Scaffolding in the Zone of Proximal Development

ladders outside building


If you’ve been in the TESOL field for even a few weeks, you may have heard the term ‘scaffolding.’ We use it as a verb: “the teacher scaffolded the concept.” As well as a noun: “This task needs more scaffolding.”

What does this mean?

The term might activate your schema for construction sites, but we can think of it quite simply: a scaffold is a ladder that you supply and students climb.

When teachers talk about scaffolding, we’re talking about making difficult material accessible for students. But it’s not just about explaining this material — it’s about helping students discover its complexities for themselves, with a little help from us or each other.

Vygotsky and the ‘ZPD’

The concept draws from the pioneering work of Russian educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the early 20th century. Vygotsky studied children’s learning, and introduced to the education field an important concept is that is still used today: the Zone of Proximal Development.

ZPD, as it’s commonly called, holds that humans learn things in progressive stages, and at any given time, we’re all in a ‘zone’ of potential learning. In this zone, there are things that we’re ready to learn or do next, and we’re capable to achieving them with a bit of help from a ‘more expert other’–a teacher or more knowledgeable peer.

The image for this article provides a great visual for the ZPD. Here we see a fire escape on the side of a building. The length of the building is broken up into shorter stretches of ladder, each capped by a support structure to rest in.

Imagine that a student wants to climb the side of this building. She stands there with her teacher, but instead of focusing on the top of the building and the incredible journey ahead of them, they focus on the first platform up. The teacher nudges the student to climb the ladder, providing just the right amount of help for her to do so. They reach the platform, and then it’s on to the next. Building on the foundation of her previous work, the student has a new goal now–her ZPD has shifted.

ZPD’s evolution and expansion

Vygotsky introduced the ZPD as a way of understanding children’s learning. He was particularly interested in how parents graded their language for children and almost naturally supplied the right amount of help for the moment at hand.

But obviously the concept has applications beyond children’s education. In the 1970s, psychologists including the great Jerome Bruner expanded on Vygotsky’s ZPD and introduced the term scaffolding to describe the teaching act of introducing students to a challenge that can be achieved with assistance, then supporting them as they systematically work to achieve it.

Scaffolding and the ZPD are now key go-to concepts in both mainstream education and TESOL–part of our daily vocabulary as we design lessons, engage with students and reflect on our work with colleagues. Now that you know what these are, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, making your own foundation on the ladder of TESOL learning a big higher!

Go deeper

Much of the literature on scaffolding and the ZPD is written either for an academic psychology audience or for a very specific group of educational practitioners (K-12, immersion-model ESL, etc.). So for more practical insights, we recommend perusing Amazon’s offerings and seeing what addresses your context. (If anyone can recommend a general TESOL-friendly guide to scaffolding, please let us know!)

One of the best ways to go deeper is to explore this yourself. When you’re teaching or working one-on-one with a student, think about where the student is stretching. What does their ZPD look like now: what are they ready to learn? Try to provide a progressive rung on the ladder and boost them up, then repeat.

By experimenting with the ZPD and scaffolding, you’ll develop a more intuitive sense of how to identify ZPD opportunities and integrate scaffolding as a natural part of your teaching practice. Good luck!

Discussed in this post

Bruner, J. S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J.M. Levelt (eds.) The Child’s Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

What successes and challenges have you had with scaffolding? Let us know in the comments!