Posts Tagged ‘lev vygotsky’

Lev Vygotsky developed his cultural-historical theory of cognitive development in the early 20th century but it has only recently been applied in American early childhood education through a program called “Tools of the Mind”. Imagine, a pre-school program that teaches children how to develop their executive function skills and control their own behavior without drugs!

February 28, 2008


M O N O G R A P H S – 7






Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong



Foreword, page 3

Introduction, page 4

National/regional and local contexts

in which the innovation was

conceived, page 6

Specific problematic issues addressed,

page 8

Vygotsky’s theory of learning and

development, page 9

Subsequent developments in the

Cultural-Historical Theory

as a foundation for instructional

practices, page 13

Description of the innovation, page 17

Description of the Early Literacy

Advisor, page 22

Implementation of the innovation,

page 25

Evaluation: selected experimental

studies, page 30

Impact, page 35

Future prospects/conclusions, page 37

Notes, page 39

References, page 39

The authors are responsible for the choice

and presentation of the facts contained in

this publication and for the opinions expressed

therein, which are not necessarily

those of UNESCO:IBE and do not commit

the Organization. The designations employed

and the presentation of the material

in this publication do not imply the expression

of any opinion whatsoever on the part

of UNESCO or UNICEF concerning the legal

status of any country, territory, city or

area, or of its authorities, or concerning the

delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

About the authors

Elena Bodrova (Russian Federation)

and Deborah Leong (United States of


Elena Bodrova, Ph.D., and Deborah

Leong, Ph.D., have collaborated since

1992 when Dr Bodrova came to the

United States from the Russian

Federation, where she had worked at the

Institute of Pre-School Education and

the Centre for Educational Innovations.

They co-authored one of the defining

books on Lev Vygotsky’s educational

theories, Tools of the mind: The

Vygotskian approach to early childhood

education (1996, Merril/Prentice Hall)

and four educational videos (Davidson

Films). Dr Bodrova is currently working

for Mid-Continent Research for

Education and Learning (McREL),

Colorado. Dr Leong is a professor at

Metropolitan State College of Denver

since 1976. She has also co-authored a

college textbook: Assessing and guiding

young children’s development and

learning (1997, Allyn & Bacon).

Published in 2001

by the International Bureau of Education,

P.O. Box 199, 1211 Geneva 20,



Printed in Switzerland by PCL




The Tools of the Mind project aims to foster the cognitive development of

young children in relation to early literacy learning. The authors of the project

have developed a number of tools to support early learning and a highly innovative

method for training teachers in using these approaches. Piloting of

the approaches has demonstrated their potential to develop children’s early literacy

skills and they are being increasingly used in early childhood education

programmes across the United States. The project is the result of collaborative

work between Russian and American education researchers, based on the theories

of Vygotsky, applied to the cultural context of the United States. This

monograph describes the development and piloting of the project, including

the creation of the Early Learning Advisor, a computerized assessment system

which provides direct advice to teachers on the developmental levels of their

individual students, and gives them suggestions about how to apply the innovative

teaching concepts in their daily work in the classroom.

FIGURE 1. Play plan by Shamiso in November



The Tools of the Mind project began as a search for tools to support the cognitive

development of young children. We ended up focusing on the development

of a number of teaching tools to scaffold early learning and a unique

method of training teachers in how to use these tools. On the basis of the

Vygotskian approach, we created a series of tools or strategies to support the

development of early literacy, including meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic

skills as well as other foundational literacy skills. The results of an empirical

evaluation of the project revealed that the strategies had a positive effect on literacy

achievement in young children.

As the project grew, so did the number of teachers who wanted to be trained

in how to implement these innovative strategies. The traditional

workshop/class format we used to train teachers was not as effective as we

wanted it to be—something that other researchers in staff development have

also discovered. In response to this, we took a unique approach to teacher

training by using child assessment and technology to transfer expert knowledge

to the classroom teacher. With Dr Dmitri Semenov, an expert in mathematical

modelling of psychological processes and design of artificial intelligence

systems, we developed a diagnostic-prescriptive computerized

assessment system—the Early Literacy Advisor (ELA). The ELA acts as an

‘expert teacher’ capable of giving advice on how to address the specific instructional

needs of an individual student. Consequently, instead of general

workshops on literacy development, teachers are given specific results from

the assessments of their own students described in terms of the relevant developmental

patterns. Instead of a workshop on literacy activities, the assessment

results include the literacy activities most suitable for the children in

their classroom. And instead of lectures on the Vygotskian approach, teachers

learn about the concepts of zone of proximal development and scaffolding as

they apply them in their own teaching. At many levels, the ELA was able to

break down barriers to innovation.

The Tools of the Mind project began in two classrooms with three interested

teachers. It has grown over eight years to influence hundreds of teachers and

their students through educational videos, books, articles and the use of the


We believe that this project demonstrates that good educational practices

originating in one country can spark the creation of new practices that fit the

cultural context of another country, but still remain faithful to the theoretical

foundations underlying the original. The results can be extremely positive and


unique—something that would not have been developed in either country

without the exchange of ideas. A necessary ingredient for innovation is the

thoughtful exchange between researchers and practising teachers so that the

newly developed instructional practices can address critical learning problems

in a way that the teacher can easily implement in the classroom. In our case,

two early childhood teachers in particular—Ruth Hensen and Carol Hughes—

made this possible. We have seen many programmes that try to adapt the

classroom to the innovation instead of developing the innovation to fit the

structure and organization of the classroom. An innovation cannot survive unless

empirical research is used to validate the effects of the newly developed

tools. Dissemination and evaluation go hand in hand.

The INNODATA programme is designed to foster the kind of cross-fertilization

embodied in Tools of the Mind by providing a forum to share the experiences

of researchers who have tried to implement and evaluate these kinds

of innovative programmes. We hope that our experience will be useful to other

researchers struggling with similar problems and issues.

FIGURE 2. Play plan by Shamiso in February


National/regional and local contexts

in which the innovation was conceived

The Tools of the Mind project was conceived at a time when a national consensus

was already established about the importance of early childhood education.

Recognizing the need to increase the quality of these programmes, the National

Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) began to accredit

early childhood education programmes, using the idea of developmentally appropriate

practice as its core. Developmentally appropriate practice is instruction that

is both age and individually appropriate (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). As programmes

adapted to obtain the NAEYC accreditation, this very broad definition

of instructional practice led to several problems. First, most teachers did not have

enough knowledge about child development to be able to practically decide what

to do in the classroom. In addition, the research base used to define developmental

patterns was being modified at a rate that only academic experts in the field

could keep up with. Second, the broad and open-ended nature of the definition

was subject to a wide variety of interpretations—for some it meant no teaching at

all and for others it meant very teacher-directed instruction.

At about the same point in time, the spotlight of accountability hit elementary

schools in the United States. The standards-based movement was the result

of the American public’s growing dismay over the low levels of achievement

of American students in general and specifically on international tests in

maths and literacy. Schools in the United States have always been under the

control of local communities, so that what children learned was primarily determined

by local (city or county) school boards. Therefore, goals for student

achievement have not been set at a national level. Many people suspected that

the variability in objectives was a major cause of stagnant and often dismal

test scores, so many states began to set standards, to assess children and to

hold school districts, schools and teachers accountable for student achievement.

These new state standards have begun to supersede local control, mandating

specific levels of attainment and specific assessments that would allow

the public to compare the successes and failures of schools within the same

district or state. At the beginning of the standards movement, academic standards

did not extend to pre-school and kindergarten, but this trend is changing

(see Bowman, Donovan & Burns, 2000). Several states have now developed

standards specifically for young children, and the number of states is sure to

grow. For the first time, Head Start—a federally funded programme for at-risk

pre-school children—was mandated to identify performance standards for


children. With the growing emphasis on academic performance in pre-school

and kindergarten, teachers are now looking for guidance in how to choose instructional

practices that are not only developmentally appropriate but also

produce consistent achievement gains (Bodrova, Leong & Paynter, 1999).

