Lifelong Learning: Proceedings of the 4th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 14-15, 2005. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Keizai University.

Vygotskyan concepts for teacher education

ハリーポッターの魔法を発見:小学校高学年のEFLクラスでのドラマメソッド (Japanese Title)
by Deryn P. Verity (Osaka Jogakuin College)



アセ_ホト、ヌ、マ。「・・」・エ・ト・ュ_タ_、ホクナト、ャユ_、ヒス秬、オ、、ニハケ、、、ニ、、、ハ、、、ウ、ネ、ヒ、ト、、、ニ__、ケ、。」ネユアセ、ヌ、マ、キ、ミ、キ、ミスフ__ウノスフモ、ヒミッ、、ネヒ。ゥ、ホヨミ、ヌ。「ムァ_、ャラ、篷_オト、ヒミミ、、、_モ(zone of proximal Development)。「__ス秬、ホラ綫(scaffolding)。「ネヒ_、ホ、ホハタス遉菻トオトミミ_、ホハタス遉ヒ_、モ、ト、ア、サ_、リ、ホ_ヨオト、ハハヒ_、ア、ホ・ケ・ネ・鬣ニ・ク・テ・ッ、ハ_モテ(strategic mediation)。「_ヨェ、ホノ扈盞トメェメ(social origin of cognition)。「シー、モ_ハキオト、ハヤュタ(historical principle)、コャ、爭・」・エ・ト・ュ_、ホヨミコヒ、、ハ、ケタ_クナト、ャイサユ_、ヒ、゙、ソ、マヘネォ、ヒタス筅オ、、ソ、筅ホ、ヌ、マ、ハ、ッハケ、、、ニ、、、。」

・ュ_・_・ノ: ・・」・エ・ト・ュ_」ィVygotsky」ゥ。「スフ__ウノスフモ。「__モテ_、ホユ_ミヤ。「__ス秬、ホラ綫(scaffolding)。「_ヨオト、ハハヒ_、ア、ホ・ケ・ネ・鬣ニ・ク・テ・ッ、ハ_モテ」ィstrategic mediation」ゥ

The concepts and terminology of Vygotskyan sociocultural theory are increasingly invoked by language teaching professionals in Japan. The author finds that the theory is often insufficiently understood, so that the use of terms and ideas is either inaccurate or incomplete. This paper discusses the central canonical notion of the Vygotskyan paradigm, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and four associated concepts: scaffolding, strategic mediation, the social locus of cognition and the genetic, or historical, heuristic.

Keywords: Vygotsky, teacher education, accuracy of terminology, scaffolding, strategic mediation

As research becomes more focused on the internal, mental and psychological processes of working teachers than on their easily-observable external behaviors, attention among teacher-educators has shifted towards the Vygotskyan paradigm, also called sociocultural theory, of learning and teaching (Tsui, 2003). In the context of professional language teaching in Japan (that is, in both the literature and in oral settings such as conferences and meetings), it is common to hear Vygotsky's name invoked to justify everything from using group work to assigning cloze exercises. The following discussion is an attempt to contribute to an accurate understanding of five core Vygotskyan terms and concepts that should be within the working purview of every teacher-educator: the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), and four associated concepts: scaffolding, strategic mediation, the social locus of cognition, and the genetic, or historical, heuristic.

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As an example of the watered-down usage I would like to see disappear, consider the following: an EFL teacher showed me what he called a 'Vygotskyan' reading exercise. It was a cloze (specifically, a gapped reading) activity, in which the students were expected to choose words for the gaps from a list of possible answers that they had generated in a pre-reading exercise. Was the exercise well designed? Yes, certainly. Would it draw upon the learners' psycholinguistic resources? Yes, almost certainly, if the learners were at the right level of proficiency. Was it Vygotskyan? No, unless the adjective is taken to mean 'offering more mental engagement than a traditional fill-in-the-blank worksheet.' This is a single, but telling, example, echoing claims that putting students into groups is Vygotskyan because Vygotsky says, well, something, about the importance of interaction in groups. Similarly, if the word 'process' can be used to describe an activity, then why not 'Vygotskyan,' since this theory considers change over time: it sounds good and will impress, well, somebody.
"If teachers and teacher trainers use technical terms loosely, then the words lose not only specificity but also impact."

