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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Examining the ZPD and Contingent Teaching in a University EFL Grammar Class in South Korea

Tyson Vieira is an assistant professor at Mokpo National University in Mokpo, South Korea. He has taught in South Korea and Thailand from Kindergarten to adult learners for 9 years and has earned his CELTA, PGCEi and an M.A. in TESOL. He is interested in technology and its integration in foreign language teaching and learning within and beyond the classroom. Email:



The job of a teacher is demanding, complex and spontaneous. One reason is because they should provide learners ‘not only facts and information about things but also ways of conceptualizing and reasoning’ (Wood, 1986, p. 157-158). To accomplish this task, teachers need to study and understand various theories of learning development so that they can provide effective lessons and create a productive learning environment. A popular view of learning and development is social constructivism, which views the nature of learning as social and collaborative rather than individualistic. Lev Vygotsky is one of the leading theorists in social constructivism and a major influence in education and in today’s classrooms (Gibbons, 2015). Vygotsky’s position in education impacted many educators on how they viewed instruction in the classroom, learning with assistance, the teacher’s role, and diagnosing student knowledge and skill level in many different studies such as history, mathematics languages and sciences (Wells, 1999). As an educator, it is crucial to examine and reflect Vygotskian theories and social constructivism concepts in one’s classroom to strengthen their teaching methodologies and further their professional development.

A child’s learning and development happens long before their first day of school, in fact, cognitive development begins from the child’s birth (Vygotsky, 1994). Child language acquisition clearly shows this evidence. Vygotsky questions if anyone could actually deny that children do not learn language or acquire information from surrounding adults, and later states that a ‘Language arises initially as a means of communication between the child and the people in his environment’ (Ibid., p. 56). He stresses that learning is not only a socially separate activity but an integral aspect of communal engagement (Wells, 1999). This shift of learning theology from individualistic to collaborative coincides with the shift of second language education from linguistic inputs and teacher-centered instruction to student-centered communicative learning (Van Lier, 2007) and support towards autonomous student learning (Pol, Volman and Beishuizen, 2011).

In light of my field of study in TESOL, current employment as an EFL educator, I chose Vygotsky’s views of social constructivism, specifically with the zone of proximal development (1994), along with Wood’s (1986) supportive theory of contingent teaching, as my focus in this research because of how closely linked their positions are with language acquisition through social collaboration. The purpose of my research is to explore, evaluate and reflect Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (hereafter ZPD) and Wood’s contingent teaching (hereafter CT) in second language learning courses by applying to my 1st year university-level EFL class of music education majors in South Korea. First, I will define and examine the theory of ZPD and the concept of CT and try to explain how they relate to second language learning. Then, I will demonstrate how I applied the ZPD and CT into my lesson plan of past continuous vs. simple past. Finally, I will reflect my application of locating the ZPD and the execution of CT in my lesson.


The ZPD in the Classroom

Ausubel (1968) attempted to sum up educational psychology in only one essential principle, ‘the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly’ (cited in Pol, Volman, Oort and Beishuizen, 2014, p. 601). I find this simplified summarization similar to Vygotsky’s introduction to the ZPD and the Neo-Vygotskian concepts of scaffolding and CT. Vygotsky defines the 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 and under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Vygotsky, 1994, p. 53). To simplify, the ZPD is the ‘sweet spot’ between what the learner can do on his or her own and what the learner can do with assistance from a more competent other (Pol, Mercer and Volman, 2018), whether it is through teachers, peers, parents or other adults (Lui, 2012). The ‘actual developmental level’ is what the student already knows or is capable of performing on their own. Vygotsky suggested that what the child’s ZPD is today will be tomorrow’s actual developmental level (Vygotsky, 1980). He trusted that the ZPD is a precise way to measure and anticipate the learner’s ‘future development and potential’ (Beliavsky, 2006, p. 3). That is to say, if the teacher is not only aware of what and where the student’s ZPD level is but also how to access this embryonic state of the student’s learning potential with instruction (Vygotsky, 1994). This is what makes the ZPD helpful for teachers because it highlights ‘the next logical step in their ongoing skill development’ (Lui, 2012, p. 2) which helps determine an effective lesson plan and curriculum development.