Along with accreditation and the accountability movement, another trend in

early childhood education that influenced the Tools of the Mind project and led

to the development of the ELA assessment system was the growing dissatisfaction

in the 1990s with standardized assessment, particularly when used to assess

young children. Many professional groups—researchers, educators and test makers—

began to criticize the use of paper-pencil standardized tests with young

children (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987;

Shepard, Kagan & Wurtz, 1998). Standardized tests were criticized because they

were not authentic, tended to underestimate children’s knowledge, and penalized

children who were from different ethnic and minority groups. In addition, standardized

testing often provided little useful information for making classroom

decisions. The outcry led to a movement to develop standardized assessment systems

(the same procedure is used for all children) that are different from traditional

standardized tests. Emphasizing the importance of authentic classroom assessment,

these new assessment systems are related more directly to classroom

decisions and must be integrated with benchmarks and standards.

Another aspect of the national context that has influenced the implementation

of the innovation is the continued diversity of American public schools.

The ethnic, cultural, linguistic and social diversity of the American classroom

has long been documented in educational research. Few countries have the

level of diversity found in the United States. Attempts to respect these differences,

while at the same time teaching all children the skills and requisite

knowledge to make them productive and literate members of society, have

been and continue to be a struggle. The search for innovation has as its highest

priority those classroom practices that work with diverse students.

Finally, the national and local context in which the Tools of the Mind project

was developed has also been influenced by the growing shortage of experienced

teachers. The need to train teachers more quickly has grown. Two trends have

been cited as possible causes for this teacher shortage. First, many states have implemented

school reforms that reduce class size, particularly in the early grades.

Secondly, because of the anomaly of the ‘baby boom generation’, more practising

teachers are retiring, and so there would be a teacher shortage even without

reduced class sizes. As a result, teachers are being hired to teach in pre-school and

kindergarten with degrees in fields other than early childhood or without experience

in the early childhood classroom. School districts are struggling even more

than normal with the need to train on the job. Cost-effective ways of conducting

in-service training in early literacy has become a top priority.


Specific problematic issues addressed

The Tools of the Mind project was developed to address the following issues facing

the educators of young children, from age 3.5 to 7 (pre-school to Grade 2):

• The need for developmentally appropriate teaching techniques to scaffold

both underlying cognitive skills and foundational literacy skills for a diverse

population of children;

• The need for instruments that combine the best features of standardized and

authentic classroom assessments;

• The need for a mechanism to monitor child progress towards standards and

to provide timely feedback to teachers; and

• The need for a vehicle for ongoing transfer of expert knowledge to teachers,

especially novice teachers.

FIGURE 3. Play plan by Shamiso in May


Vygotsky’s theory of learning

and development

The theoretical framework that forms the basis of our work is the Cultural-

Historical Theory of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). Of the many aspects of

this theory that profoundly influenced psychological thought in the twentieth

century, the Tools of the Mind project primarily focused on the aspects

that address issues of learning and development. The revolutionary

approach to these issues pioneered by Vygotsky has linked these two

processes together in a way that was never before considered. According

to Vygotsky, some of the developmental outcomes and processes that were

typically thought of as occurring ‘naturally’ or ‘spontaneously’ were, in

fact, substantially influenced by children’s own learning or ‘constructed’.

Learning, in turn, was shaped by the social-historical context in which it

took place. This dual emphasis—on children’s active engagement in their

own mental development and on the role of the social context—determined

the name used to describe the Vygotskian approach in the West—‘social



The kind of learning (and, consequently, teaching) that leads to changes in development

was described by Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) as the situation in

which children acquire specific cultural tools, handed to them by more experienced

members of society. These cultural tools facilitate the acquisition of

higher mental functions—deliberate, symbol-mediated behaviours that may

take different forms dependent on the specific cultural context.

Higher mental functions exist for some time in a distributed or ‘shared’

form, when learners and their mentors use new cultural tools jointly in the

context of solving some task. After acquiring (in Vygotsky’s terminology ‘appropriating’)

a variety of cultural tools, children become capable of using

higher mental functions independently. Vygotsky called this progression from

the ‘shared’ to the ‘individual’ state the law of the development of higher mentalfunctions (Vygotsky, 1978).

Tools for higher mental functions have two faces: external and internal

(Luria, 1979; Vygotsky, 1978). On the external plane, the tool is one that

learners can use to solve problems that require engaging mental processes

at levels not yet available to children (e.g. when a task calls for deliberate


memorization or focused attention). At the same time, on the internal

plane, the tool plays a role in the child’s construction of his/her own mind,

influencing the development of new categories and processes. These new

categories and processes eventually lead to the formation of higher mental

functions such as focused attention, deliberate memory and logical



The process of learning cultural tools begins in the early years when children

first encounter cultural artifacts and procedures associated with using

them; they learn to use language first to communicate with other people

and later to regulate their own behaviour. This is also the time when they

first become participants in ‘shared activities’—from the emotional exchanges

of infants with their caregivers to the joint problem solving of

older children. One of the major outcomes of this process is the ability to

take control of their own behaviours—physical, social, emotional and cognitive—

through employing their higher mental functions. Vygotsky described

this as ‘becoming a master of one’s own behaviour’, as opposed to

being ‘slave to the environment’ (Vygotsky, 1978). In terms of young children’s

behaviours, this is easy to demonstrate with the example of memory.

In the beginning, children who are not ‘armed’ with the necessary tools

have little or no control over what they can remember and when they can remember

it. For these children, these ‘whats’ and ‘whens’ are almost totally

determined by the environment: a 3-year-old cannot recite a nursery rhyme

when asked to do it, but can do it once a teacher starts reciting this rhyme or

when this rhyme’s character appears on a television screen. This type of

spontaneous remembering is governed by the laws of association: children

only remember things when they are repeated over and over or continually

practised in a fun and engaging activity. While it is possible to employ these

rules of association in teaching limited content to very young children, the

content demands imposed by formal schooling make it necessary to engage

in more efficient and deliberate strategies of remembering. Thus, as a child

makes the transition from less formal to more formal learning contexts, the

child has to learn how to ‘take in a teacher’s plan and make it his/her own’.

For educators who share Vygotsky’s beliefs about the processes of learning

and development, the goal of early instructional years involves more than

merely transferring specific knowledge—it involves arming children with

tools that will lead to the development of higher mental functions (Bodrova

& Leong, 1996).



The concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is by now quite familiar

even to educators working outside the Vygotskian framework.

However, the applications of this concept to instructional practice are not numerous,

and in many cases the ZPD is used as a metaphor rather than as a theory

(Bodrova & Leong, 1996). The ZPD is defined as a distance between two

levels of a child’s performance: the lower level that reflects the tasks the child

can perform independently and the higher level reflective of the tasks the same

child can do with assistance.

To successfully apply the concept to instruction, the ZPD has to be placed

in a broader context of the Cultural-Historical Theory. It is important to remember

that the ZPD reflects the view Vygotskians hold of the relationship

between learning and development: what develops next (proximally) is what

is affected by learning (through formal or informal instruction). Consequently,

the concept of the ZPD is applicable to development only to the degree in

which development might be influenced by learning (Vygotsky, 1978).

Behaviours having a strong maturational component, for example, could not

be described using the ZPD. In addition, for any developments to be influenced

by learning, there must be a mechanism that supports the progression

of a newly learned/developed process from assisted to individual. In some

cases this mechanism is absent and consequently this progression may never

occur. This leads us to the next Vygotskian idea that has generated a strong

following in the area of education—the idea of scaffolding.


