Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Zone of Proximal Development and the Common Core: Teaching the Child, Not the Standard (Sort of)

This morning I wanted to talk about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and the Common Core (CCSS). If you're not aware of the ZPD, go read up at simplepsychology.org or this definition with visual. To paraphrase, the ZPD talks about scaffolding learning, and that at any given point, we have present knowledge, the next level of knowledge, and beyond. Knowledge that cannot yet be obtained because it lies to far outside that scaffolding is called the distal zone. For example, you can't teach a 1st grader trigonometry because there's so much knowledge to obtain between now and then, so trigonometric functions will stay in the distal zone for some time (longer for some than others).

The great thing about the CCSS is that the tools are right there for teachers to ensure that every child is learning in their ZPD.
In the excerpt from RL.1, taken directly from the Common Core Standards ELA document, a 5th grade student is expected to "Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text." Well, guess what? Not every kid in your class will be able to do that, ESPECIALLY in the first years of the Common Core. So what do you do if that child isn't in their ZPD? Go back to 4th grade. It says ""refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text." If that doesn't fit the bill, keep moving backwards. This work will be integral in the initial years of the CCSS. Of course, we want each student mastering the 5th grade standard by the end of the year, but it's much clearer in the CCSS how everything scaffolds, and how the level of complexity picks up from one year to the next.

Now, when doing a read aloud (which, honestly, is a part of EVERY classroom, a major part, as it should be), it's important to know how this fits the CCSS. Let's not get into the mindset that the CCSS kills reading literature for pleasure, it seeks to balance the reading of literature and informational texts, and reading for pleasure, as most any teacher knows, is very important to student success and is an indicator of future success in the literacy classroom. 

First off, you have to know the standards. You have to know when you're touching on those standards, and giving students practice, because after all, writing is equally important as reading in the CCSS (and it really is, you can't argue that). By knowing the standards by heart, you'll know what areas to focus on, where to stop and have book discussions, and when to assign deep writing assignments based on the read aloud.

William and Pérsida Himmele, in their article Why Read Alouds Matter More in the Age of the Common Core Standards, say:
In light of this radical shift away from our current lopsided emphasis on narrative texts, protecting the read-aloud time may seem counterintuitive. After all, why would we want to use up valuable instructional time reading stories to our students? Our answer is simple. In addition to getting kids hooked on books, narrative read-alouds are an effortless way to help students acquire the academic language they will need to comprehend informational texts.
When we give up the read-aloud, we may slow students' vocabulary learning; research has shown a strong positive correlation between read-aloud experiences and vocabulary development (Meehan, 1999; Roberts, 2008; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Sharif, Ozuah, Dinkevich, & Mulvihill, 2003). A 20-minute read-aloud can repeatedly expose children to academic words that will likely show up in content textbooks. For example, such words as somber, bespoke, probed, tolerance, substance, boring, searing, eliciting, surges, and anguish are considered academic vocabulary. And they all appear in this paragraph from Brandon Mull's book, Beyonders: Seeds of Rebellion, marketed for 3rd to 6th graders. In this excerpt, a character named Nedwin describes his torture at the hands of the captors who placed him under the influence of a pain-enhancing substance.

Exposure to academic words, and exposure to advanced ideas are important components of the read aloud. As you push more and more through the CCSS, you'll learn that exposure is key, you need to constantly expose students to these ideas and to shift their thinking to a deeper level. It will be a challenge in the initial years as we see the glaring gaps between the CCSS and our old state standards, but that's ok, this is about college readiness and future success, and we have to start somewhere.


Himmele, William and Himmele, Pérsida, (December 6, 2012). Why Read-Alouds Matter More in the Age of the Common Core Standards. ASCD Express. 8 (5).

Meehan, M. L. (1999). Evaluation of the Monomgalia County schools' Even Start program child vocabulary outcomes. Charleston, WV: AEL.

Roberts, T. (2008). Home storybook reading in primary or second language preschool children: Evidence of equal effectiveness for second language vocabulary acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(2), 103–130.

Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children's reading skill: A five year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73(2), 445–460.

Sharif, I., Ozuah, P. O., Dinkevich, E. I., & Mulvihill, M. (2003). Impact of a brief literacy intervention on urban preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 30(3), 177–180.

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