Another useful feature with understanding the ZPD is focused instruction that stimulates motivation. The ZPD should not be too easy or overly difficult but ‘challenging enough to help him or her develop new skills by building on ones that have already been established’ (Ibid.). If the lesson is too easy, the student will be bored, thus hindering motivation. The instruction itself should be ‘ahead of development’ pushing the student ‘to rise above himself’ (Vygotsky, 1987 cited in Wells, 1999, p. 314). However, if the instruction is too difficult, it surpasses the ZPD to the ‘level of potential development’ which is where instruction is not recommended but for tasks that are ‘in collaboration with more competent peers’ (Lui, 2012, p. 3). Instruction should only focus on what is attainable for the students (Ibid.) and the ZPD can help guide teachers to know what instruction is appropriate. In addition, the quality of instruction within the ZPD should not be just be an accumulation of information to memorize but a means of providing meaningful instruction, in other words: ’tools for thinking and a way of acting in the world’ (Boblett, 2012, p. 3), and ‘in the case of second language learners, to learn new ways of using language’ (Gibbons, 2015, p. 14).


Contingent Teaching

Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) referred that the concepts of scaffolding and contingent teaching (hereafter CT) are strongly related to Vygotsky’s theory of the ZPD in which students need guided assistance in order for learning to occur. Scaffolding is the guided assistance that “enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts’ (Ibid., p. 90). One of the key characteristics of the scaffolding process is contingency (Pol et al., 2011; Lucantonio, 2011) which is referred to as ‘pacing the amount of help children are given on the basis of their moment-to-moment understanding’ (Wood, 1988, p. 81) and also can be defined as 'the decision making process involved in the gradual handing over of responsibility from the teacher to the learners’ (Lucantonio, 2011, p. 11). CT is a crucial element of scaffolding and can be arguably viewed as its prerequisite (Pol et al., 2011). Altogether, scaffolding would be an inefficient method without contingency (Pol, Volman, and Beishuizen, 2012). It answers the when and how to scaffold a task and when to fade and ‘hand over’ the control to the student (Lucantonio, 2011).

CT helps teachers diagnose their student’s level of knowledge and whether they understand fully the lesson or task at hand (Pol et al., 2012). It also helps to ensure that the students are not performing tasks that are too complex, producing overwhelming feelings, nor too easy, creating boredom and room for distractions (Wood, 1986). However, this valuable concept does take skillful practice and high attentiveness to perform efficiently and accurately because of the unplanned situations amongst student interactions and prior knowledge of the subject material. Teachers need a high degree of flexibility to follow the lesson’s objectives while, at the same time ‘deviating from a teaching plan or agenda as required’ (Hurst, 2017, p. 109-110). Also, teachers need to be aware when to fade and allow the students to take over the task at hand, giving them control of their own learning, which is initially the ultimate goal of scaffolding (Lucantonio, 2011). Nevertheless, a knowledgeable teacher can prepare some of the ‘unknowns’ and possible circumstances that could arise by taking note of prior class experience, research common mistakes and misunderstandings and level-test students prior to new lessons (Hurst, 2017).

Learning English as a second language can hold daunting tasks which is why scaffolding and CT is helpful because it breaks ‘complex tasks down into manageable, smaller problems’ (Wood, 1988, p. 77). In my classroom, I question, instruct, point out, suggest, remind, praise and perform other interactions to help guide students complete the task at hand (Ibid.). Wood (1986) provides 5 levels of control in regards to the degree of CT control when interacting with students working on a task: General verbal prompts [L1], specific verbal instructions [L2], indicates materials [L3], prepares of assembly [L4] and demonstrates [L5] (p. 163). I have used all levels in my classroom interactions from general verbal prompts [L1], such as, “Now describe the picture to your partner.” to demonstrations [L5] by writing an example sentence to students. For the purpose of this assignment, I followed an operational model of CT (Image A) in my lesson which was originally by Ruiz-Primo and Furtak (2007), but adapted and altered by Pol, Volman and Beishuizen (2014).

[Image A]

(Image A Reference)

Pol, J.V.D., Volman, M., Oort, F. and Beishuizen, J. (2014) Teacher scaffolding in small-group work: an intervention study. Journal of the Learning Sciences 23(4): Figure 1.