Although scaffolding is not one of Vygotsky’s initial terms, the concept is a

useful one because it makes more explicit some of the instructional implications

of the idea of the ZPD. Introduced almost forty years after Vygotsky’s

death by Jerome Bruner (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976), scaffolding describes

the process of transition from teacher assistance to independence. It answers

the frequently asked question about the ZPD: if a child can function at a high

level only with assistance, how can this child eventually be able to function at

the same level independently?

Scaffolding answers this question by focusing on the gradual ‘release of responsibility’

from the expert to the learner, resulting in a child eventually becoming

fully responsible for his/her own performance. This gradual release of

responsibility is accomplished by continuously decreasing the degree of assistance

provided by the teacher without altering the learning task itself.

Emphasizing the fact that the learning task remains unchanged makes scaf12

folding different from other instructional methods that simplify the learner’s

job by breaking a complex task into several simple ones. While breaking the

task into simple subtasks may work for some areas (demonstrated by some

successes of programmed instruction), in other areas, breaking a task into several

component tasks actually changes the target skill or concept being

learned. This alteration leads to learner difficulty when trying to master complex


In contrast, scaffolding makes the learner’s job easier by providing the maximum

amount of assistance at the beginning stages of learning and then, as the

learner’s mastery grows, withdrawing this assistance. However, the question

remains: how does a teacher choose the right kind of assistance and then withdraw

it in such a way that the student’s independent performance stays at the

same high level as it was when the assistance was provided? Unfortunately,

without an answer to this question, scaffolding will remain more of a

metaphor for effective teaching than a description of a specific instructional

strategy for teachers to use. In search of this answer, we will turn to the work

done within Cultural-Historical Theory by colleagues of Vygotsky and generations

of his students.

FIGURE 4. Play plan by Krystine in November


Subsequent developments

in the Cultural-Historical Theory

as a foundation for instructional practices

Vygotsky first formulated the major principles of the Cultural-Historical

Theory, but it took several subsequent decades of work by his colleagues and

students to apply these principles to education and to develop new instructional

practices based on these principles. Vygotskians elaborated primarily

on the idea of ‘cultural tools’ and were able to identify the specific tools most

beneficial for different areas of learning and development. They were also able

to describe processes leading to the acquisition of these tools and the role of

the teacher in facilitating these processes. These subsequent developments of

the Vygotskian approach resulted in the addition of new ideas to the original

framework that—along with original Vygotskian concepts—have influenced

our work. These ideas include the concepts of the orienting basis of an action,

external mediators, private speech and shared activity and the idea of play asa ‘leading activity’

(Elkonin, 1977; Galperin, 1969; Leont’ev, 1978; Luria,

1979; Venger, 1988).


According to Galperin (Galperin, 1969; 1992), ‘orienting basis of an action’

describes how a learner represents the learning task in terms of the actions

he/she will perform in relation to this task. For the learning of a new task to

be successful, the learner’s actions must be driven by the critical attributes of

the task. In identifying these critical attributes, the learner has to deal with a

variety of elements that might orient her/him within the task in a more or less

appropriate way. Failure to include some of the critical attributes results in errors

and may not produce a desired learning outcome. If the learner pays attention

to non-essential attributes of the task, he/she may be distracted from

the most relevant features, which can also result in errors in learning. For example,

if a student does not include the notion of letter orientation in her/his

orienting basis of handwriting, letter reversal will result. When the learning

task is complex and requires a variety of actions, it is usually difficult for the

students to develop the correct and comprehensive orienting basis necessary

to succeed. In this case, Galperin suggests that teachers provide scaffolding

by first helping students develop the appropriate orienting basis, and then by


teaching students how to monitor their actions using the orienting basis as a

reference point. An essential component of scaffolding would include using

tangible objects or graphic representations to support the development of an

adequate mental representation of the action.


External mediators are among the first tools children use and include tangible

objects, pictures of the objects, and physical actions that children use to gain

control over their own behaviour. As with all cultural tools, the function of the

external mediators is to expand mental capacities such as attention, memory or

thinking, and to allow the person who uses the tool to perform at a higher level.

In his own writing, Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978; 1987) used some examples

of external mediators to illustrate the evolution of cultural tools throughout the

history of humankind. However, when talking about cultural tools used by

modern humans, Vygotsky primarily focused on the language-based tools, although

he acknowledged that young children may still need more ‘primitive’,

non-verbal tools. It was through the work of Vygotsky’s colleagues Luria,

Leont’ev, Elkonin and Galperin, as well as the subsequent generations of

Vygotskians, that the role and the development of both verbal and non-verbal

tool use by young children was thoroughly investigated (see Elkonin, 1963;

Galperin, 1992; Venger, 1988).


With the general emphasis that Cultural-Historical Theory places on language

as a universal cultural tool, private speech presents only a small portion of the

whole picture. However, private speech is an important language tool a child

uses to master his/her own behaviour. A child who uses private speech may

seem to be talking to somebody since he or she is talking out loud; however,

in reality the only person this child communicates to is him/herself. Thus, private

speech is speech that is audible to an outside person but is not directed to

another listener. While adults occasionally use private speech, children of

pre-school or elementary school age benefit from it most. According to

Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1987), private speech in young children is a precursor of

verbal thinking since it serves as a carrier of thought at the time when most

higher mental functions are not fully developed. As was later found by Luria

(1979), and then confirmed by many studies within and outside the

Vygotskian framework, private speech has another important function: it

helps children regulate both their overt and mental behaviours (Berk &

Winsler, 1995; Galperin, 1992).



Since Vygotsky’s works were translated into other languages over more than

thirty years ago, the association between Vygotsky’s theories and the idea of

shared or collaborative activities has been firmly established. However, this

association has mainly led to an interest in expert–novice interactions or interactions

between peers. In reality, pedagogical applications of this idea go

far beyond the issue of optimal instructional interactions. According to

Vygotsky, partners in shared activity share more than a common task; they

also share the very mental processes and categories involved in performing

this task (see the law of the development of higher mental functions, page 9).

From an instructional perspective, this means that the mental processes employed

by a teacher or by a more experienced peer tutor should be the same

ones as would be eventually appropriated by the learner.

Another instructional application of the concept of shared activity applies to

a group of mental processes traditionally described under the name of ‘metacognition’

or ‘self-regulation’. These essential learning processes are typically

studied in older children when they become able to regulate their cognitive

functioning. However, from the Vygotskian perspective, the origins of these

processes can be found much earlier, when young children start practising

self-regulatory functions by regulating other people’s behaviour. Thus, engaging

young children in activities where they can practise other-regulation as

well as self-regulation will contribute to the development of their meta-cognitive

abilities (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).


Symbolic or dramatic play occupies a special place in Vygotsky’s theory of

learning and development (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

Play is the activity that is most conducive to development in young children. For

children to have the full benefit of play, the play itself must have specific features.

For Vygotskians, these features include imaginary situation, roles and

rules. While the roles are explicit, the rules that govern the relationship between

these roles are typically hidden or implicit. When children enter play they are

expected to know what the rules are and the players are only reminded of these

rules when they fail to follow them. Thus, as long as everyone follows the same

set of rules, these rules will be hidden from an outside observer, which might

create an illusion of free-flowing play unconfined by any regulations.

Vygotsky and his colleagues argue that play is not the most unrestricted,

‘free’ activity, but rather that it presents the context in which children face

more constraints than in any other context. Although it is constraining, play is


also one of the most desirable activities of childhood because children are extremely

motivated to abide by these limits. Thus, play provides a unique context

in which children are motivated to act and at the same time develop the

ability to self-regulate their behaviour. The psychological nature of play facilitates

the practice of deliberate and purposeful behaviours at a child’s highest

attainable level (Elkonin, 1977; 1978). As play matures, there is a progressive

transition from reactive and impulsive behaviours to behaviours that are more

deliberate and thoughtful.



