Interface between L2 learners’ pragmatic performance, language proficiency, and individual/group ZPD

Authors

1 Allameh Tabataba'i University

2 Department of English, Islamic Azad University, Shiraz Branch, Iran

Abstract

One of the theories accounting for pragmatic development of L2 learners is Vygotsky’s (1978)
sociocultural  theory.  This  study  investigated  the  development  of  EFL  learners'  pragmatic
competence through the lens of an important concept of Vygotsky’s theory, i.e.  the  zone  of
proximal  development.  The  study  was  conducted  to  answer  two  questions.  The  first  question
was whether the amount of scaffolding provided to EFL learners would have any relationship
with  their  proficiency  level.  The  second  question  was  focused  on  the  investigation  of  the
relationship  between  learners’  individual  ZPDs  and  the  group  ZPD.  To  this  end,  20  EFL
learners  at  low  vs.  high  proficiency  levels  were  selected  and  assigned  randomly  into  two
groups.  Both  groups  received  ZPD-sensitive  instruction  to  produce  the  two  speech  acts  of
request and apology. The findings indicated no significant relationship between the proficiency
level  of  the  participants  and  the  amount  of  scaffolding  given  for  the  production  of  the  two
speech  acts.  However,  the  findings  revealed  certain  relationship  between  participants'
individual ZPDs and their group ZPD. This study suggests that EFL learners' general language
proficiency has little impact on the development of their pragmatic competence. Besides, based
on  the  findings,  scaffolding  seems  to  have  learner-specific  effects,  meaning  that  each  learner
may need a specific amount of scaffolding for his/her ZPD to grow despite being in the same
group ZPD.

Keywords

Main Subjects


Introduction
One  of  the  most  important  concepts  in
Vygotsky’s  (1978)  sociocultural  theory  of
mind  is  the  zone  of  proximal  development
(ZPD).  As  to  the  importance  of  ZPD,
Karpov's  argument  (cited  in  Haywood  &
Lidz,  2007)  is  revealing:  “nowhere  in  the
field  of  human  endeavors  is  Vygotsky’s
concept  of  zone  of  proximal  development
more  relevant  than  in  education”  (p.  74).
That  is  possibly  why  for  Vygotsky  (1978),
ZPD-sensitive  instruction  is  the  only
effective kind of instruction (Lantolf, 2005).
According to Vygotsky (1978), ZPD “is the
distance  between  the  actual  development
level as determined by independent problem
solving  and  the  level  of  potential
development as determined through problem
solving  under  adult  guidance  or  in
collaboration  with  more capable peers”  (p.
86).  Modifying  Vygotsky's  (1978)
definition,  Ohta  (2001)  defines  ZPD  as  the
distance between an individual’s actual level
of  development  realized  by  the  individual's
independent  linguistic  production  and
his/her  potential  level  of  development
realized  through  collaborated  linguistic
 
production,  i.e.  language  produced  with  the
assistance of a peer or teacher.
 