If teachers and teacher trainers use technical terms loosely, then the words lose not only specificity but also impact. The Vygotskyan paradigm, stemming from seminal work done at the University of Delaware, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Pittsburgh, continues to be developed by a core of researchers and writers in teacher education (Frawley & Lantolf, 1985; Lantolf & Appel, 1994; Donato, 1994; Lantolf, 2000; Golembek & Johnson, 2004). Those of us who work with novice teachers have a responsibility to use fundamental terms precisely and accurately. What follows is a necessarily brief, but I hope succinct and helpful, clarification of the central Vygotskyan concept, the ZPD, and four basic points of Vygotskyan terminology: scaffolding, strategic mediation, the social locus of cognition and the genetic, or historical, heuristic.

The Zone of Proximal Development

It is impossible to claim familiarity with the Vygotskyan paradigm in L2A (second language acquisition) without understanding its central concept, the ZPD. This arena of potentiality, delineated in terms of cognitive, performative, and symbolic difference, underlies most of the elaborations of Vygotskyan theory as it has been applied to language learning and teaching. As Meira and Lerman (2001) have pointed out, the ZPD is in fact a concept that was not extensively developed by Vygotsky himself, as he died only two years after proposing it. However, it has become a canonical and crucial concept for nearly everyone adopting a Vygotskyan outlook on language learning and teaching.
The ZPD is, probably inevitably, something of a shape-shifter as a theoretical construct, because it is so simple and, at the same time, so irresistibly explanatory. Different writers and researchers use it in somewhat different ways, and I do not propose that there is one 'best' interpretation, but the term has accrued a conventionalized set of meanings. It is not a random collection of features. Meira and Lerman's (2001) three-fold explanation helpfully lays out the three fundamental dimensions of the ZPD, drawing as it does on the way the concept has been used by contemporary experts.

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The performative aspect is most often highlighted by writers with a passing knowledge of Vygotsky who want a brief, general definition of the ZPD: in this view, the ZPD represents the difference in performance on a given task between what a learner can do working alone and what that same learner can do when working in collaboration with a more-capable peer or with an expert (Lantolf, 2000, p.17). This cognitive focus certainly captures an important aspect of the Vygotskyan perspective: any notion of proficiency predicated upon solo, unassisted performance is profoundly inadequate. However, narrowing one's understanding of the ZPD only to this learner-focused definition obscures the importance of the activity of collaboration itself. It retains too much of the focus on the learner as an individual, working alone.
Besides differences in performance by one individual, there is an interactive aspect to the ZPD. In this view, the ZPD is the metaphorical arena in which the collaborative activity described above takes place. Rather than a static, measurable gap between solo and assisted levels of performance, the ZPD is also a space of potential growth through interaction with a more-expert collaborator. Without engagement in such interaction, a learner's ZPD for any given task may remain nascent.
A third, and intriguing, dimension of the ZPD lies in its dynamic nature as an emergent symbolic space. From an interactive perspective, the ZPD is sometimes seen as a metaphorical 'force-field' surrounding the learner (to borrow Meira and Lerman's apt phrase), within which the learner's limited knowledge floats. The instructor must teach 'to' the force-field in order for learning to happen. What this spatial metaphor misses is the fact that the ZPD is not only task-dependent (i.e., a learner's ZPD is different for every task) but also situation-dependent, and will change in the very event of engagement. A learner's ZPD for a given task is neither fixed nor stable; the learner does not carry it around ready for use. Rather, it comes into existence in the meeting of the learner, the teacher and the task. We have all had the experience of being able to teach a learner something that another, equally capable, teacher couldn't. The constellation of factors in each interaction differs. Thus, learning differs, even if many of the factors are controlled for similarity. What a student is capable of doing is immanent in his or her existing knowledge, but it is not reducible to that knowledge, or to a predetermined technique of instruction. A 'good' teacher, or a 'good' teaching strategy, may move the learner forward towards mastery, whereas another strategy or instructor, equally adept, may fail to do so.
The ZPD continues to be an object of scrutiny, discussion and argument, but it is not, as the saying goes, rocket science. There are clear parameters to be found in the literature; as professional teacher-educators, we owe it to our students and trainees to be aware of how this most Vygotskyan of terms is used by leading Vygotskyans.