The Vygotskian approach has influenced not only the development of teaching

strategies, but also the choice of areas where these strategies are applied

and the time at which they are expected to be most effective. The teaching

strategies described in the next section directly apply the ideas of the ZPD,

scaffolding, external mediators, private speech and shared activity. The idea of

the orienting basis of activity was used in identifying the exact procedures and

materials needed to implement each of the strategies.

The ideas of the Cultural-Historical framework are also reflected in the design

of the ELA. The computerized system is designed to give the best estimate

of the child’s ZPD and to recommend teaching techniques to provide the

optimal level of assistance within this ZPD.

FIGURE 5. Play plan by Krystine in February


Description of the innovation

In this section, we will describe the innovations created using the Vygotskian

framework outlined above. We have selected a sampling of strategies, a description

of the ELA computerized assessment system, and a description of

the educational videos developed for dissemination.


True to Vygotskian beliefs about the importance of dramatic play in the development

of young children, in our classrooms, dramatic play occupies the

central place among daily activities (Bodrova & Leong, 1998a; 1999).

Throughout the entire pre-school year and at the beginning of the kindergarten

year, elements of dramatic play permeate most of the activities. In addition,

pre-school classrooms have a designated dramatic play area where children

spend forty to fifty minutes per day in sustained play. Kindergarten children

spend closer to forty minutes at the beginning of the year and then as most

kindergartens begin more formal instruction in January, the time spent in play

in the classroom drops to twenty minutes. Special instructional strategies are

used to support all elements of play. In typical early childhood classrooms in

the United States, teachers will set aside this amount of time, but children will

wander around the room, unable to sustain play. Teachers and school administrators

who visit the Tools of the Mind classrooms are surprised at the level

of intensity and involvement of the children.

To help children first initiate and then sustain an imaginary situation, the

teacher in the project makes sure that the children have a sufficient repertoire

of themes that would serve as inspiration for pretend play. To expand this existing

repertoire of themes, the teachers use such sources as field trips, visitors’

presentations, videos and books. The choice of themes is determined by

the children’s interests and by the themes already in their repertoire. For example,

among themes introduced over several years are space, farm, treasure

hunt, store, hospital, veterinarian’s office and restaurant.

Props also sustain the imaginary situation. Today’s toys so closely replicate

their ‘grown-up’ counterparts (for example, plastic food and toy kitchen utensils)

that only when play is at its most mature do children use their imaginations

to create props. Many children believe that they cannot play without the

specific prop. Instead of pretending the Barbie doll is a dentist, a child will

want to buy the ‘Dentist Barbie’. In the Tools of the Mind project, teachers try

to wean children from the need for specific props by introducing games in


which children think of different ways to play with ordinary objects. They

brainstorm ways in which a wooden block can be used—as a baby, a ship or

a chair for a doll. Teachers transition children from using realistic props to using

minimal props. In playing hospital, for example, a piece of cloth can be

used as a nurse’s cap, to make a sling for a patient’s broken arm or to wrap another

patient’s sore throat. Children pretend that a bead on a necklace is a

stethoscope. Generally, children need only minimal props to indicate the role

they are playing and those props can be re-used later for other themes.

To increase the level of mature play, teachers in the project also help children

to expand the number of roles in a theme. If children have a limited repertoire of

roles or do not quite know what they are supposed to do when acting out a specific

role, they cannot sustain dramatic play for a long period of time. For example,

if children play hospital they are not limited in their choice by the roles of

doctor and patient. They can also play roles such as nurse, pharmacist, x-ray

technician or patient’s parent. Having such a variety of characters makes play

richer in content and also helps prevent children from fighting over one specific

role. During field trips or visitors’ presentations, teachers focus children’s attention

on what people do and not on the objects they use. For example, a visit to a

fire station is not likely to lead to a rich play afterwards if children spend all their

time exploring the inside of a fire truck. On the contrary, it may even produce

conflicts in a play area if there is only one toy fire truck or only one fire-fighter

hat. A much more productive use of this field trip would be to introduce children

to various activities that people at the fire station are engaged in: answering the

phone, driving the truck, putting out fires, administering first aid, etc.


One of the most effective ways of helping children to develop mature play is

to use ‘play plans’. A play plan is a description of what the child expects to do

during the play period, including the imaginary situation, the roles and the

props. Play planning goes beyond the child saying, ‘I am going to keep

house’, to indicate what the child will do when he/she gets there such as, ‘I

am going to play shopping and making dinner’ or ‘I’m going to be the baby’.

Two or more children can plan together if they are interested in playing the

same thing or going to the same area. If children want to change their plans,

they are encouraged to do so. It is the action of mentally planning that is the

major benefit to the child. The figures appearing at the ends of chapters show

the progression of play plans for two pre-school children: Shamiso (Figures 1,

2 and 3) and Krystine (Figures 4, 5 and 6). The progression of play plans

shown begins with messages dictated to the teacher and ends with the child’s

attempts to write his/her own message.


In some other early childhood programmes, children plan their activities

aloud. However, we found that planning on paper is much more effective than

planning orally. Both the children and the teacher often forgot the oral plan. The

drawn/written plan is a tangible record of what the child wanted to do that other

children as well as that child and the teacher could consult. Many of our teachers

take dictation and write what the child dictates about their plan at the bottom

of the page, thus turning the planning session into a literacy activity.

For Vygotskians, the external mediation feature of planning on paper

strengthens play’s self-regulation function. It provides a way for both the child

and the teacher to revisit the plan because it serves as a mediator for memory.

In creating, discussing and revising their plans, children learn to control their

behaviours in play and beyond, thus acquiring self-regulatory skills. Finally,

teachers use play planning to influence dramatic play without intervening in

and disrupting the play as it is occurring. The teacher suggests to children

ahead of time how they can try out new roles, add new twists to the play scenario,

or think of a way to substitute for missing props. Potential ‘hot spots’

are worked out in advance.

In the Tools of the Mind classrooms, play plans increased the quality of

child play and the level of self-regulation, both cognitive and social. When

teachers did planning every day, children showed gains in the richness of their

play. In addition, there was less arguing and fighting among the children.

Asking the parties if the argument was ‘part of their plan’ easily solved the

disputes. Of course, they had not planned to argue and immediately returned

to their original plan. Arguments seldom blew up into situations where there

were power struggles with the teacher. In the long run, after plans had been

used for several months, there were few fights since potential problems were

defused before the play began.

There are several other benefits to play plans that are worth noting. First, the

play plans provided a wonderful way for parents to find out about what goes

on in the classroom. They provided a context for parents and children to discuss

the day and help parents to feel more involved. Second, the written plans

documented the child’s progress in both symbolic representation and literacy

skills. Third, the plans provide a meaningful context in which to use literacy

skills. In our findings, many children began to act like writers by drawing and

writing their plan in ‘pretend writing’ and then telling the teacher what the

‘words’ meant. For the at-risk children who have not had opportunities to

‘write’ at home, this is a good place to start literacy activities. Finally, teachers

reported that play plans provided a special moment of connection with each

child. They gave the teacher time to talk about what the child was interested in

doing. The play plans also provided time to talk about what the children had

drawn. Although the play plans required ten to fifteen minutes to complete,


once teachers really began using them, they found that the time was well spent.

After using plans for only the dramatic play area, many of our teachers ended

up using them at other times because they helped children to practise self-regulation

in a number of contexts.