A  distinction  is  made  between  learners’
zones  of  actual  development  (ZAD)  and
their zones of proximal development (ZPD).
According  to  Vygotsky  (1978),  at  ZAD,  a
learner is expected to perform independently
of  the  others  and  with  no  help  provided;
however,  at  ZPD  the  learner  is  expected  to
perform  beyond  his/her  actual  zone  of
development  if  the  learner  is  provided  with
scaffolding  and  if  the  scaffolding  is  timely
and  ZPD-sensitive.  It  follows  that
scaffolding  should  be  neither  too  early  nor
too  late.  This  timely  scaffolding  has  been
the  essence  of  almost  all  ZPD-sensitive
studies  over  the  past  decades  or  so  despite
the  fact  that  some  discrepancies  may  have
been  observed  in  the  terminology  of  the
studies  conducted.  In  fact,  the  metaphor  of
“scaffolding”  proposed  by  Wood,  Bruner,
and  Ross  (1976)  seems  to  imply  the  same
idea  as  ZPD-sensitive  assistance.  The  point
is  that  both  refer  to  what  Vygotsky  (1978)
meant by cognitive development in terms of
which  language  used  between  parents
(teachers)  and  children  (learners)  facilitates
children’s (learners’) cognitive development
because  it  mediates  the  interaction  between
the  expert  and  the  novice  (Vygotsky,  1986;
Wertch,  1979).  Such  mediations  indicate
that linearity of learning, including language
learning,  is  nothing  but  a  fallacy  because
learning  is,  according  to  Vygotsky  (1978),
by  no  means  a  static,  unidirectional  flow  of
knowledge from the more knowledgeable to
the less knowledgeable. Rather, learning is a
dynamic,  dialogical  flow  in  which  not  only
learners  but  also  teachers  are  involved  in  a
game  of  give  and  take  of  knowledge.  This
study  purported  to  explore  the  interface
between  the  amount  of
scaffolding/assistance  provided  to  EFL
learners,  their  proficiency  level,  and
individual/group ZPD.
Literature review
The timely assistance provided to learners is
called “scaffolding” though other terms such
as  "collaborative  dialogue"  (Swain,  2000),
and  "instructional  conversation"  (Donato,
2000)  have  been  proposed  to  refer  to  the
same concept. It is believed that scaffolding
is, to a great extent, responsible for language
acquisition  since  “acquisition  occurs  in
rather  than  as  a  result  of  interaction”
(Artigal,  cited  in  Ellis,  2008,  p.  234).  Two
features of scaffolding may be worth noting
here:  The  first  is  that  scaffolding  not  only
helps  novice  learners  do  the  task
collaboratively  but  also  provides
information  that,  when  internalized,  enables
them  to  perform  the  task  independently
(Greenfield,  1984).  Although  Vygotsky’s
research  was  concerned  mainly  with  the
cognitive  development  of  children,  another
feature is that scaffolding is applicable to all
learning  including  child/adult  and
formal/informal  learning  on  the  one  hand
and  symmetrical  (novice-novice)  and
asymmetrical  (expert-novice)  groupings  on
the  other  (Tharp  &  Gallimore,  1988;  van
Lier, 1996).
 
Scaffolding, according to Ellis (2008), is “an
inter-psychological  process  through  which
learners internalize knowledge dialogically”
(p.235).  Wood,  Bruner,  and  Ross  (1976)
argue  that  scaffolding  is  the  way  an  expert
helps  a  novice  progress  through  a  process.
Wood  et  al.  (1976)  enumerate  six  functions
of  an  expert  scaffolding:  (1)  orienting  the
novice's  attention  to  the  process;  (2)
simplifying  the  situation  in  a  way  that  the
novice  can  handle  the  process;  (3)  helping
the novice to achieve a specific goal thereby
motivating  her/him;  (4)  highlighting  the
most  important  features  of  the  process;  (5)
monitoring  the  frustration  of  the  novice  in
case of failure; and (6) providing the novice
with models of required behavior. 
 
The  six  functions  of  scaffolding  can  be
placed  on  a  continuum  of  the  most  implicit
to  the  most  explicit  assistance  to  be
provided  to  learners.  Through  scaffolding,
the scaffolder may have learners’  attention
drawn to the process (implicit help) or show
the  required  behavior  (explicit  help).  These
functions  of  scaffolding  have  been  studied
by  SLA  researchers  in  various  forms  of
ZPD-sensitive  instruction.  Although  these
studies are few, especially when it comes to
L2  teaching  and  learning,  the  following  are
among the ZPD-sensitive studies carried out
so far: Aljaafreh and Lantolf (1994), Nassaji
and Swain (2000), Kozulin and Garb (2002),
Poehner  (2005),  Ableeva  (2010),  Alavi,
Kaivanpanah,  and  Shabani  (2012),  Mosleh
(2011),  and  Tajeddin  and  his  colleagues
(Tajeddin,  Alemi,  &  Pakzadian,  2011;
Tajeddin & Tayebipour, 2012).  
 
