Most language teachers are familiar with two theories that are very important to driving learner progress in language acquisition: the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD)* and i+1**. It’s one thing to know the theories, but how can we turn them into practice in the classroom?
Over the past few months I have been looking at the different ways the Global Scale of English (GSE) can support teachers and learners. That was when it dawned on me that the GSE can actually help teachers to use these two theories of learning more effectively.
ZPD and i+1
First, let’s review the theories… The zone of proximal development (ZPD) comes from the theoretical work of Vygotsky. The theory postulates a zone in which a learner learns. It is the difference between what a learner can do without assistance, something a learner can do with assistance, and something that a learner cannot do at all (no matter how hard we push). For example, imagine you are working with a young learner and you want them to write their name. Our learner has been working on basic handwriting, but only has a basic understanding of the alphabet and the phonetic connection between letters and their own name. If I ask this student to write their name, they cannot do it. However, if I ask the student to write their name and then provide them with a worksheet that has their name in bold lettering or in dotted letters, and a blank line for them to write their name, they can then work towards writing it out. In our example, the ZPD is the space where learners can do something with some help. This is the ZPD. The goal is to move from the support to working without the support.
Zone of Proximal Development
The second theory of language learning we use in the classroom is i+1. This theory comes from the work of Stephen Krashen and describes that learning happens when learners experience content that is “at” their level of ability with content that is “just beyond” their ability, or content that will provide a challenge. For example, think about a learner who can talk about things they like. This student can speak in sentences and say things like “I like soccer” and “I like maths”. Talking in short, simple sentences about likes is at the level of the learner. I want to challenge this student by helping them to communicate the reasons for their likes using the word “because”. The introduction of the word will, within reason, present a challenge to my learners. However, with practice we can master this skill. Before you know it, my students can say “I like soccer because I like to run”, and “I like maths because I like numbers”. Once my students have mastered this new skill, I’ll add a new, more challenging skill.
Knowing that progress in learning comes from creating opportunities for supported challenge, I can target activities for learner growth. The GSE makes this even easier to do when we understand what it means for a student to be “at” a level.
*Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
**Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Learning. Pergamon Press, Inc.
‘At’ a level in the GSE
What does it mean to be “at” a level on the GSE? My colleague, Mike Mayor, has previously written about this in the past in his blog, What it means to be at a level in English:
We have defined what it means to be at a particular level of proficiency. This definition is based on a probability model. Why probability? Because we are dealing with language proficiency, rather than the knowledge of facts. The acquisition of a particular language skill is a gradual process – it is not a case of flipping a knowledge button. Learners don’t automatically switch from not knowing to knowing how to perform a particular function overnight.
Taking the probability model, a learner at a particular level has “a 50% probability of being able to perform a language function successfully at that level”. In the charts below, a learner who is at 51 on the GSE has a 50% chance of being able to perform any GSE Learning Objective (Can Do statement) that has the value 51. They have a higher probability of being able to carry out functions that are lower on the GSE scale (so if you are B1, the chances are higher that you can perform A1 tasks well). They also have some chance of being able to perform learning objectives that are higher than 51 – but the probability of a successful outcome is lower.
To break this down, content that is at the level of my students is something my students can usually do. Anything below that level, my students should be able to do without any difficulty. Anything that is above that level my students might be able to do if they have previously studied, worked with, or have otherwise had some interaction with that particular content. The last point is very important as a learner’s history of study, the culture, the curriculum and the teacher will play a role in what my learners can do that is “above” or “below” their level of ability.
Understanding what it means to be at a level is important for understanding how the GSE can help teachers target the ZPD. If I know, for example, that my student is right at 51 in their speaking ability, then the ZPD is easy to find. It will be in the range that is just above their current level of ability.
With an understanding of where my students currently are, I have the option of planning content that I can feel fairly confident will be just right to drive learner progress.
The GSE and ZPD range
Knowing that the ZPD is just above where our learners are “at” helps with planning. The next question to answer is: What range of GSE is in the ZPD? For example, if my learners are at 51, is the range 55 to 65? Or should it be 60 to 70? Or 52 to 72? When it comes to what range you can cover in your class there are a few factors to consider: the length of your programme, hours of study and the external environment. For EFL teachers the range of coverage will be limited as learners most likely have a finite nymber of hours in which they can study and limited opportunity for practice outside the classroom. ESL learners and those in intensive immersion programmes can set bigger goals, as there are more opportunities for intense practice with reinforcement outside the classroom.
Other considerations are the focus of your course. Are you working specifically to build listening and speaking skills? Is the course strictly about building reading skills? Taking a deep dive into writing skills? The skills focus of the classroom can have an impact on how much range you want to allow for in a given class. The best measure is observation and reflection. If your students are struggling in every class the challenge is too great. If students are easily completing tasks and activities, they are ready for more of a challenge. My personal rule of thumb is to start by testing activities that are leveled around 10 points more difficult than where my students currently perform. If students cannot complete the task, even with support, then I can try another task only eight points above. I continue until I find something that challenges my students but where they can be successful, with support.
Using the GSE to find that sweet spot of ZPD or i+1 can really help drive learner progress. Not only can you reduce some of the guesswork that goes into planning activities and lessons, you can also establish long-term improvements in their language ability too.
Keen to try it out? Tell us about the results you experience in the comments section below…