Lesson plan

The class chosen for this assignment consists of 20 students, taking a mandatory English conversation class. These students have been taking mandatory English classes since their 3rd year of elementary and their English levels range from A2 to B2 under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which I had them test through a software program during the first week of class. My primary focus with the ZPD and CT were with a 4-student group, mixed-level in an island seating formation. I arranged two low level students (A2) with one mid-level (B1) and high-level (B2) to promote the theory of ZPD of lower level students with more competent peers (Wells, 1999) which has shown ‘to produce higher student achievement’ (Lui, 2012, p. 7).

The lesson used for this assignment was a grammar focus using the Test-Teach-Test (hereafter TTT) lesson structure to teach past continuous vs. simple past. The TTT lesson typically starts with a diagnostic test, after the lead-in activity, to grasp where students are struggling and where the possible gaps in knowledge are in regards to the target language. Afterwards, the teacher then clarifies and helps guide the students in their misunderstandings during the teaching stage. Finally, the second test is a form of consolidation which the students perform the target language accurately using the knowledge gain during the teaching stage, followed by a freer practice as the final activity. I chose the TTT approach because it is a review lesson and I wanted to see the student’s level of actual development at the first testing stage of class (Ibid.). The main objective for the lesson was for students to be able to use the target language grammar with storytelling and describing pictures.

My lead-in to begin the lesson was showing a picture of a city with the power out, and asking questions like, “What has happened?” and “Have you experienced this?” Setting a context and applying student’s background experiences is an effective way to stir interest and motivation (Walqui, 2006). The first task was a gap-fill exercise that related to someone’s experience with a blackout, in which students had to write the answers in past continuous or simple past. During this time, I closely monitored the student’s answers to see what their actual developmental level was (Vygotsky, 1994). Both the A2 low-level students had errors in their past continuous answers writing was/were correctly but didn’t used the continuous (-ing) form. However, the B1 mid-level had one error regarding the simple past and the B2 high-level student wrote all the answers correctly. Afterwards, I facilitated an open class feedback then taught about the past continuous and simple past using language models and timeline graphs. The second task was a different gap-fill along with a matching exercise. The final ‘freer' activity was students describing a picture or telling a story to their small-groups using a picture from their textbook.


Reflecting the ZPD and Contingent Teaching

While preparing the lesson and in my reflection afterwards, I found that CT could have a limitation within language teaching. Since the students are English language learners, many question forms can be too difficult for students to understand. Pol, Volman and Beishuizen (2011) mention that ‘the nature and the content of a lesson can possibly influence the opportunities of a teacher to interact contingently with students’ (p. 55). Wood (1986) pointed out that ZPD concepts can ‘be successful only if the child understand enough of what was said’ (p. 165). This can be an obstacle for low-level second language learners. When conducting Woods’ (1986) levels of contingent control and the model of CT (Pol et al., 2014), I found both to be helpful with intervention and diagnostic strategies, but also found some questions too difficult for students. A couple of the small group students were quite shy during my CT opportunities. The mid and high-level student interaction, I felt were more successful, especially with my intervention strategies, for example, “What were they doing before it started raining?” and checking student’s learning CT like “Can you explain the different between past continuous and simple past?”. Also, when the higher level students were helping the lower level students, a majority of the conversation was in Korean so my observation of their interactions could not be accurate. With the lower level students, my questions were not only verbal but I also used body language and gestures (Wells, 1999). Both Woods (1986) and Pol et al., (2014) were helpful to strategically plan the CT in a lesson and to analyze student’s learning and understanding, but I would like to see further research with these models used in language learning courses especially with mixed level classes.

Another factor with CT that could lead to limitations would be the relationships within the classroom in both teacher-student and student-student. I chose this particular class because we seem to have a good relationship even if the average English level is quite low. However, if I chose a class that I had a poorer relationship with, too shy or favored a ‘more predictable, orderly world’ (Maslow, 1943) within the classroom, then my experience of CT would be more challenging. In order for CT to be helpful, ‘The quality and quantity of information… (largely depends) …on the willingness and ability of students’ (Pol et al., 2011, p. 55). Also, the appreciation of support from the teacher is an important factor that aids the engagement of further learning and creates a positive attitude in the teacher-student relationship (Pol, Volman, Oort and Beishuizen, 2015).