Aljaafreh  and  Lantolf  (1994)  conducted  the
first  study  to  investigate  a  mediator’s
collaboration with learners on the basis of a
regulatory  scale  which  changed  from  most
implicit  to  most  explicit.  Drawing  on  this
study,  Nassaji  and  Swain  (2000)  aimed  to
find  out  if  ZPD-sensitive  mediation  could
enhance  performance  or  if  any  kind  of
mediation  could  sufficiently  aid  learners  in
moving  beyond  what  they  could  do  without
any  help.  The  results  demonstrated  that
giving  ZPD-sensitive  mediation  made
learners  less  accurate  when  they  produced
the  initial  composition  independently.
However,  they  outperformed  the  non-ZPD
learner  on  the  final  task  owing  to  the
mediation they received.  
 
Kozulin  and  Garb  (2002)  conducted  a
similar study. The results of their study were
clearly in favor of ZPD-sensitive instruction
because  it  proved  to  be  significantly
effective  in  promoting  learners’  reading
comprehension  skill.  In  Poehner's  (2005)
study,  the  aim  was  to  explore  learners’ oral
abilities.  The  participants  were  assigned  an
oral  construction  task  on  the  basis  of  a
number  of  narratives  in  French.  According
to  Poehner  (2005),  the  findings  indicated
that ZPD-sensitive instruction can be highly
effective  because  it  was  helpful  in
understanding  learners'  abilities  and
language problems and promoting their oral
skill.  In  another  study,  Ableeva  (2010)
examined  the  impact  of  ZPD-sensitive
instruction  on  listening  comprehension.  She
compared  the  results  of  a  traditional
listening  test  with  her  ZPD-sensitive
instruction.  The  results  indicated  that  ZPD-sensitive  instruction  illuminated  the  sources
of  poor  performance  and  that,  through
interactions  in  the  ZPD,  not  only  learners'
actual  level  but  their  potential  level  of
development  in  listening  ability  was
diagnosed.  In  the  same  vein,  Alavi,
Kaivanpanah, and Shabani (2012) tested the
applicability  of  a  ZPD-sensitive  approach
with  a  group  of  EFL  learners  in  the  context
of  listening  comprehension.  The  analysis
showed how scaffolding could pave the way
for  establishing  distributed  help  among
learners  within  the  social  space  of  the
classroom.
 
In  a  study  which  focused  on  pragmatic
ability, Mosleh (2011) compared ZPD-based
instruction  with  output  and  input-based
instruction  of  speech  acts.  Results  of  data
analysis  showed  that  the  ZPD-sensitive
group  outperformed  the  output  and  input
groups,  while  the  output  group
outperformed the input group in the posttest
DCTs.  In  another  pragmatics-related  study,
Tajeddin and Tayebipour (2012) compared a
ZPD-sensitive  approach  with  a  ZPD-insensitive  approach.  The  findings  showed
that  the  groups  in  the  ZPD-based  approach
significantly  outperformed  those  in  the
ZPD-insensitive  approach.  The  results  did
not  show  any  interaction  between
proficiency  and  instruction,  indicating  that
 
instruction,  rather  than  proficiency,  had  a
significant  effect  on  the  performance  of  the
learners.  The  findings  supported  the  ZPD-sensitive approach and its applicability to L2
pragmatics instruction.  
 
Against  this  backdrop,  this  study  was
carried  out  to  answer  the  following
questions:  
 
1.  Is  EFL  learners'  language  proficiency
related  to  the  amount  of  scaffolding  they
require for the production of the speech acts
of request and apology?
 
2. Are EFL learners' individual ZPDs related
to  the  ZDP  of  the  group  as  a  whole  in  the
production of the speech acts of request and
apology?
 
Method
Participants
In this study, a total of 20 participants were
selected  from  among  80  male  and  female
undergraduate  university  students  whose
major  was  Teaching  English  as  a  Foreign
Language  (TEFL).  They  were  assigned
randomly  to  two  groups  of  ZPD-sensitive
instruction.  One  group  included  low-proficiency EFL learners who were selected
from  first-semester  students.  The  other
group  who  consisted  of  high-proficiency
EFL  learners  was  selected  from  eighth-semester  students.  The  mean  age  of  the
participants  was  22.  The  participants  spoke
the same language, and none had studied the
English  language  abroad.  Attempts  were
made  to  select  as  homogeneous  participants
as possible in each group because, according
to Haywood and Lidz (2007), homogeneous
grouping  decrease  variability  that  can  be
expected if some learners finish with a given
part of the task before others do.
 
