spelling. 

What she can do with help: Write a few sentences on her own summarising what she did in the crèche. Spelling most words needed to describe this. 

When Kate becomes more confident, hopefully, she can move on to the next learning step (or zone) – being aware of paragraphs, knowing the difference between the headings in the report she has to write (recommendations, evaluation, conclusion etc.). As tutors, we need to work out what area of support a learner needs to reach his/her goal because you cannot do everything in a session but we must be clear about the goals for the session and how much support to give.

Challenging students a little above what they can already do is where the real learning takes place. In DALC we try to following best practice in teaching and learning.

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