Developmentally Appropriate Reading Instruction

All too often, reading instruction is delayed because teachers believe that students in their classroom are too young to learn literacy skills. The defense that is typically put forward is that it is not “developmentally appropriate” instruction, and usually references to Vygotsky are invoked.
Lev Vygotsky would not approve, I assure you.

Vygotsky argued that education for each child must be individualized to that child’s “zone of proximal development.” He posited that each child should be given appropriate support depending on that child’s capacities and frustration levels. Instruction, according to Vygotsky, was a balancing game — children should be constantly challenged, but sufficient support should always be given so children do not experience too much frustration.

Developmentally appropriate instruction, therefore, should dance along the edge of frustration. There are certain things an individual child can do with little support. There are certain things that an individual child could only do with a good deal of support. And there are certain things that should not be attempted with an individual child because they are beyond that child’s current capacity regardless of the support level. The teacher’s job is to find those areas for an individual child where the child could be successful if given appropriate support — that is the zone of proximal development.

A teacher finds each child’s zone of proximal development through assessment. And because the zone of proximal development is constantly changing for young children, assessment must be ongoing. Things a child has trouble with today may be quite easy for the child tomorrow — the zone shifts, and instruction must shift along with it.

Without assessment, it is not possible to say what “developmentally appropriate” instruction is. What is appropriate for one child may not be appropriate for another child in the same classroom. Some children need less support in some areas than their peers. Only ongoing, diagnostic assessment can reveal what is developmentally appropriate for each child.