 
Instruments
Two  instruments  were  employed  in  this
study: (1) a general proficiency test, and (2)
a  written  discourse  completion  task.  As  for
the  former,  Oxford  Quick  Placement  Test
(2003)  was  administered.  The  test  consists
of  three  parts:  Part  One  (1-40)  includes
simple  grammar  and  vocabulary  items.  Part
Two  (40-60)  includes  more  difficult
multiple-choice  items  and  a  cloze  test.  Part
Three  comprises  a  writing  section  where
candidates are required to write a paragraph
of  150-200  words.  From  the  three  parts,
only  the  first  was  administered  due  to  the
nature of the test, which requires second and
third  parts  to  be  administered  only  if  the
testees  can  correctly  answer  more  than  35
items out of 40. The second instrument was
a  discourse  completion  task  (DCT)  on
request  and  apology  speech  acts  (Appendix
A). It was compiled by drawing on Bergman
and  Kasper  (1993),  Blum-Kulka  and
Olshtain  (1984),  and  Cohen  and  Olshtain
(1981).  The  test  consisted  of  12  items,
including 6 items on request and 6 items on
apology. The items required the participants
to  read  short  descriptions  of  the  situations
and  write  what  they  would  say  in  the
English  language  for  each  situation
considering  the  interlocutors’  power  and
distance.
 
Treatment materials
Treatment  materials  consisted  of  12
discourse  completion  task  (DCT)  items,
including 6 items on request and 6 items on
apology  speech  acts.  To  provide  a  ZPD-sensitive instruction, Lantolf and Poehner’s
(2011)  scale  was  adopted  (Appendix  B).  In
this scale, 8 forms of mediation are provided
to  the  learners  depending  on  their
responsiveness.  If  a  learner’s  response  is
correct,  the  mediator  gives  no  further
mediation.  However,  if  it  is  not  correct
and/or  appropriate,  the  mediator  moves  one
step  further  until  the  last  step  where  the
 
learner is provided with explicit explanation.
To  run  the  treatment  sessions,  both  groups
held meetings of 30 minutes, 2 days a week
and  for  a  total  of  6  weeks,  i.e.  3  weeks  for
teaching  request  strategies  and  3  weeks  for
teaching  the  strategies  of  apology  in  every-other-week order.
 
Data collection and analysis
The  data  for  the  study  were  collected  using
two  tests:  First,  a  general  proficiency  test,
that  is,  Oxford  Quick  Placement  Test  that
was  given  to  the  participants  to  ensure  that
the  two  groups  were  different  concerning
their levels of language proficiency. Second,
a  discourse  completion  test  (DCT)  that  was
given to them to find out the extent to which
level  of  language  proficiency  of  the
participants  had  any  relationship  with  the
amount  of  scaffolding  they  needed  to
produce  the  speech  acts  of  request  and
apology.  
 
The  rationale  for  giving  the  general
proficiency  test  to  both  low  and  high
proficiency  learners  was  to  make  sure  that
there  was  a  significant  difference  between
the  two  groups  before  beginning  the
treatment  sessions.  The  rational  for  giving
the  pragmatic  test  was  to  measure  the
relationship  between  language  proficiency
and  pragmatic  competence  as  the  discourse
completion  test  required  the  participants  to
read  descriptions  of  some  situations  and
write what they would actually say for each
situation  considering  the  interlocutors’
power  and  distance.  The  data  collected
through  the  general  proficiency  test  were
analyzed  using  an  independent  samples-t-test,  and  the  data  collected  through  the
discourse  completion  test  were  analyzed
using Spearman rank-order correlation.
 
Results  
In this part, the descriptive statistics of low-
and  high-proficiency  participants'
performance  on  Oxford  Placement  Test
(OPT)  is  reported.  Then,  the  difference
between  the  two  is  given  using  an
independent  samples  t-test.  As  Table  1
indicates,  the  mean  scores  of  high-proficiency  learners  and  low-proficiency
learners were 25.70 and 17.70, respectively.

