Zone of Proximal Development in Balanced Literacy

Zone of Proximal Development in Balanced Literacy

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on the zone of proximal development and using that within the gradual release model that balanced literacy follows. This post is meant to build a collective understanding of the ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) and gradual release model so that you know what’s what when we get into later details of the framework. If you haven’t read the first two posts of the series, take a minute right now to read about the framework and the components.

Zone of Proximal Development

I can remember sitting in my Ed Psych course my freshman year of college and first hearing about Lev Vygotsky. At the time I was 18 and eager to be an educator but I wasn’t the best of students. Of course, I learned about ZPD back then but cast it off as irrelevant information as I jumped through hoops to earn my degree. Now, while everything I learned in college isn’t relevant in the classroom, Vygotsky is one of the most important people I learned about! So, in case you also cast aside important information let’s talk Vygotsky and ZPD.

Lev Vygotsky created an idea about learning towards the end of his life. He argued that when children learn, they first watch adults carefully before they act. As they do this, they slowly begin to take more and more on until they can complete the task independently without an adult. If you think about a child learning to walk this holds true. First, they observe adults walking. Young children have a sharp focus on new skills. Then they begin to slowly scoot around. Next, they pull themselves up and after many more steps (assisted by adults who love them), they are walking on their own.  Children work within something referred to as their zone of proximal development (ZPD) to develop these skills. As children learn, concepts slowly shift from their unknown, through the ZPD, to their known. Learning follows a can’t do, can do with help, can do by myself pattern.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the area in between known skills and unknown skills. That moment in time when learners can do something with help but can’t yet do it independently. This is the sweet spot we want to target as teachers. In a balanced literacy framework, we focus on this zone for most of our teaching.

If we take Vygotsky’s ZPD and combine the idea with the four stages of competence we see similar ideas. I like to pair these two theories together because I believe they go hand in hand and each one solidifies the other.

In the unknown, we have unconsciously incompetent. Students who fall here don’t know what they don’t know. They are unaware. They may be misinterpreting information. They may not see the value in what is being learned. They are unaware or unconsciously incompetent. In order for skills to shift into a child’s zone of proximal development, they must be aware of what they don’t know or consciously incompetent. Think about a child learning to write his name. At a young age, there is no real knowledge of a need to write your name. There is no knowledge about letters and there is no real desire.

The stage after unconsciously incompetent is consciously incompetent. You can see that this phase straddles both the unknown and the ZPD. Within this phase, students know that they don’t know or aren’t able to do something yet and they see the value of the skillset or knowledge. Here is where mistakes make a world of difference to the learning process. If students make mistakes within the first stage, it doesn’t matter because they are unaware of the skill or even the need for the skill. Once they become consciously incompetent their mistakes are helpful teaching moments on the path to becoming consciously competent. A child beginning to write their name might be trying to match their writing to an adult’s but can’t quite get the letters right. Mistakes are so valuable because their taking in what went wrong and trying to fix it.

The third phase is consciously competent. This sees students transitioning from the ZPD into the known. This is where students know or can do the skill but still must focus on it. They know all of the letters in their name perhaps but still have to write it very slowly in order to get it right. When they write they focus letter by letter or in small chunks. They aren’t yet to the point where they can write their name without thinking- that stage comes next.

The final stage is unconsciously competent and this exists entirely in the known portion. This stage is reached when skills and knowledge are automatic. The student does not even need to think about what they are doing it is just natural to them. Now kids get a piece of paper and put their name at the top without thinking.

What is the gradual release model?

Balanced literacy is based upon the gradual release of responsibility model. You’ll notice that this model is shaped by the work of Vygotsky. Students work left to right across the continuum quite similar to the previous images about the ZPD as teacher slowly release the responsibility of work from themselves to the student. You’ll notice there is a component of the balanced literacy framework for each step along the way. As teachers use a balanced literacy framework they begin teaching skills with high levels of support and slowly take away support as a skill transfers from the unknown, to the zone of proximal development, to mastery.

