Literacy Professional Learning Resource - Key Concepts - AusVELS Levels 7 to 10 - Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

From Term 1 2017, Victorian government and Catholic schools will use the new Victorian Curriculum F-10. Curriculum related information is currently being reviewed and may be subject to change.

For more information on the curriculum, see:
The Victorian Curriculum F–10 - VCAA

Scaffolding: The theory

There are three theorists in the field of Scaffolding. This section describes each of their theories in detail.

Graph: Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky

Graph: Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky

Scaffolding – Bruner

Scaffolding in this context is learning through the joint construction of language and gradually withdrawing adult support as children master the language.

It is extremely important that teachers foster patterns of talk that scaffold students to explore new ideas, learn things and move on to a new ‘zone of proximal development’ when children start school.

Collaborative learning and teaching - Barbara Rogoff

Collaborative teaching and learning:

  • focuses on communities of learning
  • recognises that language mediates learning and is translated into ‘action’ in other times and contexts
  • emphasises guidance
  • differentiates between routine explicit and tacit guidance
  • focuses on proximal and distal relationships.

There are three types of collaborative, social learning:

  1. Apprenticeship: a community process of learning
  2. Guided participation: an interpersonal process of learning
  3. Appropriation: a personal process of learning.

Proximal and distal learning

Tthe relationship between the teacher (or parent, sibling) and the learner can be:

  • proximal: close to the learner and often explicit, or
  • distal: at some distance from the learner, often tacit learning.

Profiles of the theorists

Lev Vygotsky

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky has made a major contribution to our understanding of the relationship between language and learning . Vygotsky stresses that ‘to speak is to engage’ in the social practice of thinking.

Consider the following quote from Vygotsky: ‘Thought is not expressed but completed in the word” (1987).

Vygotsky’s work was not well known in the west until it was taken up by other psychologists and translated into English. It has had a significant influence on education and has led to the development of two key concepts for learning and teaching: the Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.

Zone of proximal development

Vygotsky was particularly interested in the ways children were challenged and extended in their learning by adults. He argued that the most successful learning occurs when children are guided by adults towards learning things that they could not attempt on their own.

Vygotsky coined the term ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ to refer to the zone where teachers and students work as children move towards independence. This zone changes as teachers and students move past their present level of development towards new areas of knowledge.

Find out more information, see: Social Development Theory (L. Vygotsky)

Jerome Bruner

The term ‘scaffolding’ grew out of Vygotsky’s work and was developed by the psychologist Jerome Bruner. Bruner used the term to talk about the way caregivers assist young children in learning by:

  • the joint construction of language
  • gradually withdrawing their support as children gain independent mastery of the language.

Frances Christie points out that the term scaffold is a metaphor taken from the building industry. It refers to the way scaffolds sustain and support people who are constructing a building. The scaffolds are withdrawn once the building has taken shape and is able to support itself independently  (Christie 2005).

It is extremely important when children start school that teachers foster patterns of talk that scaffold students to explore new ideas, learn things and move on to a new ‘zone of proximal development’.

Patterns of talk are important because language is the principal resource available to teachers and students for achieving their educational goals. It is used to negotiate understandings, clarify issues, explore difficulties and assess progress. It also drawn on to interpret and explain the other modes of student communications such as pictures, charts, videos and graphs.

Barbara Rogoff

Barbara Rogoff is an American educator and researcher who focuses on the social and collaborative nature of learning and the different forms of guidance that an adult provides a child. 

Rogoff’s detailed observations of the relationships between adults and children provide important insights into the most effective approaches for literacy teaching.

Rogoff’s research focuses on what adults and children do when they are engaged in a learning experience. This is useful when considering effective teaching approaches in literacy.

Rogoff emphasises:

  • the importance of communities of learning that foster collaborative relationships between the adult and the child
  • the role that language plays in mediating learning and how this learning becomes internalised and is then translated into action in other times and places
  • the significance of guidance: which can be explicit and clear, or tacit and implied
  • the ‘space’ in which learning takes place: either proximal, close or distal, and at some distance from the learner.

Children take part in the activities of their community, engaging with other children and with adults, in routine and tacit situations, as well as explicit collaboration (both in each other's presence and in otherwise socially structured activities).

A child is prepared for participation in future events through the process of participation.

Scaffolding terminology


This refers to the kind of learning that takes place in communities. Rogoff refers to large social organisations such as the family and the school that apprentice the child into various social practices such as reading and writing. Much of this apprenticeship entails explicit teaching, but also includes the tacit learning that takes place in communities where children witness adults using literacy practices as part of their day-to-day interactions with others.

Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship. It occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture.

Guided participation

This refers to the close, interpersonal encounters between parents and children, and teachers and individual students. Rogoff refers to guidance as the:

  • explicit and tacit guidance that adults consciously direct towards a child
  • the purposeful and focused attention that adults then devote to the child in these kinds of social activity.


This refers to when an individual takes what they have learnt and transfers this learning to another time and place. The independent nature of this learning is emphasised. A good example is when a teacher has guided a small group of students and then provides them with the opportunity to apply their new knowledge about language when speaking, listening or writing.

Professional learning

Levels 7 to 10 Examples in the Classroom (pdf - 91.23kb)  - Download this PDF to support the activity below which focuses on Rogoff’s theories.

Think about Rogoff’s idea of tacit learning. What tacit literacy learning takes place in your classroom and what understandings do your students develop about literacy through this form of guidance?

For example, tacit literacy learning may occur when you:

  • discuss with students books, newspaper articles you have read
  • display student work at various stages of completion eg: concept maps, drafts, edited samples of work
  • create a resource space within classroom eg: area for working with reference materials such as atlases, dictionaries etc.
  • access internet to research, clarify and answer student and teacher questions.

Think of effective learning and teaching in your own school in light of the concepts of apprenticeship, guided participation and appropriation presented by Rogoff.

Reflect on the column that features Rogoff’s classroom examples and add the kinds of explicit and proximal, tacit and distal, literacy learning that you design for your students.

Related materials

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