Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development (abbreviated ZPD)  is a concept that was introduced by the seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with the assistance of more able peers. Lev Vygotsky defines ZPD as:

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers

Vygotsky, 1978

Measuring intelligence?

Originally, this concept was introduced as an argument against the static measurement of intelligence. Vygotsky believed that it was preferable to assess what the child was able to do alone, and what he could do accompanied by a competent person, rather than examining what a student knows to determine intelligence by any sort of measurement.

Later development of ZPD

Psychologists have expanded  and modified the concept of ZPD. One of the most relevent concepts related to the ZPD is scaffolding. It refers to the  process through which a teacher or more competent peer assists learners in their ZPD when it is necessary. This  assistance becomes gradually less frequent as it becomes unnecessary, as when constructing a building a scaffold is removed.

Other scholars like Tharp and Gallimore (1988) contend  that the concept of ZPD can be expanded to examining other domains of competence and skills which may include these zones of development:

  • cultural zones,
  • individual zones,
  • and skill-oriented zones.

Of these skill-oriented zones, it is believed that young children learn their native language and motor skills in general by being placed in the zone of proximal development

Tinsley and Lebak (2009) have examined the “Zone of Reflective Capacity” . They state:

This zone shares the theoretical attributes generally associated with the zone of proximal development, but it is a more specifically defined construct that becomes apparent as practitioners undertake separate action research projects and at the same time reflect on their projects collaboratively. When these teachers worked together in an expanded zone of reflective capacity, they rapidly developed as reflective practitioner researchers.

Tinsley and Lebak (2009)

Teaching and ZPD

For English language teachers, the ZPD means that they should provide comprehensible input (the spoken or written language that learners are exposed to) which is slightly above their ability. Besides,  they should be willing to assist their students only when necessary and taper off this aid when there is no need for it. The goal being to let learners build their knowledge of the language and take responsibility of the learning process. The role of the teacher is to give assistance, guide or only observe. As it is cited by Scott Thornburry:

Teaching is optimally effective when it “awakens and rouses into life those functions which are in the stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development.”


  • Tharp, R & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing Minds to Life. Cambridge University Press.
  • Tinsley, R. & Lebak, K. (2009). Expanding the Zone of Reflective Capacity: Taking separate journeys together. Networks, 11 (2).
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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