Strategic mediation in the ZPD

As symbol-users and symbol-makers, humans experience the outer world through various forms of mediated experience. The child learns-by modeling its behavior on that of its parents, peers, teachers and by interacting, alone and in collaboration, with written texts and other media-to construct a version of the material and psychological realities of the external culture and society. Mediation in the home is, of course, constant, because parenting, sibling interaction, playing, TV, etc. are constantly present in the child's life. It is also frequently somewhat random and unintentional; for example, a mother may cuddle her child to express her own loving feelings, but every gesture and word she uses are at the same time mediating artifacts of the culture.

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However, when a child starts formal schooling, mediation typically loses some of this randomness. Parenting is replaced by pedagogy, which tends to be more formalized and routinized. This is because the teacher must work with groups of children, while parents normally socialize only one infant at a time. In addition, schools rely upon schedules, regardless of any given child's ability to work within a predetermined time frame. The experience of mediation in the context of school is very much a product, as Wertsch points out, of how a culture defines what a school should, can, and must do (1985). But in nearly every culture, pedagogy is designed to be more efficient, more explicitly goal-oriented, and less free-form than informal mediation outside of school. For this reason, it must be more explicitly strategic: that is, more efficient and narrowly targeted. The teacher cannot assume that learning and development will happen as a side-effect of a rich spectrum of interactive moves, as the parent can. Schooling aims to move the learner towards a defined level of proficiency.
What makes mediation strategic? It helps the learner approach expert-level, or automatic, proficiency. Crucially, it is the right help at the right time (Verity, 1995) and may be either tacit or explicit in form. It includes pedagogic skill on the part of the teacher, but also knowledge of the subject matter, real-world procedural knowledge and responsive judgments of the learner's current level of proficiency. As many writers have observed, for language teachers especially, procedural and content knowledge are intricately bound together (Tsui, 2003; Lantolf & Appel, 1994).
"The crucial function of instruction, especially at the initial stages of a task, is getting the learner to see the task, however incompletely and briefly, from the perspective of the expert."

How does a teacher know what kind of intervention will be helpful? The crucial function of instruction, especially at the initial stages of a task, is getting the learner to see the task, however incompletely and briefly, from the perspective of the expert. It means getting the learner to understand - again incompletely and not even necessarily helpfully at first – the definition of what the task is, again from an expert point of view. It is this brief 'seeing through' the expert's eyes, this notion of knowing what the task is, which must be the first step towards expert, autonomous functioning. This is called 'prolepsis' or 'shared definition of situation' in the Vygotskyan paradigm (Donato, 1994; Verity, 1992; 1995).
Thus, successful strategic mediation depends first upon successful orientation of the learner towards the task at hand. The initial aim of such mediation is not to 'transmit' the expert's knowledge but to provide a starting place for the learner to begin to engage with the task and, ultimately, begin to appropriate the expert's knowledge. Expertise involves having a wide, and complexly structured, body of knowledge, procedural skill, judgments, and so forth, which in normal functioning are drawn upon automatically. The expert who wants to engage with the learner in the ZPD must remember how it was NOT to have automaticity with respect to the task at hand; she must simplify, select, eliminate, focus and sometimes use guesswork to figure out where to begin.