To  investigate  if  there  was  any  significant
difference  between  the  mean  scores  of  high
and  low  proficiency  levels  on  the
proficiency  test,  an  independent  samples  t-test  was  run.  The  t-observed  value  was
2.567. This amount of t-value is greater than
the  critical  value  of  2.101  at  18  degrees  of
freedom.  Based  on  these  results,  it  can  be
concluded  that  there  was  a  significant
difference between high and low proficiency
levels’ mean scores on the proficiency test.
Thus,  the  two  groups  do  belonged  to  two
different proficiency levels.  
 
With  respect  to  the  research  questions,  the
first research question was raised to explore
if  EFL  learners'  language  proficiency  was
related  to  the  amount  of  scaffolding  they
required for the production of speech acts of
request  and  apology.  To  answer  the
question,  Spearman  rank-order  correlation
was  employed.  To  this  end,  first,  every
individual  learner's  general  proficiency
score was rank-ordered (which was based on
their  linguistic  proficiency),  and  then  the
amount  of  scaffolding  they  needed  to
 
produce  the  appropriate  speech  acts  was
determined.  In  effect,  two  aspects  of  the
question  were  addressed,  as  described
below.
 
The  first  aspect  dealt  with  the  relationship
between  low-proficiency  learners'  general
proficiency score rank and their scaffolding-getting rank while producing the speech acts
of  request  and  apology.  Regarding  the
speech act of request, the result of Spearman
rank-order  correlation  indicated  that  there
was  no  significant  relationship  between
proficiency  score  rank  and  scaffolding-getting  rank  of  the  low  proficiency  learners
while  producing  request  speech  act  (r=.59,
p=.072).  Moreover,  the  result  showed  that
there  was  not  any  significant  relationship
between  proficiency  score  rank  and
scaffolding-getting  rank  in  low-proficiency
learners  to  produce  apology  speech  act
(r=.14, p=.68).  
 
The  second  aspect  focused  on  the
relationship  between  the  high-proficiency
learners'  general  proficiency  score  rank  and
their  scaffolding-getting  rank  when
producing  the  speech  acts  of  request  and
apology. The result of Spearman  rank-order
correlation  showed  no  significant
relationship  between  high-proficiency
learners’ score rank and scaffolding-getting
rank  to  produce  the  request  speech  act  (r=-.067,  p=.85).  As  to  apology,  the  result
indicated no significant relationship between
high-proficiency  learners’  score  rank  and
scaffolding-getting rank when producing the
apology speech act (r=.043, p = .91).
 
The  second  research  question  was  aimed  at
exploring  the  relationship  between  each
learner's individual ZPD and the ZPD of the
group  as  a  whole  in  the  production  of  the
speech acts of request and apology. The first
part  of  the  question  addressed  the  low
proficiency  group.  Table  3  depicts  the
relationship  between  individual  ZPD  and
group  ZPD  in  the  low-proficiency  learners
by showing the amount of scaffolding given
to  each  particular  learner  on  the  one  hand
and  the  group  on  the  other.  As  Table  2
indicates,  to  produce  the  speech  acts  of
apology  and  request,  the  low-proficiency
learners  received  a  certain  amount  of
scaffolding  from  session  1  to  session  6,  i.e.
3  sessions  to  produce  the  speech  act  of
apology  and  3  sessions  to  produce  the
speech act of request.
 
As Table 2 shows, the amount of scaffolding
required  by  the  learners  turned  out  to  be  of
three  types:  decreasing,  increasing,  or
unchanging.  More  specifically,  the  amount
of scaffolding given to six learners, i.e. 1, 4,
6, 7, 9, and 10 (60%), to produce the speech
act  of  apology  decreased.  This  means  that
these  learners  were  in  need  of  less
scaffolding as they moved on from session 1
to  session  3.  This  indicates  that  their  ZPDs
grew from session 1 to 3. On the other hand,
three learners, i.e. learner 2, 3, and 8 (30%),
did  experience  a  need  for  an  increasing
amount  of  scaffolding,  indicating  that  they
were  in  need  of  more  assistance  as  they
moved  on  from  session  1  to  session  3.  The
interesting  case  was,  however,  learner  #5
(10%), who required an unchanging amount
of scaffolding from session 1 to session 3.  
 
