What's in a ZPD? A case study of a young ESL student and teacher interacting through dialogue journals

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  • http://ltr.sagepub.com/Language Teaching Research

    http://ltr.sagepub.com/content/4/2/95The online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/136216880000400202

    2000 4: 95Language Teaching ResearchHossein Nassaji and Alister Cumming

    through dialogue journalsWhat's in a ZPD? A case study of a young ESL student and teacher interacting

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  • Whats in a ZPD? A case study of ayoung ESL student and teacherinteracting through dialogue journalsHossein Nassaji and Alister Cumming Ontario Institutefor Studies in Education/University of Toronto

    Aiming to provide a case-study account of features of the ZPD (zoneof proximal development) in language teaching and learning, weanalysed 95 exchanges in interactive dialogue journals written over 10months between a 6-year-old Farsi speaker beginning to learn Englishand his Canadian teacher. Using a scheme of language functionsdeveloped by Shuy (1993), we show how the teacher and studentconstructed and sustained a long-term written conversation involvingintricate patterns of complementary, asymmetrical scaffolding. Weinterpret the findings to suggest the value of analysing languagelearning and teaching as integrally unified, interactive phenomena. Wesuggest questions worthy of future research into features of the ZPDin language teaching and learning.

    What does a ZPD (zone of proximal development) look like? Howmight we recognize one is being constructed? How do we knowwhether it is happening, or not? Answers to these questions arefundamental to guide indeed, should form a rationale for thepractices of language teaching and learning. Moreover, they arenecessary to substantiate and make relevant to educationarguments for the centrality of sociocultural theory to languagelearning (e.g., Frawley, 1997; Lantolf, in press; Lantolf andPavlenko, 1995; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wertsch, 1991; Wells, inpress). Our impetus for the present article was the impression that,despite a growing number of publications over the past decadeadvocating that language teaching and learning be conceptualized

    Arnold 2000 13621688(00)LR063.OA

    Address for correspondence: Alister Cumming, Modern Language Centre, OISE/UT,252 Bloor Street West, 10th floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1V6; e-mail:acumming@oise.utoronto.ca; tel: 416-923-6641, ext. 2538; fax: 416-926-4769.

    Language Teaching Research 4,2 (2000); pp. 95121

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  • as sociocultural activity, following Vygotskys (1978) seminaldefinition of the ZPD, very few publications have documentedprecisely what the ZPD is, particularly how it is constructed inlanguage instruction (but see, e.g., Adair-Hauck and Donato, 1994;Aljaafreh and Lantolf, 1994).

    As a consequence, the notion of the ZPD remains something ofa mysterious, idealized entity, often claimed to be in place by thosepromoting their particular approaches to instruction, but seldomsystematically accounted for or critically evaluated. Withoutcredible depictions of the ZPD that are germane to the ongoingpractices of language education, key features of the ZPD may beignored or distorted, as Dunn and Lantolf (1998) have argued atlength in distinguishing Vgytoskys idea of the ZPD fromKrashens conceptualization of i +1.

    Emphasizing this point, Mitchell and Myles (1998) have recentlyhighlighted the uniqueness of sociocultural theory in contrast toother predominant conceptualizations of second language learningthat have concentrated mainly on modelling the development oflanguage within the individual learner, in response to anenvironment defined fairly narrowly as a source of linguisticinformation (p. 163). In particular, psycholinguistically orientedtheories such as Universal Grammar (e.g., reviewed in Gass andSelinker, 1994; Sharwood Smith, 1994) or information-processingmodels (e.g., McLaughlin, 1990; MacWhinney, 1997) have focusedon innate abilities or cognitive mechanisms that may facilitate orconstrain peoples learning of specific morpho-syntactic or lexicalfeatures in a second language. Alternatively, sociolinguisticallyoriented theories have traced how the language varieties thatadults develop in a second language arise from pragmatic functionspeople try to fulfil while communicating (e.g., Klein, 1998; Perdue,1993) or vary according to contextual factors in peoples socialenvironments (e.g., Ellis, 1994, pp. 11958; Preston, 1996; Tarone,1988). Recognizing the need to combine psycholinguistic andsociolinguistic perspectives in ways that are relevant to education,some pedagogically oriented theorists have focused ondocumenting types of discourse interactions with or amonglearners that may facilitate their comprehension of meaning in asecond language and potentially foster their learning of thelanguage (e.g., Long, 1983, 1996), whereas others have aimed more

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  • broadly to account for the long-term antecedent and processvariables in classroom behaviours that may explain achievementsin language learning (e.g., Carroll, 1975; Chaudron, 1988).

    Although increased understanding of such issues is surelyvaluable, they do not address directly the interactive nature ofteaching and learning, so are of limited guidance in understandingsuch processes precisely. In contrast, Vygotskian theory claims tostand apart from, but also to unify, these alternative viewpoints byproviding a psycholinguistic explanation of the socioculturalcircumstances and processes through which pedagogy can fosterlearning that leads to language development. At the heart of thesociocultural perspective is defining the dialogic nature of teachingand learning processes within the ZPD as well as designingresearch that exemplifies its nature.

    Vygotsky (1978: 86) defined the ZPD as the distance betweena childs actual developmental level as determined by independentproblem solving and the level of potential development asdetermined through problem solving under guidance or incollaboration with more capable peers. Wells (1998: 345; in press)has summarized how recent analyses extend the notion of the ZPDbeyond simply an attribute of the learner or something ofrelatively fixed dimensions to conceptualize the ZPD as task-specific, reciprocal, and open-ended and thus essentiallyemergent, depending on the manner in which the interactionunfolds as much as on the developmental stage reached by theparticipants. Importantly, as Dunn and Lantolf (1998: 420) haveemphasized, Vygotsky claimed that learning is formed through theZPD, which creates a dialectic unity of learning-and-development,rather than students stages of development setting a precondition(i.e., of readiness) for their learning (as in Piagets theories):

    In Vygotskys theory, language acquisition provides the paradigm case oflearning leading development, because in this activity the aspirant speakermust borrow the knowledge and consciousness of the tutor to enter alanguage (Bruner, 1986, p. 78) through the fundamentally human process ofmeaning making in collaborative activity with other members of the culture(Newman and Holzman, 1993: 87).

    (Dunn and Lantolf, 1998: 420)

    Newman, Griffin and Cole (1989: 61) further emphasizedthe importance of the ZPD in linking the social discourse of

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  • teachers and learners with the cognitive dimensions of studentslearning:

    The concept of ZPD was developed within a theory that assumes that higher,distinctly human, psychological functions have sociocultural origins. Theactivities that constitute a zone are the social origins referred to; whencognitive change occurs not only what is carried out among participants, buthow they carry it out appears again as an independent psychological functionthat can be attributed to the novice. That is, the culturally mediated interactionamong people in the zone is internalized, becoming a new function of theindividual. Another way to say it is that the interpsychological becomes alsointrapsychological.

    Building on these concepts, Frawley (1997: 102) has stipulatedtwo criteria for demarcating the finer structure of the ZPD thatare particularly relevant to the present study and to othersituations where a teacher leads a student on to enhanced abilities.Frawley observed that the ZPD:

    . . . must be intersubjective but asymmetric. As to the former, an individualmust engage in joint attention with at least one other; by disco