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A crucial form of strategic mediation is scaffolding. Like all mediation, scaffolding should be offered to a learner contingent upon his needs. Scaffolding is a term which is found in all sorts of language teaching materials these days, but is often used inaccurately to refer to any and all kinds of help provided to the learner. Hints, glosses, keys, graphics, definitions, lists of possible answers, suggestions for how to proceed, blanks, instructions, and the dozens of other ways that teachers have of helping learners accomplish tasks do not necessarily represent scaffolding. Specifically, the term should be limited to describing the cognitive support given to a novice learner to reduce the cognitive load of the task. To scaffold a task is to take over the part of a task that is cognitively beyond the learner, so that he is free to focus on what he can do independently.
This means that not all forms of help are scaffolding: reminding a learner of what he already knows well might be exceedingly helpful and strategic in a given situation, but is not necessarily an instance of scaffolding. Helping a learner remember a recall strategy to retrieve a relevant piece of information might be an instance of scaffolding. Successful scaffolding depends upon precise judgments as to what pieces of the task the expert can take over without pushing the learner from the center of the activity. Thus, scaffolding may change minutely, but crucially, between every episode of interaction. According to a seminal study of a tutor working with novice academic writers, scaffolding as a mediating strategy must be both graduated (leveled for the learner's apparent ZPD) and contingent (helpful in overcoming the specific problems the learner has already displayed) (Al-Jaafreh, 1992).
To give a concrete example of what scaffolding is, and is not, consider the common practice of providing glosses for vocabulary words in the margins of a reading text. This is certainly helpful to the reader, but the purpose of such marginalia is to save time and effort, not to restructure the task of reading. Providing definitions provides linguistic support, but it does not teach the reader anything new about reading. The task of looking up words is not essentially beyond the understanding of the novice reader. It is just tiring and distracting. Given enough time, even a beginner can look up words in a dictionary. It is the daunting number of words and definitions that pose the challenge, not the procedure of using a dictionary. Thus the gloss saves time and effort, but does not change the reader's understanding of how to read or even how to look up words.
Restructuring a task, on the contrary, changes it, and does not merely reduce its demands. In the vocabulary example, a form of scaffolding that would offer cognitive support, or true scaffolding, would be dictionary-based practice in looking up words (taken from the reading text) that focuses the reader on the choices he must make from the many definitions provided by the dictionary. This activity would force him to pay more attention to the context of each new token, and would ideally highlight the importance of using the discourse context to interpret unfamiliar lexical items.
To give another example, a template for a guided composition, say a letter of invitation, is a legitimate scaffold: the template provides the generic structure and part of the rhetorical content, so that the learner's efforts can be directed to the parts of the letter – say, the details of the invitation - that are within his or her capabilities.

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Social locus of cognition

Why is interaction so central to Vygotskyan theory? Why does it matter so much what kind of mediating activity the interlocutor provides to the learner (or child)? One of the more intriguing aspects of Vygotsky's theory is that the individual, internal mind originates in the social, collective mind. He theorized that higher mental functions, such as metacognition, categorization, evaluation, hindsight, memory, and so forth – those cognitive activities that support, and are supported by, explicit instruction - develop in ways that are exactly the converse of the Piagetian sequence (Wertsch, 1985; Lantolf, 2000).
". . . higher mental functions, such as metacognition, categorization, evaluation, hindsight, memory, and so forth . . . develop in ways that are exactly the converse of the Piagetian sequence."

