Saturday, February 11, 2012

WHY & HOW of Dual-Language: Lev Vygotsky & Scaffolding

Earlier this week, I experienced another "first" in my life as a parent.  I attended a Kindergarten Round-Up at a neighborhood elementary where we would consider sending our daughter in the fall of 2013.  It was my first time to be on the parent side of the Open House and I was nervous as we entered each room and my girls wanted to touch EVERYTHING.  How many times had I as a teacher cringed when I saw my manipulatives get dumped on the floor and mixed together by a visiting little brother or sister?  STRESSFUL!  I tried to prevent complete chaos by staying with my girls and eavesdropping on the conversations between the teachers and the other visiting parents. 

This campus is a complete dual-language immersion program based on the Gomez and Gomez two-way model.  It was interesting to hear such a variety of questions and perspectives.  There was the monolingual English dad that was trying to wrap his mind around how his child was going to learn Science and Social Studies in a different language and wondering if he would be prepared for middle school.  There was the bilingual couple that thought they may prefer their son to be in a English-only classroom because they felt he had already received enough Spanish from mom at home.  And there was the monolingual English mom who had an older child that was already in the program and she said that she couldn't be happier with her progress and couldn't wait for the second child to get started.

As I listened to all of these questions that I have heard hundreds of times for the past 14 years, I was really impressed by the responses of the dual-language teachers.  In each of the four classrooms, I heard the same questions and in every classroom I heard consistent answers.  The teachers' consistency and confidence built my confidence in this school and definitely made it a contender in our list of choices.

We are going to start a new series of posts at that will revolve around researchers that we as dual-language teachers should know and be able to speak with confidence about.  We need to not only understand the model that we teach but we need to also understand the theoretical foundations that the model is based upon.  Today, we are going to start with Lev Vygotsky.  Stay tuned every Saturday for further posts in this series.

Santa delivered a very practical gift to our house this past Christmas.  He installed these special light switch extenders in the hallway, the bathroom, and my daughter’s bedroom.  The impact of this simple tool was amazing.  My two-year-old was able to transition from being limited to the rooms where an adult was present to independently venturing to the rooms around the house that were most important to her.

These extenders are an excellent example of scaffolding, a term that was first introduced to the education community by Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, in the early 1900s.  Scaffolding is the assistance a teacher or peer offers that allows a learner to work in their zone of proximal development (the distance between the most difficult task the learner can do alone and the most difficult task the learner can do with help).   

Vygotsky’s theory and research laid a foundation for today’s current emphasis on interaction and collaboration in the classroom because he recognized the impact of the supportive behaviors that the more advanced speaker adopts to facilitate the L2 learner’s progress to higher language development.  Activities like Bilingual Partners, Think-Pair-Share or
Inside-Outside Circle are perfect examples of language scaffolding.

Beyond the need for teacher-student and peer-to-peer scaffolding, Vygotsky also identified the need for mediators that function as tools to move students from maximum assisted performance to independent performance.  These mediators (like my daughter’s light switch extenders) transition learners from dependence on the teacher or a more expert peer to conscious independence with a particular skill.

As I observe classrooms, I see a lot of teacher scaffolding and a good amount of peer scaffolding but the use of mediators seems to diminish after the primary grades.  Kindergarten teachers know most of their students can’t read so they label supply boxes with pictures in order that students can independently return their materials.  They label the CD player at the listening center with colored dots so that students know to press the green dot to play the CD and the red dot to stop it.  These are external mediators that allow students to understand and manage a task without having to rely on the teacher to accomplish the task. 

What would it look like to provide more mediators for students in the upper grades?  Simply writing directions for an activity on the board and including a simple graphic next to each step could help move your typical “Now what are we supposed to do?” student from dependence to independence.  Nonlinguistic representations of vocabulary words or concepts can remain on an anchor chart on the wall to further facilitate students’ internalization and independent understanding of these terms.

Vygotsky’s goal, and ours, is independence for our learners in both languages of instruction.  Our job as educators is to carefully observe what is easy and difficult for the learner and, guided by a long-term sense of knowing where we are going, provide scaffolding and mediation that will allow them to get there.  What belated Christmas gift could “Santa” deliver to your students today?

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