The ZPD and CT did help me understand the role of the teacher more clearly in guiding and supporting the student’s path towards learning (Well, 1999). The debate between teacher-centered and student-centered seems quite polarizing and over simplified (Gibbons, 2015). Through the lens of the social-constructivist theory, the ZPD and CT, we can observe that ‘both teachers and students are seen as active participants, and learning is seen as a collaborative endeavor’ (Ibid., p. 14), in which the ultimate goal is to hand over control to the learner (Lucantonio, 2011). Some lessons might need a stronger teacher-centered presence while other lessons are more communicative and student-centered with the teacher facilitating and monitoring in the background. However, I do not believe this is a simple linear process, but a continual shift ‘of responsibility backwards and forwards during the handing-over’ (Ibid, p. 11), especially in regards to language learning. The graph of ‘gradual responsibility transfer from teacher to student’ in Lui’s (2012) observation of the ZPD (Image B) does not seem accurate when every lesson, project or textbook chapter has new focus, target language and different context. Baynham (1993) as cited in Gibbons (2015) stated that language learning is not simply linear but a ‘functional diversification, an extension of a learner’s communicative range’ (p. 8).

[Image B]

(Image B Reference)

Lui, A. (2012) Teaching in the zone: An introduction to working within the zone of proximal development (ZPD) to drive effective early childhood instruction [online]. Available at: [Accessed 28 November 2018]: p. 4.

Even though I observed benefits in applying the ZPD and CT in my lesson, there are many who express a degree of vagueness towards Vygotsky’s application of the ZPD in the classroom (Palincsar, 1998; Wells, 1999; Pol et al., 2011; Walqui, 2006). I did feel quite overwhelmed when trying to locate my student’s ZPD and carrying out contingent support. When teaching, there were two forms of the ZPD that I tried to locate: the individual student and the larger communal ZPD of my class (Wells, 1999). For the individual, a close examination is necessary (Lui, 2012), which takes a great amount of time and attention (Pol et al., 2015). With locating the ZPD of the class, it can be quite complicated to apply scaffolding and CT because of the multitude of different ZPDs (Pol., et al., 2011). Even if all the students are the same age and have studied English the same amount of years, their levels of mental development may be different (Vygotsky, 1994). Furthermore, two students who might be similar in competence, could react differently based on a specific task, considering that one student could need further support than the other (Wood, 1986). In addition, one way of checking student learning is through questions, however, ‘students often have difficulties gauging their own understand of subject matter and tend to overestimate their understanding’ (Pol et al., 2014, p. 605). With all these factors, given the magnitude of unpredictability, the teacher ‘is always aiming at a moving target’ (Wells, 1999, p. 319), and in the context of a large classroom, many targets at once. The ZPD and CT is much more manageable with a small group and one-on-one tutoring, but quite daunting in a larger class.



The social constructive theory claims that ‘the cognitive and the social go hand in hand in classroom learning’ (Walqui, 2006, p. 159). A theory that I believe holds a majority of language classes in western education, certainly in my own classroom. The theory of ZPD and the concept of CT has changed my impression ‘of the role of the teacher; rather than being primarily a dispenser of knowledge and assigner of grades…(but) a fellow learner whose prime responsibility is to act as leader of a community committed to the co-construction of knowledge’ (Wells, 1999, p. 331). They are both useful tools but can be daunting in large classrooms, however, a teacher can further examine Wass, Harland and Mercer’s (2011) research on the Zone of Current Development, representing a ‘level that the learner can reach through independent problem solving’ (p. 319) and promote learning autonomy in their students. This would be beneficial for educators who have a large number of students.

Like the job of teaching, locating the ZPD and the role of contingency is complex, demanding and spontaneous. Teachers need both skill and sensitivity to pull off locating the ZPD accurately and to assist contingently (Lucantonio, 2011). In addition, knowing when and how to assist at the same time knowing when ‘assistance should be removed, either partially, temporarily or completely’ (Ibid., p. 11) during a task. Reflection with the ZPD and CT in my classroom should be continued not just in another lesson or semester, but for years. The importance of reflection in my language teaching professional development is monumental and learning theories, such as social constructivism, Vygotsky’s ZPD and Wood’s CT should be used as guides and not the sole answer to learning development and educational issues.



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Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Examining the ZPD and Contingent Teaching in a University EFL Grammar Class in South Korea
    Tyson Alexander Vieira, South Korea/US