Vygotsky claimed every concept has two lives; first, it exists outside the speaker in the words and actions of other people, and only later is appropriated and internalized to become private thought. This internalization and individuation happen over time and are stimulated by engagement with the environment. As socialization progresses, the child is exposed to culturally specific ways of functioning. Sometimes, an activity is restructured specifically to encourage the child's participation. An example is a parent holding a child's hand and waving at a departing guest, saying 'bye-bye.' This simplified, but jointly performed, version of the activity of leave-taking helps the child accomplish the task (of leave-taking) at a level appropriate to its social awareness and linguistic ability. Through such participation in culturally mediated – in one culture, waving might be used, while in another, a child might be encouraged to give a kiss to a departing guest – and collaborative (i.e. having social origins: the child does it in joint activity with the parent) activity, the child performs the activity even before fully understanding it. It is the actual engagement in the activity, and the mediating words, actions and reactions of the parents that go with that engagement, that allow the child to gain autonomic functioning in this small piece of the shared knowledge of the external culture and society. The prime agent for the transmission of such knowledge is, obviously, language, since most things a child must learn cannot be as simply modelled as the waving example given above. By participating in linguistic interaction with other, more-capable members of the culture, the child learns how to symbolize the world in appropriate, acceptable, and complex ways). Individual cognition originates socially.
When formal, school-based instruction begins, cultural transmission and appropriation continue, but as suggested earlier, in more formalized ways (Kramsch, 2000). Though it is not entirely clear if adult learners develop in the same way children do, Vygotskyan L2A researchers often invoke the developmental notion of the social locus of cognition to support their claims about the centrality of interaction (output as well as input) for adult L2A. From this viewpoint, interaction in the second language does not serve only motivational functions; it is crucial for cognitive change and growth.
Researchers in the Vygotskyan tradition (see Donato, 1994) have examined the way group interaction can function, and interestingly, how it can fail to function in any significantly collaborative way, for adult language learners. For language teachers, the primary implication of this part of the theory is perhaps the simplest: asking students to work collaboratively goes beyond social bonding among learners and beyond teacher relief, though of course it may fulfill both those functions. Working on tasks together with other learners, each of whom can fill the role of more- or less-capable 'others' is what allows the learner to become a symbol user and symbol maker in the target language. Input alone, no matter how finely tuned, how comprehensible, how carefully selected, is simply not enough to drive acquisition forward.

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The genetic, or historical, heuristic

As a leading Vygotskyan has pointed out, Vygotskyan theory strives to make thinking visible (Lantolf, 2000). The genetic heuristic attempts to make what is opaque more transparent. (Vygotskyans use the term 'genetic' in the sense of 'change in development over time.' There is no suggestion of the genome in their application of the term.) It is a truism, and not only of sociocultural theory, that every learner enters the classroom with a full history of experiences, attitudes, goals, motivations and so forth. However, if credence is given to the notion that the ZPD is continuously emergent, then that history reaches right up to, and includes, the present (Gillette, 1990). A current interaction may shape a learner's performance as much as one two years ago. Crucially, proficiency is neither static nor stable, and thus is not measurable by any fixed instrument, for it changes according to the circumstances of the activity. An important Vygotskyan contribution to understanding the importance of this history is the insight that solo activity, e.g., unassisted performance, is opaque. That is, there is no way to know how much more a learner could do with a small, but strategically useful, piece of help. In other words, proficiency measured only through solo performance does not illuminate the potential level of performance that might be lurking beneath the surface. This potential is, of course, the ZPD; if we are to take the notion of the ZPD seriously, we must take seriously as well the correlated notion of the genetic heuristic.
As a very simple example of how the genetic principle operates in everyday life, consider the difference between these two scenarios: you are talking to someone in your native language and you break off your utterance because you cannot recall a word. You know it well; it is on the tip of your tongue. Sometimes the other person does not even have to say the word, just put his mouth into the position to pronounce it, and that hint helps you produce the word. In this case, your performance represents a minor lapse from what is essentially full mastery of the word. Your ability to use the tiniest of hints in the external environment proves that your proficiency is in fact quite robust.
In the second scenario, you are speaking in a language that you have studied for only five lessons. You break off your utterance because you do not know the word you need. All the hints in the world from your interlocutor are not going to enable you to produce lexical items you don't know! In this case, your performance represents the high end of your proficiency. For this language task, your ZPD is extremely small. But a simple transcription of the two conversations would not reveal this crucial underlying difference. Indeed, if the initial conversation was simple enough, it might be hard to tell that you are a native speaker of the first language, and a near-zero-level speaker of the second.
Discussion about issues of evaluation and assessment among Vygotskyans assumes the opacity of observable performance. Two learners may seem to be performing the same task at the same level of proficiency; getting a true picture of their real levels of proficiency means assessing its crucial internal structure, which comes from the history of the learner, his goals, and so forth. To take a rather crude example: imagine that two learners take a grammar test in an L2. Both get 80 out of 100 answers correct. Reading the scores superficially, i.e., in a non-Vygotskyan way, the two learners have something like the same proficiency in that L2. In fact, one learner has gained access to the answers beforehand, and has simply memorized them and entered them onto the exam paper; the other has answered the questions according to his own admittedly imperfect, but true, working, knowledge of the L2. Obviously, the proficiency of the two learners is completely different-one is a real speaker of the L2, the other simply a memorizer who may be completely unable to use the language in any way. The only way to discover this difference, however, would be to engage the learners in tasks that require engagement with the language in a context beyond the answer sheet.
". . . similarity in score reflects not so much a likeness between the learners, but rather the limitations of the instrument. "

