Leaping towards independence: Scaffolding, the ZPD and collaborative writing

The metaphor of scaffolding represents the support through which learners can develop the knowledge and skills needed for autonomous completion of a task.

Behind this metaphor is Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). For Vygotsky, the teaching-learning process is fundamentally social: development takes place through interactions between ‘experts’ (those with knowledge or expertise) and ‘novices’ (those who require understanding and skills). The ZPD describes the novice’s capabilities with expert support (Vygotsky, 1978). Effective scaffolding enables a learner to understand and to produce new language or concepts that would ordinarily be beyond their capabilities with a view to enabling this level of performance in the future without assistance.

Below, we introduce some of the research into the effectiveness of both teacher and peer-enabled scaffolding and describe some of our own favourite collaborative writing activities.

Collaborative writing

Vygotsky’s notion of learning as a social process represents an understanding that both the creation and transmissions of knowledge are collaborative endeavours. So for scaffolded learning to take place the teacher, as an expert, has a central role in the collaborative process. This role is perhaps most obvious during a joint construction (described below). This technique has been much studied, with its effectiveness in improving student writing demonstrated repeatedly (e.g. de Oliveira & Lan, 2014; Dreyfus, Macnaught & Humphrey, 2011; Rose & Martin, 2012).

It is not just the teacher who can perform the guiding role, however. ‘[C]ollaboration with more capable peers’ can also lead students into their ZPD (Vygotsky, 1978, p.79). When completing writing tasks in pairs, students can scaffold each other’s learning by pooling knowledge, and discussing language and text structure. This ultimately leads them to produce more accurate and more complex texts (Storch, 2005). Moreover, through collaboration and discussion of language, groups of students can produce texts with greater grammatical or conceptual accuracy and complexity than those produced by either pairs or individuals (Fernandez Dobao, 2013).


Click below to explore five collaborative writing activities which aim to challenge learners and set them on the path towards independence. The descriptions of the activities assume that a full lead-in has already taken place.


Viewing knowledge and learning as social processes which are dependent upon cooperation creates a classroom environment in which teachers and students can work together to scaffold learning and thus foster independence.

We have found that the activities outlined above are effective scaffolding tools for writing and we encourage you to use them in your own classroom.

Questions? Comments? Contact the authors directly: Richard.Ingold@navitas.com or Hayley.Crawford@navitas.com, join a conversation on Yammer or find Richard on Twitter.

A version of this article was published in 2015 in the English Australia Journal (31:1).