Students can only learn the next step.

This idea is not my own, although I am absolutely convinced it is true. Vygotsky, a researcher in cognitive development, proposed something called the “zone of proximal development.” Based on the idea that people learn new ideas and concepts by using what they already know, the zone of proximal development is the point at which one new thing is introduced and all the prior knowledge and ability is used to learn it.

Think about how this applies to reading. A student’s abilities and knowledge help the student learn the next concept or skill in reading. The next skill is in the zone of proximal development. In contrast, unless a student has the necessary background, the student cannot learn the skills we try to teach. Those skills are past the zone of proximal development.

It is a mistake to teach students “grade-level skills” when they do not have the background skills, knowledge, and ability to understand them. For example, think about a fourth-grade student who is behind in reading ability. It is a fourth-grade student, so shouldn’t you try to teach fourth grade reading skills? Not necessarily. Instead, find out what a student can do and then teach the next step. With this approach, the student will eventually get to fourth-grade ability. Without this approach, it is possible the student never will.

We can teach students day in and day out, and assess the students regularly, but if we do not help them fill in the missing skills, they will get farther and farther behind their grade-level expectations. It is not their fault. No matter how much they try to learn, they simply do not have the ability to grasp the new skills we think they should learn. A better approach is to assess the students first, find out what they can do, and then help them reach the next level. And then the next and the next and the next.

This is the approach we used in our reading programs. We were not concerned with their ability to perform grade-level skills. Instead, we were concerned with their progress toward grade-level expectations, which is fundamentally different. Our students were, on average, pretty far behind their grade-level expectations, around 0.5 to 0.7 grade levels behind in first grade and around 4 grade levels behind in the eighth grade. That is a really big gap to overcome. Only 2% to 3% were on grade level at the pretest. By the end of the semester, on average, around 35% were on grade level.

Students made great progress towards the grade-level expectations because we focused on helping them learn the next step, not on trying to force grade-level skills into brains that were not ready for them. Had we only focused on grade-level skills, we would have set the students, and ourselves, up for failure.

For classroom teachers: This principle will be harder for you to implement than it will be for reading specialists and homeschool teachers. You have a curriculum to follow, and you may be required to teach the skills students are supposed to learn at your grade. You might even have to document the content standards you are teaching. So what are you going to do if the zone of proximal development is not in the curriculum or grade-level standards? This is the time for some rather serious conversations with your supervisors. You have to ask, how important is student learning? Will you be evaluated based on student learning or on adherence to inaccessible expectations? If learning is the goal, then teach students the next step.

For reading interventionists: This principle will be easier for you to implement than for classroom and homeschool teachers. Assess the students when you first start working with them and figure out their next steps. In most schools, the expectations for your instruction are not the same as for teachers. For students you work with, the expectation is progress.

For homeschool teachers: You have a mixed situation. You have a lot of liberty to determine what (and how) students will learn, but you also have to more-or-less address the content standards. On the other hand, you may have a better sense of what your students know and can do. The question for you, therefore, is determining what those next steps should be.

One way that we identified the next steps was to use a rubric that describes not only what students should be able to do at their grade level but also provided the continuum of skills that lead up to the grade-level expectation. Teachers used the rubric to help identify what students could already do, and then looked at the next level for clues about what the students needed to learn next. These rubrics are a decent assessment tool and a great planning tool, which is their purpose.

You can get a copy of the rubrics and a sample tracking form here.