Scaffolded Writing is a technique invented in the Tools of the Mind project by

applying the ideas of the orienting basis of activity, external mediation, private

speech and shared activity (Bodrova & Leong, 1996; 1998b). In Scaffolded

Writing, a teacher helps a child plan his/her own message by drawing a line

to stand for each word the child says. The child then repeats the message,

pointing to each line as he or she says the word. Finally, the child writes on

the lines, attempting to represent each word with some letters or symbols.

During the first several sessions, the child may require some assistance and

prompting from the teacher. As the child’s understanding of the concept of a

word grows, the child learns to carry the whole process independently—selfscaffolded

writing—including drawing the lines and writing words on these


The figures appearing at the ends of chapters show how Scaffolded Writing

influences writing development. Figure 7 shows a kindergarten-aged child’s

writing prior to using Scaffolded Writing. Figure 8 shows his first attempt to

use scaffolded writing with teacher assistance and Figure 9 shows the same

child’s self-scaffolded writing two months later.

Through our research, we found that Scaffolded Writing must be implemented

differently for children, depending on their background knowledge

about literacy. While the major components of Scaffolded Writing—childgenerated

message, line as an external mediator, private speech engaged during

the writing process—remain unchanged, the contexts in which the technique

is introduced and then practised might differ. In addition, the particular

order of steps children follow when progressing from teacher-assisted

Scaffolded Writing to using self-scaffolded writing may also vary.

All children watch the teacher model the use of Scaffolded Writing. The

teacher models that the words convey a message and shows the children how to

plan the message using the lines. The teachers use messages designed to highlight

different aspects of literacy, changing the emphasis as the year progresses.

For example, many messages modelled early in the year are used to just reinforce

the relationship between spoken and written language—they might be

about what is for lunch or what children will do on a particular day. When children

are already using the lines on their own, modelled messages highlight

meta-linguistic features of words, such as long and short words, or words that


begin with the same sound. Later, the modelled messages are used to teach

sound-to-symbol correspondence.

If children have little literacy knowledge, the child’s own use of scaffolded

writing occurs in specific contexts such as their play plans. The message

written usually starts with a stem, such as ‘I am going to’ or ‘My plan is’.

After using the stem in the first sentence, children can go on and add more

sentences. Children are encouraged as quickly as possible to make their own

lines to represent each of the words in their own oral message. At this stage,

the teacher focuses on learning voice-to-print match by emphasizing that

each word spoken has a corresponding ‘line’ or representation. A second emphasis

is on the idea that writing carries a message. The fact that letters represent

sounds is discussed, but children are not expected to write letters and

words. They are asked instead to use whatever they wish to help them remember

the message—a scribble, a letter-like form or a letter.

When children are familiar to some degree with letters and letter–sound

relationships, the procedure adopts a more directed format. This is an evolving

process and is individualized to fit the child’s emerging skills. The child

dictates the message, the teacher draws the lines to stand for the words, and

then both the child and the teacher repeat the message, pointing to the line as

they say each word. Once the child can repeat the message, the child attempts

to write words on the lines. After several sessions of teacher-assisted scaffolded

writing, the child is encouraged to try planning the message with the

lines all by him/herself. Children are encouraged to write long and complete

oral messages to prompt attempts at encoding or writing as many different

sounds as possible. Children have a special alphabet chart, called a ‘sound

map’, to help them find the corresponding letter if they do not know it.

At this more advanced stage, children are asked to reread their messages to

the teacher after they have finished writing on their own. At this time, the

teacher and the child will work on ‘editing’ the message. Editing consists of

working on a certain aspect of literacy at the assisted level. For example, when

a child has one phoneme represented in each word of the message, the teacher

will help the child hear more sounds by drawing out one of the words. If a

child has represented more than one phoneme in the word, the teacher will

work on another missing phoneme. In addition, the teacher may reinforce

meta-linguistic concepts already introduced in modelled messages. Editing is

very individualized and requires that the teacher be very knowledgeable about

patterns of literacy development and what kind of assistance would work best

with a specific child. At this point, ‘estimated spelling’ (spelling that is phonologically

accurate but not conventionally correct) is acceptable and conventional

spelling is not emphasized.


Description of the Early Literacy Advisor

To facilitate the transfer of expert knowledge to the classroom teacher, the

Tools of the Mind project developed the ELA system with Dr Dmitri

Semenov. Dr Semenov is an expert in mathematical modelling of psychological

processes and in the design of artificial intelligence systems. The ELA is

conceived as an advisor to the teacher—helping the teacher to assess children

more effectively, to analyse assessment data, and to make choices between a

number of appropriate teaching techniques. Teachers receive expert advice in

the form of individual student profiles that make possible a truly individual approach

to address the unique needs and strengths of each student.1

Each profile has four parts that could be printed out in any combination. The

first part contains the report on the student’s performance in a test (such as an

overall score and the specific items answered correctly or incorrectly). The second

part contains the analysis of error patterns detected in the student’s performance.

The third part provides the interpretation of these error patterns. The

fourth part lists instructional strategies recommended for this particular student.

Expert knowledge derived from research and collective expertise of master

teachers is built into each component of the student profile, so that teachers

will receive accurate and research-based information. Without fully understanding

the expert knowledge behind the recommendations, teachers can still

use effective instructional recommendations that would otherwise require attending

many hours of in-service training. However, for those teachers who

want to become experts themselves, the student profiles provide detailed information

about developmental trajectories in literacy acquisition and specific

error patterns.

The major components of the ELA include a battery of early literacy assessments,

a set of instructional strategies, and computer software designed to

interpret the results of the assessment in terms of student literacy development

and recommended interventions.


The battery of assessments consists of instruments that target the skills and

concepts most critical for early literacy development along with the development

of meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic skills. The design of the ELA instruments

is based on the Vygotskian principles on the ZPD and scaffolding,

and combines assessment of a child’s independent performance with the assessment

of the child’s ability to respond to the teacher’s assistance.


An authentic assessment, the ELA uses game-like formats and activities

similar to what children would experience in school. Unlike on the typical machine-

scored answer sheet used in many assessments, children are not asked

to ‘bubble in’ their answers. Since the assessment battery is designed for nonreading

children and emergent readers, adults record the child’s actual response

on special forms (student response protocols). These forms are then

scanned into the computer and processed to generate individual student profiles.


The set of instructional strategies contains new strategies developed within the

Tools of the Mind project along with other instructional strategies empirically

proven to be effective in supporting early literacy development. Instructional

strategies are recommended on basis of the ‘window of opportunity’ for each

strategy estimated to be most beneficial for an individual child. Thus, depending

on the assessment results, different strategies could be recommended

for different children. To make the strategies’ implementation more feasible,

similar strategies are grouped into larger categories to be recommended for

groups of children with similar instructional needs.


The core of the ELA is a proprietary artificial intelligence engine that combines

pattern analysis algorithms with an expert system. The expert system is

programmed to emulate the decision-making process of master teachers by

making connections between an individual student’s raw assessment data and

effective instructional strategies that are most likely to benefit a particular student

at a specific time. In addition, the expert system defines where a child is

in the developmental trajectory and estimates the range of skills that will be

emerging next. It also identifies the patterns of a child’s errors that can be critical

in attaining the next milestone in the child’s development. The modular

design of the expert system makes it applicable to other subject areas and

grade levels, but it was first adapted to early literacy instruction.

Thus, the ELA is a logical outgrowth of the previous developments in the

Tools of the Mind project designed to facilitate the delivery of its theoretical

foundations and effective instructional strategies to classroom teachers.

The ELA has been field-tested on over 3,000 children in various samples

ranging from pre-kindergarten to Grade 1. Teachers who have used the ELA

in their classrooms have found it easy to administer and engaging for the



The ELA has been correlated with a general set of standards and benchmarks

derived from the most current research on literacy as well as from state

documents, documents from professional organizations with set literacy standards,

and research reports (e.g. National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns

& Griffin, 1998). From this body of information, a set of general standards and

benchmarks were compiled as well as a set of developmental patterns.