Similar results were obtained for the speech
act  of  request.  In  other  words,  seven
learners, i.e. learners 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10
(70%), showed that they needed less amount
of  scaffolding,  which  is  indicative  of  the
growth  of  their  ZPDs.  However,  three
learners, i.e. 1, 2, and 3 (30%),  experienced
a  need  for  an  increasing  amount  of
scaffolding  which  means  that  their  ZPDs
were not growing.

With  respect  to  the  individuals  as  a  group,
as Table 3 shows, the amount of scaffolding
given  to  the  group  decreased  since  the  data
show a decreasing state from 52 mediations
to  32  in  the  case  of  apology  and  from  68
mediations to 48 in the case of request from
session  1  to  session  3.  Table  3  also  shows
the  amount  of  scaffolding  given  to  the
whole group as well.
 
As Table 3 shows, to produce the speech act
of apology, five learners, i.e. learners 1, 2, 4,
8, and 9 (50%), needed a decreasing amount
of scaffolding as they went from session 1 to
session  3,  whereas  for  one  learner,  i.e.  6
(10%), there was a different process. Indeed,
learner # 6 was in need of more scaffolding
as she moved on. The amount of scaffolding
needed  by  the  other  learners  remained
unchanged.  Considering  the  speech  act  of
request, five individuals, i.e. learners 1, 4, 8,
9,  and  10  (50%),  experienced  a  decreasing
state which means that they were in need of
less  scaffolding  because  their  ZPDs  grew
over  time.  However,  five  learners,  i.e.  2,  3,
5,  6,  and  7  (50%),  experienced  an  opposite
trend  because  they  required  more
scaffolding as they moved on.  
 
As to the individual ZPD and group ZPD of
high-proficiency  learners,  two  cases  were
observed.  If  considered  as  individuals,  the
number  of  mediations  they  needed  either
decreased,  increased,  or  remained
unchanged.  However,  when  considered  as  a
group,  the  amount  of  scaffolding  they  were
provided  with  was  constantly  decreasing.
Based  on  the  results  obtained,  it  can  be
concluded  that  there  is  a  relationship
between  individual  ZPD  and  group  ZPD
because both individuals (70% in the case of
low-proficiency  learners  and  50%  in  the
case  of  high-proficiency  learners)  and
groups (100% in the case of low-proficiency
learners  and  100%  in  the  case  of  high-proficiency  learners)  changed  in  a  similar
fashion  and  learners  in  both  levels  required
less  scaffolding  as  they  moved  on.  In  other
words, both individual ZPD and group ZPD
seemed  to  have  been  growing,  albeit
asymmetrically.  These  results  are  indicative
of  some  degree  of  relationship  between
individual ZPDs and group ZPD.  
 
Discussion
The findings of this study showed that there
was  no  relationship  between  EFL  learners'
language  proficiency  and  pragmatic
competence.  The  study  substantiates  the
idea that linguistic proficiency per se should
not  be  regarded  as  a  prerequisite  for
pragmatic  competence  development  as
pragmatic  performance  cannot  be  predicted
on  the  basis  of  learners’  general  linguistic
proficiency.  Furthermore,  the  findings
showed  that  relying  solely  on  learners’
summative  scores  can  be  misleading,
meaning  that  if  one's  ZPD  is  not  taken  into
account, instruction may not make any sense
because  it  is  only  within  one’s  ZPD  that
assistance  may  be  internalized.  As  Lantolf
(2005)  notes,  for  Vygotsky  learning  was
nothing  but  assisted  performance  and
development  was  the  ability  to  regulate
mental  and  social  activity  as  a  consequence
of  having  appropriated,  or  internalized,  that
assistance.  Hence,  if  learning  is  assisted
performance,  not  only  one’s  product  of
learning  (one's  final  score)  but  also  the
process(s)  of  learning  (one's  ZPD)  should
matter since without the process of learning
an  incomprehensive  picture  of  one’s
learning  is  drawn.  Another  point  is  that
since  learning  is  dynamic  in  nature,  that  is,
the  route  and  rate  of  learning  may  change
from  moment  to  moment,  learners'  ZPDs
should  be  constantly  re-measured.
Therefore,  the  interrelationship  between
individual  and  group  ZPDs  should  be
considered in all phases of learning.
 