The highest level of support offered in a balanced literacy framework is I do, You watch. Here teachers are modeling skills and strategies they want to see their students take on. This exists in Read Aloud and Modeled Writing. In read aloud I preview skills that my students will need in the near future. I am showing them entirely on my own. After winter holiday we will transition into nonfiction reading. Right now in my read alouds, I am modeling the strategies I am going to want my students to use in the future. In modeled writing the teacher is doing all the thinking and working as well. This is the highest level of support.

The next tier of support is I do, You help. Here the teacher carefully masterminds (I’ve used this word before and I just feel like it fits this stage beautifully.) Here the teacher must be aware of all students in the class and each child’s ZPD. Shared reading and shared writing come into play here. This is where the teacher is still doing much of the heavy lifting but students are taking a turn at trying new ideas out with a high level of teacher support.

As we begin to lower our teacher support, the following phase is You do, I help. This is another phase where the teacher is masterminding the learning similar to the previous phase. Each child is still working within their ZPD but they are doing most of the heavy lifting while the teacher is there to guide. This is where we find interactive writing and guided reading. Here the teacher acts as more of a coach than a model.

The final stage is completely independent and, as you can see, a reverse of the first stage. This last phase is You do, I watch. Here we find independent reading and independent writing. The teacher isn’t doing the heavy lifting anymore and is barely supporting the child in the skills and strategies they have learned. Students here have mastery of the skills and strategies they were taught.

A word of warning! Just because one skill or strategy is mastered doesn’t mean that the teaching is done! These skills need reinforcement and there will be new skills and strategies to learn. The process literally goes back to the beginning and new learning takes place building off of the known. We’re going to talk more about the teacher role in the learning in the next section.

How do these two come together?

The balanced literacy framework uses the zone of proximal development as well as the gradual release of responsibility. I know the graphic above might seem like a bit much but I really love it to death. This lines right up with the gradual release model and all of the information above. Instead of showing the triangles of the gradual release model above it simply shows the teacher’s role.

When students are working in the unknown they are working with new information. Here the teacher’s role is to model skills and strategies for the student. As knowledge begins to shift from the unknown to the ZPD the teacher’s role shifts to explicit teaching. Concepts that are taught in a balanced literacy framework are not new. I’m going to repeat that! CONCEPTS, SKILLS, OR STRATEGIES THAT ARE TAUGHT IN A BALANCED LITERACY FRAMEWORK ARE NOT NEW TO STUDENTS. THE TEACHER HAS MODELED THEM SEVERAL TIMES PRIOR TO EXPLICIT TEACHING. Ok, sorry. I almost want to write it again in a bigger font because this is so important. A lot of times modeling is missing from teaching… ok just… I can’t help myself.


Alright, not sorry. We’ll talk about this a lot. My very first literacy coach said over and over “If you aren’t modeling, then you aren’t teaching.” So true. Anyways, back to explicit teaching. The concepts, skills or strategies you’re teaching aren’t new. The student has seen them before. They might have even begun to dabble in the work needed to take them on.

As students almost have these skills under control, your role as the teacher shifts from explicit teaching to prompting. For more information on prompting, PLEASE read this post about how we phrase our prompts.  Here the skills and strategies we’re teaching should be almost under control. Maybe there are still some lapses from time to time but they are mostly under control with some corrections.

Finally, the skills and strategies transfer from the ZPD to the known. The role of a teacher shifts to reinforcement instead of prompting. Soon these skills become natural and students no longer even have to focus on them, they are just innate.

What’s Next?

First of all, tonight’s post was a lot of information. A lot of heavy-duty information. I would bookmark this post and come back to it from time to time throughout the series. I know that you are still just building your knowledge upon a limited understanding of the framework. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will center around readers and writers workshop. The main focus will be the workshop format and what you need to have in place before beginning.

Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments so I can better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.


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