To increase public knowledge about Vygotsky and the principles on which

this project was built, we wrote a book, Tools of the mind: the Vygotskian approachto early childhood education (Bodrova & Leong, 1996) and participated

in the creation of a video series on Vygotsky with Davidson Films.

Three of the teaching videos cover a general introduction to Vygotsky, the role

of play in development, scaffolding, and the tactics that are used in teaching—

external mediation, private speech and shared learning. The fourth video,

which covers literacy, includes much of the Vygotskian approach to the development

of literacy.2

FIGURE 6. Play plan by Krystine in May


Implementation of the innovation

The implementation of the Tools of the Mind project can be divided into four

phases. The first phase involved our preliminary attempts at adaptation of the

Vygotskian approach to the classroom and the creation of new strategies that

better fit the American classroom while staying true to Vygotskian theoretical

foundations. In the second phase, we attempted to train a large number of

teachers to use these strategies. In the third phase, we evaluated the effects of

our approach on student achievement and experimented with methods of

training teachers. In the fourth phase, we further developed the computerized

assessment system, continued to develop strategies and applied them in more

diverse settings. In this phase, we worked on aligning the assessment with

standards and benchmarks.



The Tools of the Mind project first implemented Vygotskian activities in two

classrooms, a mixed-aged classroom with children from kindergarten to

Grade 2 (5-7 years of age) and in a large kindergarten class that had three

teachers in a private school. Each teacher had more than ten years of classroom

teaching experience. These teachers had shown an interest in the techniques

and had volunteered to participate.

As we began to implement the strategies, we discovered that many of them

did not work when they were imported directly into classroom practices. The

classroom practices and the content taught differed substantially. For example,

training teachers using the same method to teach reading skills did not translate

from Russian to English without major changes to accommodate a different

language system. Also, the curriculum in kindergarten and Grade 1 was

not the same in different countries. Children in the United States were actually

introduced to reading earlier than in the Russian Federation. American

children are allowed to attempt to write using ‘estimated’ spelling before they

know all of the sound-to-symbol correspondences and prior to reading, while

Russian children are taught to write conventionally from the very beginning.

We had to adjust Vygotskian activities so that the content in the activities was

meaningful, and we had to synchronize them with American expectations for

children of this age. Many of the Russian activities were designed for children

who were developmentally much older than their American counterparts,

although the learning tasks were similar. Thus, even the level of directions re26

quired to complete the task had to be changed to meet the developmental level

of American children since younger children’s memory skills are not as advanced.

As a result, we began to create new techniques that used Vygotskian principles

but that addressed the needs of American children. Luckily, we were

working with a wonderful group of very thoughtful teachers who were able to

help us adjust the activities to meet the needs of the American classroom. In

fact, these teachers had much higher degrees and more education than teachers

in the Russian Federation of equivalent grade levels. This made modifications

of our programme much easier. Finding a strong group of practitioners

with inquiring minds was crucial to this phase of our project and proved to be

very important all the way along.



In 1996, we began a massive implementation of our programme in a large

urban school district. We worked with seventy-eight teachers in teams in

eight schools. The teachers taught pre-school (4-year-olds), kindergarten

(5-year-olds), Grade 1 (6-year-olds) and Grade 2 (7-year-olds). We met with

small groups of teachers and support staff (special education teachers, reading

specialists) for a one-hour session. These sessions were scheduled so

that we were able to meet with all seventy-eight teachers once every three

weeks. In addition, trained district staff developers provided support in the


The intensive training process involved in this phase was very timeconsuming

and yielded inconsistent results. We did not have a full-blown curriculum

with teacher manuals and activity kits, and so it was more difficult for

teachers to implement our techniques. Teachers who understood and learned

the Vygotskian approach did better at implementing the techniques in the

classroom. When we gave specific suggestions to teachers, such as after child

evaluations, teachers were better able to implement suggestions. Using the assessment

data as the basis for teacher training was even more successful than

watching the teachers’ videotapes of classroom problems. This led us to the

idea of making the assessment more closely tied to teaching strategies and developmental


At the end of the year, the school district administration was reluctant to

have the entire project evaluated and blocked the final assessment. The district

felt that the assessments should only be given to the children who would pass

the test. Otherwise, they argued, it was too painful and difficult for the children.

Thus, we were not able to complete an empirical study or even an eval27

uation of our programme. We learned that the word ‘evaluation’ had different

meanings for researchers and school district staff and that this had to be negotiated

at the beginning of the project.

However, of the children we were allowed to assess, we found that in those

classrooms where our Vygotskian-based programme was faithfully implemented,

the children’s progress was very strong, much greater than expected.

All of the children progressed relative to their initial literacy levels. In addition,

progress outweighed the effects of demographic—African-American and

Latino students did as well as their Caucasian and Asian counterparts.

During this phase we developed our first three videos.


Realizing the need for a complete and real evaluation of our programme, in

Phase III we began an empirical study using control and experimental groups.

We narrowed our focus to kindergarten with a small pilot sample of preschools.

For the kindergarten study, we worked with a small district with a

large population of at-risk children. The plan was to have a six-month trial

(January to the end of school) and evaluation of the programme. The preschool

programmes were in an urban district.

This marked the first large-scale use of the computerized assessment system.

It required that all of the children’s assessments (control and experimental)

be analysed within a week. By this time the system could analyse an individual

protocol and produce a profile in five to ten minutes. More than 500

protocols had to be scanned and analysed in the course of a few weeks. Just

the logistics of working this out showed that the computerized assessment system

could handle a large volume and still perform flawlessly. The procedures

used in this phase of the project and the results of the study are described in

the section entitled ‘Evaluation’.

The implementation was more successful than we had expected. The children

had benefited greatly from the project; even the large number of non-

English-speaking students had progressed during the six months to a greater

extent than those in the control group. The techniques were successful with atrisk

populations. We believed that a more intensive effort would prove them

to be even more successful.

The introduction of the computerized assessment allowed us to give less

support compared with Phase II, but we ob tained more potent results for children.

Thus, tying the techniques directly to the assessment speeded up implementation

of the teaching strategies.

When we statistically controlled for fidelity to the programme, we found

that those teachers who were most faithful in the implementation of the pro28

gramme every week were the ones who had the strongest results, even though

their children as a whole began the year at a lower level. These teachers had

the greatest gains overall.

In this phase we came across several unexpected problems due to the population

we were working with. In some classrooms, 30–60% of the children

who began the school year left before the end of the year. A significant number

of children were absent for substantial amounts of time—for weeks and

months. This complicated issues such as the child’s exposure to the techniques

as well as data collection for the evaluation.



During this phase, we moved our project to McREL (Mid-Continent Research

for Education and Learning), one of ten regional educational laboratories

sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of

the United States Department of Education.

The move to McREL increased development of training materials and the

degree to which both the assessments and techniques addressed state and national

standards for early literacy. This occurred at a time when the field of

early childhood education underwent a move to more accountability and the

need to address child outcomes. McREL is known nationally for its work in

school reform and the development of standards; McREL staff made valuable

contributions to the original Vygotskian-based techniques and assessments. At

this time, we divided our project into three parts:

• Technique development;

• Dissemination and distance learning; and

• Test and computerized assessment development.

Technique development

We began to work intensively in only two model classrooms as the sites for

the development of techniques. We could closely interact with both teachers

and children and could receive constant feedback. From this effort, we developed

a more coherent curriculum with activities covering more of the components

of a pre-school or kindergarten daily programme. With the support of

nationally known consultants in reading and early childhood education, the

techniques continue to improve and develop as new problems arise.