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Of course, most language teachers do not have to deal with such egregious differences in history. Rather more common is the example of two learners who both have some genuine working knowledge of the language (i.e., their scores on the test are also similar, and neither memorized the answers). Their proficiencies may be, in fact, extremely different, however, due to a complex constellation of factors such as personal and cultural history, goals, motivation, task structure and so on. The similarity in score reflects not so much a likeness between the learners, but rather the limitations of the instrument.
Taking the genetic heuristic seriously means revealing these two different underlying pictures, so that each learner can be best mediated to develop proficiency in the L2 in ways that fit his needs and goals. We cannot expect teachers to research each individual learner's life history, of course. One way to expose the internal structure of learner proficiency is, suggests Vygotskyan theory, to have learners engage in collaborative activity. This can expose the differences in the potential proficiency of each learner. With help, the first learner sprints ahead; with the same amount of help, the other barely moves forward. The one-dimensional test score is shown to be opaque, as it completely hides the differences in potential performance, or, to put it in Vygotskyan terms, the differences in each learner's ZPD.


It is easy to reify the template of formal instruction: the teacher/expert knows all, the learner/novice knows nearly nothing. Vygotskyan perspectives on the learning-teaching dialogue can help the novice teacher - who, in the dualistic world expressed by the template, should not exist - to see that real learning, growth, development and transformation of thinking and acting moves in unpredictable and non-linear ways. True growth of automatic functioning cannot be determined by even the most sophisticated preparation of materials, lesson plans, syllabuses, and teaching techniques. Learning how to teach is certainly complex and time-consuming. It is helpful to remember how very complex and effortful learning is, too.
As teacher educators, we are among the most important mediators of the culture of professional language teaching that our teacher trainees interact with. Our attempts to strategically scaffold, support, instruct and socialize others should reflect this culture at its best. Using terminology accurately and within an appropriate range of meaning and reference is part of professional discourse. The modern incarnation of Vygotskyan theory as it is applied to second language acquisition and language instruction is an exciting and challenging field within contemporary applied linguistics and pedagogy. Vygotskyan theory foregrounds the importance of socially-derived knowledge, of collaborative interaction, and of the complex structuring of expert knowledge. If we are to embody well the expertise that others seek from us, we must rely upon rich, accurate, and automatic mastery of essential knowledge in our field.

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Al-Jaafreh, A. (1992). Negative feedback and the learner's Zone of Proximal Development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware.

Donato, R. (1994). Collective scaffolding. In J. P. Lantolf & G. Appel (Eds.), Vygotskian approaches to second language research (pp. 33-56). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers.

Frawley, W. J. & Lantolf, J. P. (1985). Second language discourse: A Vygotskyan perspective. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 6, 19-44.

Gillette, B. (1990). Beyond learning strategies: A whole-person approach to second language acquisition. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware.

Golembek, P. & Johnson, K. E. (2004). Narrative inquiry as a mediational space: examining emotional and cognitive dissonance in second-language teachers' development. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 10 (3), 307-327.

Kramsch, C. (2000). Social discursive constructions of self in L2 learning. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning, (pp. 133-154). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P. (Ed.) (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P. & Appel, G. (Eds.) (1994). Vygotskian approaches to second-language research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Meira, L. & Lerman, S. (2001). The Zone of Proximal Development as a symbolic space. Retrieved April 27, 2004, from the London South Bank University, Social Science Research Papers Web site:

Tsui, A. B. M. (2003). Understanding expertise in teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Verity, D. P. (1992). Strategic mediation in the rehearsal process: A psycholinguistic study of directing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware.

Verity, D. P. (1995). Helpful help: Where conversation meets culture. Unpublished paper delivered at JALT Nara chapter meeting.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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