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Embracing Motherhood Why Teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development Matters

Why Teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development Matters

Teaching in the zone of proximal development is important because so many times, children are presented with material that is either way too challenging (and they get frustrated) or way too easy (and they lose interest). In either case, no real learning is taking place. Teaching in the zone of proximal development means that the teacher (a parent is a teacher too) is presenting material that is just challenging enough so that it is interesting, engaging, and only requires the teacher/parent to give a little nudge.

The Zone of Proximal Development Explained

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, basically measures the difference between what a learner can do on his or her own and what he or she can do with guidance.

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Decoatzee,2012)

In this mindset of teaching, the learner is the center of the equation..not the curriculum, not the standards, and not the grade level expectations. It’s all about finding out where the child IS, what the child is interested in and motivated by, and then providing just a little nudge in the right direction to help him or her get to the next level. Then the cycle continues and repeats over and over again.

Scaffolding

Scaffolding is a key component of teaching in the zone of proximal development. Much like scaffolding will support a building as it’s being built, a teacher (or parent, peer, etc.) supports the learner as he or she is learning something new. When the learner is ready to complete the task independently, the supports are removed, and he or she is able process the new information without any assistance.

Scaffolding doesn’t need to happen with just a parent or teacher, it can happen with a peer as well. This is why I love, love, love having so many children! They teach and learn from each other! And quite honestly, they seem to enjoy learning more from each other than they do from me. 🙂 *Here’s a cute (although blurry) video of Ruby and Ophelia reading together that I think is a beautiful example of teaching in the zone of proximal development with scaffolding.

Lev Vygotsky

The theory of teaching in the zone of proximal development and using scaffolding is credited to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), and I wanted to talk about him for just a minute because he’s a pretty fascinating guy.

Lev_Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky, 1896-1934 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pataki Márta, 2013)

When I was getting my teaching degree, Vygotsky was mentioned in nearly every class because so much of our current philosophies of teaching are credited to him. But in Vygotsky’s lifetime, his ideas were considered quite controversial and didn’t even become widely accepted until the 1970s in western society.

He became ill from tuberculosis at the age of 25 and died from tuberculosis at the young age of 37, just when he was beginning to flesh out his ideas about children and how they learn. Truth be told, critics argue that he barely even mentions the terms “zone of proximal development” or “cultural-historical theory” (two of the things he’s widely credited with) throughout his entire six volume collection.

Vygotsky was intrigued by how we process higher cognitive functions associated with memory, attention, decision making, and language comprehension. His research focused on the three following areas:

  1. How we use objects to help us with memory and reasoning
  2. How children acquire higher cognitive functions during development
  3. How development is shaped by different social and cultural patterns of interaction

I think some of the most interesting aspects of his theories center around children and how they learn. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Internalization: By interacting with their environment and observing others in it, children learn social norms and cultural traditions that help to shape who they are.
  • Children Learn Through Play: When children play in their environment, they are using their imaginations to make sense of abstract thought, which is a function of higher level thinking. They often times use objects from their environment as props (like a stick for a horse). Through playing house and other such role playing games, children practice social and cultural norms and then internalize them. (Tools of the Mind is a method of teaching preschool that uses Vygotsky’s theories as the foundation for their play centered preschool program. Read about how I encourage imaginative play with my children here.)
  • Social Cognitive Theory of Learning: 
    • Zone of Proximal Development: The range of tasks that are within a child’s cognitive ability to learn with assistance.
    • Instructional Scaffolding: The process of adjusting the amount of support based upon the needs of the child.
    • Collaboration: The person doing the scaffolding can be the teacher, a parent, a sibling, a peer, or anyone who has more knowledge than the learner in the area being learned. This sort of apprenticeship style of learning occurs as the learner is completely immersed in the task with someone more knowledgeable.
  • Language Acquisition: In his most influential book, Thought and Language, Vygotsky explains how children acquire language by interacting with their environment. He explains how language acquisition starts as an external social tool with the goal being communication with others. Then, during the toddler years, children develop inner speech, or self talk, that is expressed out loud and used to self regulate and self direct. Eventually, the inner speech becomes silent as children use it internally. (I talk more about this in my blog titled Oral Language Development: More Important Than You Think.)

Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input

I can’t talk about the zone of proximal development without mentioning Stephen Krashen! While studying language acquisition as part of my Master’s degree program, I learned about linguist Stephen Krashen who created the input hypothesis. This hypothesis is very similar to the zone of proximal development in that it states that learners (specifically children learning a 2nd language) progress in their knowledge of language when the input is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this “i + 1” where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. As a teacher, this helped me to see that the goal was to provide my English language learners (and all students really) with comprehensible input that was one level above their current understanding.

In Conclusion

Teaching in the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, and keeping the input comprehensible are just fancy ways of saying to teach in a way that’s:

  • Not too easy,
  • Not too hard,
  • But juuuuuust right!