Dissemination and distance learning

The computerized assessment programme, which included assessments and

techniques, became one of the products offered by McREL to school districts


across the United States. The ELA is being used in thirty districts as the accountability

measure for kindergarten. Distance training of teachers using the

ELA has begun. In addition, we worked with Davidson Films to complete our

fourth video to teach early childhood educators about literacy.

Test and computerized assessment development

Test development included setting numerical indicators for the benchmarks

using the ELA and the correlation of the assessments with standards and

benchmarks. The Best Teachers with At-Risk Children Study, completed in

1999, established numerical indicators for the assessment profiles. For this

study, a group of teachers were chosen because of high child achievement

scores and school district recommendations. The teachers in the final sample

were teaching in schools with a history of very low test scores on standardized

assessments in the upper grades and a large number of at-risk children. The

computerized assessment was administered at the beginning and at the end of

the year. Teachers received all developmental information but did not receive

any information about techniques and strategies. The study was designed to

identify how far during one year good teachers were able to take at-risk children.

In addition to test development, we have been engaged in an intensive survey

of the literature that has resulted in a compilation of the standards, benchmarks

and developmental patterns in the area of literacy. These developmental

patterns have been used to refine the profiles that were generated from the

assessments. The compilation has also been posted on the web for states and

school districts to use when setting their own standards.

The primary problem at this time is establishing a stable base of funding for

the project. Because the approach to literacy development advocated in the

project is not mainstream, it has been difficult to obtain funding through traditional



Evaluation: selected experimental studies


In January 1997, the Tools of the Mind project began collaboration with a

public school district to improve the underlying cognitive and early literacy

skills of kindergarten students. The study was conducted with ten kindergarten

teachers—five experimental and five control. Each teacher had two sessions—

in the morning and in the afternoon. Each session had twenty to twenty-five

students. There were a total of 426 children in the selected schools—218 children

in the project classrooms and 208 in non-project classrooms.

Experimental and control classrooms were selected so that demographic characteristics

of students as well as teachers’ educational background and teaching

experience would match. In addition, all kindergarteners in the district

were given a writing test prior to the beginning of the study. The analysis of

the writing samples collected allowed us to make sure that children in the experimental

and control classrooms did not differ significantly in their early literacy


Teachers implemented three teaching techniques: Scaffolded Writing, written

learning plans and sound analysis (using Elkonin boxes and the sound

map). We estimate that this comprised (in the best case) about 10% of the

classroom instructional time per week. A staff member was assigned to each

of the project teachers to assist him/her in implementing these techniques and

to collect samples of the children’s work. These aides were available for each

of the project teachers for one day a week.

To compensate for the extra time during which an aide was available to

work with children in the project schools, project staff spent one day a week

in the non-project schools doing whatever the teacher asked them to do. For

some teachers, this meant reading or writing with the children. In other cases,

the staff member freed the teacher up to do other things. In only one case was

the aide asked to not participate in the classroom, and so she sat on the sidelines.

Both children in the project and non-project schools attended the IBM Writeto Read ® lab, a computerized phonics programme. Children in the non-project

schools had a literacy period during which they practised writing, looked

at books or read a story. This was similar in all kindergartens. Both project and

non-project schools were held accountable for a specific set of crucial skills.

Children were also assessed using a district-wide assessment.


Children were assessed twice—at the beginning of the semester (January)

and at the end of the semester (May). Both times testing was done during a

one-week period. Assessments were administered primarily by undergraduate

college students majoring in education. About 40% of the children in the project

schools were assessed by their teachers. Of all the children participating

in the study, 231 were assessed on all assessments—pre- and post-tests. In addition,

for some children partial pre- and post-test data were available (e.g.

January and May data on the sound-to-symbol correspondence test were collected

for 316 children). The significant decrease in the number of children

tested in relation to the initial sample size can be attributed to a high turnover

rate and high absenteeism typical of urban school districts.

All of the assessments, except the writing sample, were administered in a oneto-

one session that lasted about twenty minutes per child. When the writing sample

assessment was administered, children began writing in a large group, and

then as each child finished, the tester would have the child read his/her writing

on an individual basis. Five assessments were given in the pre-test and these five

were repeated with two additional assessments in the post-test. The assessments

used both for pre- and post-tests were letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence,

words versus pictures, instant words and writing sample. Reading

concepts and the Venger Graphical Dictation Test, which measured self-regulation,

were only administered in spring (Venger & Kholmovskaya, 1978).

Assessment data were analysed using S-Plus statistical software. General accuracy

scores were calculated for four assessments: letter recognition, soundto-

symbol correspondence, words versus pictures and instant words. Multiple

scales were used to analyse the writing sample and reading concepts tests.

The scales for the writing sample analysis included scribbling versus writing,

number of words, message complexity, word complexity, message decoding, controlled

vocabulary usage, accuracy of word encoding, completeness of phonemic

representation, correctness of phonemic representation and concepts of writing.

The scales for the analysis of the reading concepts data included voice-to-printmatch, concept of a word, concept of a sentence and comprehension.

Owing to the time-consuming nature of the manual coding involved in the

analysis of the Venger graphical dictation test, analysis of the data collected

with this instrument was not completed.


On all pre-tests, the children in the project and non-project schools had very

similar distributions on all assessments. Thus, project and non-project samples

did not differ statistically on any measures before the introduction of the innovative

teaching techniques.


Comparisons of the pre-test and post-test results between the project and

non-project schools were made. The students of the project schools demonstrated

both higher levels of performance and faster rates of progress than the

students of the non-project schools. Significantly stronger growth was documented

in several pre-literacy variables most closely associated in the literature

with reading achievement in later grades. Overall, children in the project

schools performed at higher levels on all measures. In no case did the techniques

have a negative effect on development on any scale.

Statistically significant differences between project and non-project classrooms

in the area of writing included:

• The number of words written by children who were not writing on the pretest;

• The number of words written by children who were writing some words on

the pre-test;

• Increase in the complexity of the child’s written message;

• Better correspondence between the written story and the re-read of that

story by the child;

• More consistent use of writing conventions;

• More words that are new and fewer words from controlled vocabulary;

• More accurate spelling; and

• Better phonemic encoding of words that are not a part of the controlled vocabulary.

Statistically significant differences between project and non-project classrooms

in the area of pre-reading competencies included:

• Improvement in sound-to-symbol correspondence;

• Better voice-to-print match;

• Better understanding of the concept of a sentence; and

• Better understanding of the symbolic function of a printed word.

In the following areas no statistically significant differences were found between

project and non-project classrooms: letter recognition, instant words

and words versus pictures. Two of these assessments—letter recognition and

words versus pictures—proved to be too easy for most of the children by the

end of the year to reliably discriminate between those who made greater

progress and those who did not. The instant words measure, on the other

hand, appeared to be too difficult even for the end of the year assessment: the

median post-test result was only three words recognized out of 100 administered.

Given the comparable performance of children in the project and non-project

schools on measures of letter recognition and sight words, the difference

in writing at the time of the post-test is even more indicative of the specificity

of the techniques used. Although children began at the same initial levels, chil33

dren in the project schools demonstrated significantly higher levels of writing—

a strong argument for the effectiveness of Scaffolded Writing, written

learning plans and sound analysis.


The pre-school project compared two teachers using the Tools of the Mind

curriculum with two control classrooms. In project schools all of the children

were included in the study, while in non-project schools only about half—

those who had permission slips from their parents to be tested—participated.

There were a total of seventy-five children in the selected schools, fifty-three

children in the project school and twenty-two in non-project schools. All of

these children were assessed on all assessments pre- and post-tests. Three assessments—

letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words

versus pictures—were given in the pre-test and these three were repeated in

the post-test with the addition of the reading concepts assessment. The pre-test

was given in January and the post-test in May.

