The phrase, ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ may sound dull, but it isn’t. I promise. It is so useful to know so you can ensure your ESL students’ success in learning.

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

The Zone of Proximal Development was coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. “The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been defined as: ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.’”

McLeod, Saul. “The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.” Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding | Simply Psychology. Simply Psychology, March 24, 2019. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html.

ESL student using laptop
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Imagine you are giving a class. You come prepared–very prepared because the students in this class seem especially hard to engage. You have had these students a couple of times before, and it is a struggle to get them to talk. They stare into space and don’t answer your questions as the awkward seconds pass by. You have tried expanding on the material by showing photos, using the annotation tools to draw on the screen, playing games, and re-wording questions. Nothing works. You have modeled the language to use, and the students can repeat it, but it is apparent they do not understand what they are saying. Frustration sets in on both sides. The students appear to be lost entirely, and you are running out of ideas. There is possibly a good reason this is happening. Perhaps, despite all of your best efforts, you are still not speaking to the students on their level. I am not referring to their interests or just clicking with them (even though that is extremely important when it comes to successful student engagement). I am referring to their academic level: their abilities in the language itself. Maybe, just maybe, you are still talking above their level of comprehension and/or demanding a higher level of production.

Sigh.

There is hope, though. There is always an explanation, but before we address the solution, let’s consider two things:

  1. Taking the time to determine the students’ academic levels in English.
  2. Reaching the students at their current level of comprehension and challenging their production of language just enough to keep them interested.

How to Determine Your ESL Students’ Levels of Fluency

I discussed this topic at great length in the article, What is Bloom’s Taxonomy (and How it Applies to Online ESL). While it is impossible to do an in-depth analysis of what a student comprehends in a 25-minute class, we can gauge their approximate level by asking questions. These questions should challenge both their level of cognition and their ability to comprehend and produce the target language.

Since we need to assess new students in the span of just a few minutes, I will share a simple technique that I almost always use to begin class. I ask the students questions (often relevant to the theme of the lesson) in the present, past, and future tenses. I look at their faces to determine if they appear to understand. I repeat if necessary. I use TPR if necessary. I find new words. I slow or speed up my speech based on the nature of their replies. I make rapid adjustments in the span of less than a minute. If the student breezes through the simple tenses, I move on to the continuous tenses, perfect tenses, and maybe even the passive voice. These transitions all happen very fast. Maybe entirely within a minute or two. There are times when a student can confidently use the simple present tense, and that is it. They might understand the past and future but fail to conjugate the verbs correctly: “I go to the park yesterday.” I start with simple vocabulary words with a lot of TPR and slowly or quickly elevate the words based on the students’ responses.

Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly: maybe they are shy or maybe they don’t understand or maybe they aren’t in the mood to speak. Perhaps they understand written English but struggle to understand spoken English. It takes some practice and patience, but there are ways to get an idea of a student’s level before continuing with the class.

It is vital to gauge, to the best of your ability, the students’ level. This, along with a positive and approachable attitude, sets the tone to the class.

How to Teach ESL Students at their Current Level and the Zone of Proximal Development

We can return to the example above: “I go to the park yesterday.” It is short and simple, yet it tells us so much. We know the student understood the tutor. We know he can correctly structure a sentence (I refer to the word order). We know the student is familiar with and can accurately apply prepositions and articles. We know he can conjugate a verb in the simple present tense. We also know he has been exposed to the past tense because he understands the question in the past tense and said the word “yesterday”. We know the student is comfortable using the present tense. We know that the student could probably produce the sentence correctly in the past tense if given just a little bit of guidance. Since the only mistake was the word “go,” the student would probably not feel too overwhelmed being asked to restate the sentence using the word “went”.

In other words:

  1. The task the student can perform independently and correctly is to say, “I go to the park.” Imagine all of the tasks a student can do on his own and with accuracy as occupying a space in his brain. The student feels comfortable and confident communicating within this space in his brain. He feels secure because he knows he can produce the language correctly. This space is continually expanding as he learns.
  2. The task the student can perform with some guidance (or scaffolding) from the teacher is to change the word from “go” to “went”. Perhaps the student knows this word but has temporarily forgotten it. Perhaps just giving the student the first letter of the word “went” will jog his memory. Perhaps conjugating other irregular verbs in the past will help: “do…did”, “have…had”, “go……” Imagine all of the tasks a student can perform with some guidance from the tutor as occupying another space in his brain. This space is called the Zone of Proximal Development. The student feels slightly apprehensive when asked to communicate in this space in his brain, but not so much he won’t try. He is especially willing to try if he is encouraged and gets positive reinforcement from his tutor even when he makes a mistake. As a matter of fact, he feels proud when he figures out a new way to say something with minimal guidance from his tutor. Once mastered, he is then able to permanently place this new information in the ever-expanding original space in his brain.
  3. The task the student cannot perform, even with guidance from the teacher, is the space in the brain that is not filled with the necessary information. It is the space that is beyond the reach of the student simply because he lacks the knowledge and possibly the abilities to do so at this time. This is the space that causes the most anxiety. It is the space that causes the student to stare at the wall and not speak. It is the space in which the student either believes or, in fact, truly cannot communicate. No amount of repeating words, using TPR, re-wording the sentence, etc. will make him understand. It is simply way above his head. This is when the tutor needs to stop and re-enter the other space in the brain: the Zone of Proximal Development.

Again, “The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been defined as: ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.”1

How to Guide ESL Students to the Correct Production of the Language while Working within their ZPD

In the article, Teaching English: ESL Error Correction Strategies for Students, I talk about scaffolding. Scaffolding “was introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). Scaffolding consists of the activities provided by the educator, or more competent peer, to support the student as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development. Support is tapered off (i.e. withdrawn) as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building during construction. The student will then be able to complete the task again on his own.”2

Scaffolding is aiding, assisting–essentially guiding the students to produce the language correctly. The idea is for the students to try to speak with accuracy without just being told the answers. Both tutors and students can scaffold. Students will often lead other students to the correct response. I try to encourage my students to help each other but not give each other the answers.

How to Scaffold Effectively

First, ensure that the students can understand most of the language to which they are exposed. In other words, the input they receive should be comprehensible. Not only should it be comprehensible, but they should feel comfortable at least attempting to produce the related language. If the student understands the question but does not know how to answer, the tutor can model the simplest response and slowly build on that.

Think of scaffolding on the side of a building. The foundation is in place, and the scaffolding allows for further construction of the building. The tutor can model the foundation, and once the student confidently repeats and produces similar phrases, the tutor can add words, one by one. The parts of the language that are a bit tricky–the pronunciation of a word, the correct verb conjugation, the proper preposition, the correct order of the adjectives preceding a noun–those are the bits of information that are slightly challenging to the student. Even though these extra bits of information may be unfamiliar territory for the student, he can still understand the information as a whole–it is comprehensible input (i+1). The concept of i+1 was introduced by linguist Stephen Krashen. He theorized that students could learn if most of the information was comprehensible. If not, students would be lost, and their anxiety levels would rise.3

Happy Asian Chinese Little Student Girl Showing Thumbs Up
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Once you are certain the student possesses the metaphorical blocks to make a solid foundation, you can then use other resources to build on that foundation. This level of understanding allows you the opportunity to incorporate pictures or photos, use the annotation tools to write or draw, the audio functions of the courseware as listening prompts, memory-jogging aids, and more. If you do follow these steps, I promise the only stares you receive will be ones focused on you and the lesson. So often we tutors don’t realize that students need more scaffolding at their level to be able to proceed to the next phase of learning. 

Citations for “How Does the Zone of Proximal Development Apply to Teaching ESL?”
1, 2 McLeod, Saul. “The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.” Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding | Simply Psychology. Simply Psychology, March 24, 2019. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html.
3 Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition. S & K. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash-english.html.

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Lela Chavers
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Lela Chavers

This information is extremely helpful. I really like your idea/example of evaluating students quickly by asking questions in present, past, and future tense. I evaluate my students quickly in a similar manner by first asking a simple question (ex. how are you today?) and increasing in difficulty and language skill in small increments. Wonderful article, Susan!

Elaine Ventura
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Elaine Ventura

I have read Susan MacMillan’s article on the “Zone of Proximal Development”. I love these kinds of articles being a bit of TESOL nerd. I recommend this article particularly for Susan’s tip on how to evaluate a student’s level before the class begins. She talks about asking students questions which require an answer in the present, past and future tenses. Observing how students respond to these questions, whether correctly or not, gives the teacher instant guidance as to how to work with the student during the class. I have been trying this tip out on the students in my new… Read more »