 
The  findings  of  the  present  study  also
showed  that  whereas  the  ZPDs  of  some
learners  required  more  scaffolding  to  grow
and  that  the  scaffolding  given  to  them  was
far beyond their competence, for some other
learners,  the  amount  of  scaffolding  did  not
change  from  session  1  to  session  3.  This
may  mean  that  the  amount  of  scaffolding
given  either  did  not  match  the  learner’s
proficiency  level  or  was  below  it  so  that
scaffolding  was  not  informative,
challenging, or motivating for the learner’s
ZPD  to  grow.  In  any  account,  the
performance of some learners highlights the
evolutionary  trajectory  of  second/foreign
language  learning,  including  pragmatic
development  and  underscores  the  fact  that
language learning is not necessarily a linear
process  to  be  predictable  on  the  basis  of
learners’ proficiency levels. That is possibly
why  they  manifested  so  many  irregularities
and fluctuations. It follows that the findings
of this study confirm irregularities observed
in  previous  studies,  such  as  the  one
conducted by Aljafreh and Lantolf (1994).  
 
According  to  Lantolf  (2005)  learner
development  was  not  a  smooth,  linear
process;  instead  it  followed  the  type  of
irregular  trajectory  captured  by  Vygotsky's
description  of  development  as  a
revolutionary  process.  This  showed  up  in
either of two ways: from one tutorial session
to  the  next  a  given  learner  required  more
instead  of  less  explicit  assistance  to  locate
and  correct  an  error;  or  a  learner  who
produced  the  correct  form  for  a  particular
feature  (e.g.,  irregular  past  tense  form,
"took")  for  two  or  three  compositions  in  a
row,  produced  the  form  with  regular  past
tense morphology (p. 338).
 
The  same  irregularities  were  observed  in
this  study.  While  in  the  majority  of  cases
learners  required  less  scaffolding  as  they
moved  on  from  session  1  to  session  3,  in
some  other  cases  they  required  more
scaffolding, indicating that their  ZPDs were
not  growing.  Still,  in  some  other  cases  no
change  was  observed,  meaning  that  the
learners’  ZPDs  were  neither  growing  nor
falling  back  but  being  at  a  state  of
stagnation.
 
The  findings  of  this  study  are  revealing  in
that,  first  and  foremost,  the  study
underscores  the  findings  of  Aljhafreh  and
Lantolf (1994), and by implication, suggests
that  ZPD-sensitive  instruction  should  be  an
essential ingredient of any instruction aimed
at  developing  learners’  pragmatic
competence.  This  is  because  ZPD-sensitive
instruction  takes  aspects  of  the  learners'
social interactions into account based on the
view that “acquisition occurs in  rather  than
as  a  result  of  interaction” (Artigal,  cited  in
Ellis,  2008,  p.234).  According  to  Donato
(2000),  since  awareness  of  form  and
function  is  made  possible  through  social
interaction,  "the  theory  [Vygotsky's
sociocultural  theory]  adds  greater  clarity  to
the  issue  of  modified  interaction  and  the
negotiation of meaning in classroom setting"
(p. 46).
 
Nonetheless, a point that should be noted is
that  individual  ZPDs  are  unique  and  every
individual  learner  may  be  in  need  of  a
specific amount of scaffolding due to his/her
learning background. In this respect, Donato
(2000)  points  out  that  "learners  bring  to
interactions  their  own  personal  histories
replete  with  values,  assumptions,  beliefs,
rights,  duties  and  obligations"  (p.46).  These
personal histories may be responsible for the
irregularities  observed  in  the  present  study.
Another  point  is  that  individual  and  group
ZPDs  are  related  to  each  other,  although
their exact nature is far from clear.  
 