Assessment data were analysed using S-Plus statistical software. For three

assessments—letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words

versus pictures—general accuracy scores were calculated. For the reading

concepts assessment, data were analysed using four scales: voice-to-print

match, concept of a word, concept of a sentence and comprehension.

In project classrooms, teachers implemented two teaching techniques:

Scaffolded Writing and play plans. These two strategies were typically implemented

in a combined fashion and required ten minutes of classroom time daily.

Since the adult–child ratio was higher in pre-school classrooms than in

kindergarten classrooms (two adults per eighteen children in pre-school compared

with one adult to twenty children in kindergarten) no additional personnel

were placed in either project or non-project classrooms.


Since the sub-sample of children from non-project schools was ‘self-selected’

in the sense that only children whose parents signed permission slips were included,

the following procedure was used to make project versus non-project

schools comparisons meaningful.

Each child from a non-project school was paired with a child from a project

school so that their pre-test scores on letter recognition and sound-tosymbol

correspondence tests were as close as possible. This step resulted in

twenty-two pairs. On the post-test, data were compared for these twenty-two

pairs of children.


The results for both pre- and post-tests are reported for the following measures:

letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words versus

pictures. The reading concepts test was used to compare children from project

and non-project schools on the post-test only.

The children in the project school showed statistically stronger growth compared

with children in non-project schools in many pre-literacy variables

closely associated in the literature with reading achievement in later grades. In

no case did the techniques used have a negative effect on development on any

scale. Statistically significant increases included:

• Improvement in letter recognition;

• Better sound-to-symbol correspondence;

• Better comprehension of pattern in a text;

• Better understanding of the symbolic function of a printed word; and

• Better separation of a printed word into its component letters.

Thus, the statistical analysis of the results for both groups (kindergarten and

pre-school) proved that the innovative teaching techniques used in the project

classrooms produced gains in children’s early literacy development beyond

what was accomplished by the teachers in non-project classrooms. In the absence

of comprehensive normative data on literacy development for this age

group, it is difficult to evaluate the magnitude of these gains. However, data

reported by many researchers in the field suggest that the results demonstrated

by the children in the Tools of the Mind classrooms exceed expectations

for the respective grade levels, given the demographic characteristics of the


While the data collected provide strong evidence of the innovation’s shortterm

effects, there is not enough data to demonstrate its long-term effects.

Collection of follow-up data was made difficult by the fact that participating

schools use different instruments to assess reading and writing achievement

beyond kindergarten, and thus students’ scores could not be compared. The

state of Colorado, however, mandates that all fourth graders take the same

achievement test. As the two cohorts participating in the study will take this

test at the end of fourth grade, we will be able to compare reading and writing

scores for children who were initially in project and non-project classrooms.

Although longitudinal data are yet unavailable, teachers’ reports provide

some encouraging evidence of lasting effects of the innovative teaching strategies

on the students. Teachers from the project classrooms quote first and second

grade teachers who notice that students who participated in the study are

usually more self-regulated learners, express more interest in writing and

reading, produce more writing than their peers, and demonstrate mastery of

reading and writing at higher levels.



The reaction of the teachers involved in the project was mainly positive. The

teachers who were more intensively involved in the project, and consequently

whose results were better in terms of their students’ achievement, continued to

implement the instructional strategies they learned in the project even if they

received less support or no support from the project staff. Their students’

scores continued to improve. For example, when the school district began

mandating standardized assessments in kindergarten, 97% of students in the

project classroom scored at the ‘proficient’ level, while the average level for

the district was 50%. The following year, when the district results were reported

in terms of grade levels, students in this classroom scored between 1.4

and 1.8 at the moment of testing. This means that their literacy level in the

eighth month of their kindergarten year equalled what was expected by the

district to be accomplished only in the fourth or even eighth month of Grade 1.

These results are especially impressive given that in this classroom one-third

to one-half of the students started the year with limited English proficiency

and would usually be placed in an ‘at-risk’ category on the basis of their

socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Teachers attributed their

success to the new instructional strategies they were using.

Impact on the local level also included interest and growing support from

the school administration. The teachers who participated in the project were

invited to speak at local and national conferences and to describe their experiences

in articles addressed to classroom teachers.

It is hard to isolate the impact of the innovation on the larger educational

community from the impact of other events that were taking place at the same

time. However, there is some indication that the scope of the impact of our

project has been substantial. For example, the videotapes that explain the theoretical

foundations for the project and demonstrate some of the instructional

strategies used in project classrooms are currently used in more than 900 colleges

and universities nation-wide in their teacher preparation programmes.

Local educational agencies and school districts also use the innovations for

their professional development workshops. Tools of the Mind, which describes

the philosophical foundations and the theoretical principles underlying the instructional

strategies, remains one of the best-selling books on the subject. We

have been invited to speak on early childhood assessment at the national office

of the Head Start programme.

The greatest unintended consequence of the project has been increased

awareness in the educational community about the potential for early literacy


in pre-school and kindergarten. In our model classrooms, children demonstrate

that they can go far beyond current expectations for their age group. In

one classroom, which has a particularly high number of at-risk non-Englishspeaking

children, all of the children exceeded the district kindergarten expectations

and scored at the Grade 1 level. This was the first time in the district

that children from a classroom with this demographic make-up had

performed so well.

In addition, the developmental patterns and benchmarks developed in the

course of creating the ELA are now being used by other states and school districts

to set expectations and standards for young children. As these have been

posted on the Internet, the number of people who are interested in them has


Finally, since so many school districts have begun to use the ELA, we have

had a chance to collect data from diverse populations in a way we never could

before. We are now collecting data from many different types of schools, and

we have data from teachers with different levels of implementation to help us

refine our tools.

FIGURE 7. Five-year-old Aaron’s independent journal writing prior to Scaffolded Writing technique.


Future prospects/conclusions

Currently, we are working in several arenas. First, we are establishing the

reliability and validity of the ELA for younger children through a study of

340 children in a Head Start programme. Head Start is the federally funded

early childhood intervention programme for at-risk children. This empirical

study will not only show the validity of the assessment battery, but will

also validate a number of special early childhood teaching strategies designed

to improve both self-regulation and foundational literacy skills. The

teaching strategies are heavily play-based and lead into the kindergarten

curriculum we have already developed. This study will be completed in

June 2001.

We are increasing the quality of the distance training provided through the

computerized assessment programme by creating CD-ROM-based training

clips to be used in the current training model and eventually to be housed on

the Internet.

We have begun to explore the use of the techniques with non-standard-

English speakers (African-American Vernacular English) and with non-

English-speaking populations (immigrant populations from a number of countries).

One of the most interesting results of the last four years of work is that

these children make substantial progress in our programme, much more than

those children who begin at similar levels without our interventions.

A site licence version of the software system was developed and has been

used in thirty school districts, assessing over 1,000 children. In total, the assessment

has been administered in various forms for over 3,500 children, and

these have all been analysed by computer. This fact shows the promise of the

use of the computer as a support to the teacher instead of merely as a teacher

replacement. Instead of directly teaching the children, the computer is used to

help teachers decide what children need to learn next.

In addition, advances in computer technology have been and will continue

to be incorporated into the ELA computer system. For example, the assessments

are all JAVA-based, so that they are platform-independent. We will have

an Internet-ready version of some assessments available within the year. We

are exploring additional kinds of data entry—other than scannable forms—

that would still be user-friendly.

The story of the Tools of the Mind project does not end here. We continue

to apply the Vygotskian approach to help young children and their teachers.

In the future, we hope to extend the types of tools we develop to older children

and to other areas of learning.


FIGURE 9. Aaron’s journal two months after using the Scaffolded Writing technique.

FIGURE 8. Aaron’s writing after the teacher helped him to use the Scaffolded Writing technique.




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