This concept is certainly beneficial for teachers, but as parents, we actually have the time, patience, love, and devotion to really implement it with integrity. By getting down on the floor, playing with our children, thinking about where they are, thinking about how to take them to the next level, and finding ways and the time to make it happen, we are teaching them how to be independent, engaged, motivated, and on task. By stimulating their minds with content that is “just right”, they will not only be learning and developing those budding neurons at a rapid rate, they will be something even more important…they will be HAPPY!

*Check out my blog How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children to see tips for how to apply the zone of proximal development into your daily life and Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children to see how I have done it.

Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs

How to Teach the ABCs with Magnet Letters

Teaching letter names and letter sounds is a crucial component of reading. When children learn the alphabet at a young age, it lays a strong foundation for learning how to read. I have four children five and under, and I have been blown away by their capabilities and desire to learn. As a former elementary school teacher with a Master’s degree in Language Acquisition, I have always been fascinated with teaching and learning, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized the true potential of a child’s brain.

If I could recommend one thing for anyone with small children, it would be to focus on teaching the ABCs. In my blog, Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs, I have outlined everything that I have done that has worked for me and my children (who are all very different). My oldest daughter Ruby is five and in kindergarten; she reads fluently at a 3rd grade level. My son Elliot is four, knows all of his letter names and sounds, and is reading basic words, phrases, and repetitive text. My daughter Ophelia is 21 months old and knows all of her letter names and sounds, can read memorized words and phrases, and is starting to sound out words. For more details on how children really learn to read (hint: it’s not about starting with phonics), check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read.

Using Letter Magnets to Teach the ABCs

We have had these LeapFrog Letter Magnets on our fridge for just about as long as we have had children. The style has changed a bit since our original purchase, but the concept is the same. Basically, each capital letter fits into the player and when pushed with say a little chant with the letter name and letter sound(s). There is also a little music button that will either play, “The Wheels on the Bus” or “The Alphabet Song”. There is also a volume control for loud or quiet play and an off switch (for when you just need a little peace and quiet).

The other magnet letters that I really like are these Melissa and Doug Wooden Magnet Alphabet letters. The bold colors and simple design are fun for kids and easy to use as a teaching tool.

Here is a 3:28 video compilation of our 21 month old daughter Ophelia using letter magnets. Notice how I do very little direct teaching. I like to let my children explore and use these types of learning toys however they want, and then I find ways to gently guide them along the way.

LeapFrog Letter Magnets

There are many different ways to use these LeapFrog Letter Magnets. Sometimes I like to line all of the letters neatly up on the fridge in alphabetical order for my children to discover, but they never stay that way for long! My daughter Ophelia, who loves order and neatness, will play with each letter one at a time in a patient and intricate way. My son Elliot, on the other hand, who loves movement and chaos, will smush all of the letters together, build towers out of them, or personify them in some imaginative play.

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Each method has merit and is a reflection of the inner workings of their minds. As their mother, I love being a quiet observer as I take note of their different methods of play and think about how I can support their different learning styles. Just having educational toys available and allowing children to play with them however they choose is a huge benefit. The next step is to reinforce their learning along the way by verbalizing what they are doing and repeating what they are saying. Then the real icing on the cake is figuring out how to challenge them to just go slightly above where they are with guidance. This is known in the educational world as working within their zone of proximal development and scaffolding them as they work towards the next level.

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

 Wooden Magnet Letters and Tins

One activity I love doing with the kids involves using the magnet letters and tins. This is a great way to stretch their knowledge of letter names and letter sounds to the next level. By turning these muffin tins upside down, they make great templates for sounding out CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) or four letter words as with Elliot’s tin on the left.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

What I do is pick a simple word like cat, sun, or dog, and then show them how to sound out each letter /c/ /a/ /t/ by touching each letter and saying the sound. Then I show how I say all of the sounds together quickly to make the word cat. They’re not ready to practice this skill independently yet, but it’s good to keep introducing things to kids that are just barely out of their reach so that they can get used to it through lots and lots and lots of repetition and as much time as they need.

Independent Learning Station

Once we have played with something like these wooden magnet letters and tins together, I like setting it up at an independent learning station. While here, the kids can practice what we’ve done together at their own pace.

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Way to Play

I love it when the kids using these learning manipulatives as toys in a fun and creative way that works for them. I spend time setting up these learning stations and enjoy watching the kids use them however they like. When Ophelia takes the letters out of one box and says their names as she puts them in another box, this is an excellent way for her to practice her letter naming fluency.

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Lakeshore Learning Alphabet Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

If you really want to take things to the next level, these Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters are a wonderful teaching tool. If you have a child with a lot of patience, you can sit down side by side and build words together on magnetic white boards. This is something I used to love doing with my oldest daughter Ruby when she was younger.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

In Conclusion

Magnetic letters can be a wonderful educational toy and teaching tool. By spending a little bit of time working on letters when your child is young, he or she will be much better prepared for preschool, kindergarten, reading, learning, and more. By making playtime fun and educational, children thrive as their brains are given permission to learn and grow at their own pace.

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