While  this  study  focused  on  individual  vs.
group  ZPD,  its  findings  is  generally  in  line
 
with  the  other  studies  on  scaffolding  in
language learning. For instance, Pishghadam
and  Ghadiri  (2011)  investigated  the  effects
of  symmetrical  and  asymmetrical
scaffolding  on  reading  comprehension.  The
results  showed  the  positive  impact  of  both
types  of  scaffolding  on  reading
comprehension.  In  another  study,
Abadikhah and Valipour (2014) paired each
elementary learner with an advanced learner
to form an expert-novice pair to work on the
transcripts  of  their  oral  presentations.  They
found that the advanced learners used many
scaffolding  techniques  to  help  the  novice
notice  the  linguistic  gaps.  Finally,  the  study
conducted  by  Ahangari,  Hejazi,  and
Razmjou  (2014)  is  closely  related  to  the
present  study.  They  had  the  experimental
group  undergo  scaffolding.  The  findings
showed  that  the  need  for  scaffolding  faded
along  the  course  due  to  the  learners’
progress.
 
Conclusion
This  study  pursued  two  purposes.  The  first
was to explore the relationship between EFL
learners’ general proficiency and the amount
of  scaffolding  they  required  to  produce  the
speech  acts  of  apology  and  request.  In  this
regard,  since  no  significant  correlation  was
found  between  the  two  variables,  it  can  be
concluded  that  EFL  learners’  general
language  proficiency  should  not  be  a  sound
basis  to  predict  their  speech  act  production.
Therefore, it would be misleading to predict
one's  pragmatic  success  solely  on  the  basis
of general proficiency on the grounds that a
learner  with  a  higher  score  in  a  general
proficiency  test  may  not  necessarily  make
more  progress  in  the  acquisition  of
pragmatic  competence.  As  seen  from  the
findings,  two  learners  with  the  same
language  proficiency  scores  performed
differently while learning L2 pragmatics and
turned  out  to  represent  two  different
proximal  zones  of  development.  The
conclusion  one  may  draw  is  that  a  weak
relationship  exists  between  learners’
language  proficiency  and  the  amount  of
scaffolding  they  require  while  learning  L2
pragmatics. It is the sociocultural context of
learning  which  determines  a  specific
learner’s  process  of  pragmatic  learning
irrespective of how high or low the learner’s
general language proficiency may be. In this
regard,  Donato  (2000)  maintains  that
"learning  unfolds  in  different  ways  under
different  circumstances.  The  circumstances
include  the  specific  concrete  individuals
each with their different histories, and signs
they use, and the assistance they provide and
are provided" (p.47).  
 
The  second  purpose  of  this  study  was  to
examine  the  relationship  between  learners’
individual  ZPDs  and  the  ZPD  of  the  group.
The  results  partially  confirmed  the
relationship.  Hence,  there  seems  to  be  a
relationship  between  the  two  variables,
although their precise nature is still a matter
of question. In this study, the majority of the
individuals’ ZPDs as well as the ZPD of the
group  grew  from  session  1  to  session  3.
However,  there  were  some  irregularities
between  the  two  types  of  ZPDs,  i.e.
individual  ZPD  vs.  group  ZPD,  making  it
more  difficult  to  make  a  claim  with
conviction. In effect, as groups, the learners
did  require  less  scaffolding  as  they  got
closer  to  the  end  of  their  treatment  sessions
whereas,  as  individuals,  they  manifested
irregularities.  The  majority  of  them  (60%)
required  less  scaffolding  as  they  went  on
with  the  instruction,  some  of  them  (30%)
required  more  scaffolding,  and  some  (10%)
remained  unchanged.  This  indicates
individual variation in the route to pragmatic
development.  Besides,  the  patterns  of
individual  ZDPs  for  the  two  speech  acts
manifested  dissimilarities.  This  adds  to  the
complexity of ZPD growth as it depends not
only  on  individual  variation  but  also  the
 
type of speech act. The overall conclusion is
that  there  is  a  relationship  between  the  two
ZPDs, although the extent to which the two
ZPDs  go  together  is  uncertain.  More
research  is  needed  to  draw  stronger
conclusions about this relationship.

 

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